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Myanmar Faces Increasing Uncertainty as Opposition to the Military Coup Grows

A protestor in Myanmar holding up the three-finger salute of opposition to military dictatorship from the film “Hunger Games” which was popularised by the democracy protests in Hong Kong and Thailand. Courtesy: CC BY-SA 4.0

BANGKOK, Feb 8 2021 (IPS) - Myanmar is in a deep political crisis. Over the past week — reminiscent of the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988 — Myanmar’s citizens are openly and publicly challenging the country’s powerful military, whose coup earlier this month now threatens to stifle the country’s fledgling democracy.

Since the weekend, thousands of people have come out onto the streets in most of the country’s major cities in defiance of the military authorities: noisily opposing the coup and demanding that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which overwhelmingly won the November election, be allowed to form a civilian government.

These demonstrations of support for democracy are growing daily with thousands and thousands across Myanmar voicing their rejection of the military coup.

It is like 33 years ago when millions of students, civil servants, workers and Buddhist monks took to the streets demanding democracy. Those protests provoked the military to seize power in a coup in September that year.

Again, the future of the country’s transition to democracy has reached a critical crossroads. After weeks of tension between the military and the elected civilian government of Suu Kyi, the Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing seized power in a military coup on Feb. 1 and assumed all government powers – of the executive, judiciary and the legislature – for 12 months after which fresh elections would be held and power transferred to the winner.

Protests started with noise & via social media

People spontaneously started to demonstrate their opposition to the coup by creating a cacophony of noise – beating drums, banging, blowing trumpets and singing in unison every night at 8pm. Since then the ‘banging brigade’ has got louder and louder, as the country’s main urban centres come to a standstill and all that can be heard is the rhythmic sound of the beating of pots and pans all showing their opposition to the military and support for Suu Kyi.

“Most people in Myanmar support the ideals of democracy and want the army to withdraw from politics permanently,” Shwe Yee Myint Saw, who has joined the street protests almost every day from when they started on the weekend, told IPS.

The vast majority of those who have taken to the streets are under the age of 30. “You see the youth of this country understand what we lost in 30 years of military misrule, and we can’t afford a repeat of that.”

As in 1988, the charismatic pro-democracy icon Suu Kyi – and leader of the NLD — is at the centre of the movement. She was detained last Monday, Feb. 1, when the military launched their coup and arrested her in an early morning raid. She remains under house arrest and has been charged for possession of illegally imported radios that were used without permission – six walkie-talkie radios were found in the search of her home after she was arrested. If convicted it would bar her from contesting any future elections, including those the military have promised to hold later next year.

Most of the country’s civilian leaders were also detained in these dawn raids. This included all key politicians, regional chief ministers, government ministers, the top leadership of the governing NLD, most national and local members of parliament, and hundreds of pro-democracy and human rights activists. Many of them have been released since and effectively sent home to house arrest.

In the past week the opposition to the coup has built momentum and a concerted campaign of civil disobedience grew through the use of social media.

“We have digital power, so we’ve been using this to oppose the military junta ever since the start of the coup,” human rights activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi, who is one of the main organisers of the ‘Civil Disobedience Movement’ which has taken Myanmar by storm since the coup, told IPS. “And we must continue to use it: to seek an immediate end to this culture of coups.”

Banks reopened in Yangon, Myanmar on February 2 after closing the day before. Credit: IPS / Yangon stringer

Health workers went on strike

The social media protests quickly snowballed into a civil disobedience campaign initiated by the country’s health workers. The day after the coup, the country’s health workers galvanised public resistance to the military by refusing to work under a military government.

“It isn’t that we don’t care about our patients – we certainly do — but we can’t work under a military government again,” Dr Mya Oo, a doctor at Mandalay General Hospital who went on strike the first day, told IPS. “We all feel we must do everything we can to stop this bullying and preserve our democracy.”

Support for the opposition movement has grown enormously ever since, affecting hospitals, schools and other government offices. Although the doctors and nurses in the two main cities of Mandalay and Yangon took the lead — refusing to work and gathering outside their hospital to protest against the military coup — it quickly grew to government ministries, schools and universities throughout Myanmar.

Pictures can be seen of staff congregating together in uniform, wearing the red ribbon of protest, and defiantly holding up the three-finger salute of opposition to military dictatorship from the film “Hunger Games” – popularised in the democracy protests in Hong Kong and Thailand. There has also been a flood of resignations from government posts.

Civilians on the street

It culminated over the weekend, when the campaigners took to the streets to demonstrate their anger at the coup and its leaders. Their main grievance is the army’s seizure of power has effectively annulled the results of last November’s election which Suu Kyi and the NLD convincingly won.

“We voted for Aung San Suu Kyi and now the military are trying to steal this election from us and put us under their harsh controlling power like before,” Sandar, a young university graduate, told IPS. “We won’t stand for it: we have tasted democratic freedom and we know it’s the only way for our country to develop,” she said.

In most urban centres across the country, there are massive demonstrations of support for Suu Kyi demanding the military respect the election results. More and more civil servants are joining the movement. And now there are calls for a general strike.

“The ‘civil disobedience movement’ is a non-violent campaign – started by young doctors across the country which has inspired everyone and has grown into a mass protest involving all sectors of society,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi told IPS. 

Suu Kyi is believed to have signalled her support for the movement in messages from her house arrest in the capital Naypyidaw, according to senior party officials. Late last week the NLD central executive committee released a statement supporting the current Civil Disobedience Movement.

“In order to take back the country’s sovereignty – invested in the people — and restore democracy, all the people of Myanmar people should support this political resistance movement — in a peaceful and non-violence way,” the statement read.

So far the authorities have been powerless to stem the movement. But as the momentum grows there are increasing fears of a major confrontation between the peaceful protestors and the security forces.


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