In the early morning of 1 February, the day that a newly elected government was supposed to convene, Myanmar’s military staged a coup, taking government leaders captive and seeking control of the country. The takeover was announced on national television, followed by intermittent disruptions in internet and other media. Military leader Min Aung Hlaing cited alleged election fraud as justification for this takeover, which is to last for at least a year. Meanwhile, the country’s elected leadership is facing charges in line with previous military fabrications: state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is charged with illegally importing walkie-talkies, while president Win Myint faces the more contemporary charge of breaching Covid regulations during a meeting last year.
This military coup immediately brings to mind Myanmar’s five decades of military rule, which formally ended ten years ago. In 2010 the military proxy party USDP won dubious elections organized by the military itself as part of its protracted ‘Roadmap to Democracy’ (from its first announcement in 2003, the military took seven years to organize these elections). Under president and former military general Thein Sein, the new government imposed a series of rapid and unexpected liberalization measures. Former political prisoner (and former international human rights icon) Aung San Suu Kyi was able to take a seat in parliament in 2012, and her NLD party won the following elections in 2015 by a landslide. The NLD’s even larger electoral victory in 2020 resulted in widespread hopes that Myanmar’s transition to democracy, however flawed and partial, might prove irreversible.
The coup of 1 February put a sudden end to these hopes. In the bleakest scenario, the country may go back to an indefinite period of military rule, with new repression of civil liberties, and continued violence committed against the various minority groups in the border states of Myanmar. In this scenario, the country would basically be thrown back to the situation before 2010, with people living under fear, internet and media restricted, and little tangible foreign assistance. This would undo much of the remarkable achievements that local activists accomplished in the nascent democratic state.
Based on research I conducted between 2010 and 2015 on social and political activism, however, a somewhat different scenario can be envisioned. A wide range of (often young) civil society actors has managed to educate themselves, establish international support networks, and build up independent organizations and other initiatives. Significantly, much of this has taken place outside the realm of the NLD. The ruling party has increasingly been criticized for its conservative internal structures and has failed to stand up for the rights of ethnic minorities, culminating in mass crimes against the Rohingyapopulation, committed by the same military that has now taken power. While the Rohingya and other minority groups such as the Chin, Kachin and Rakhine had little to gain from NLD rule, their position may well deteriorate further under renewed control of the military, which has portrayed itself as the guardian of Buddhist unity and publicly aspired to ‘crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy’.
So how have Myanmar people reacted to the recent coup? As in earlier decades, people experience fear and uncertainty. They line up for cash and worry about their country’s fragile economy as severe widespread poverty remains and international investment has been disrupted, a situation further deteriorated by the Covid pandemic. They call for widespread international condemnation and support, in the absence of unified reactions by their Southeast Asian neighbours and the UN Security Council, which later managed to issue a joint statement. Yet the activist spirit that arose under previous periods of dictatorship can already be observed. Medical workers and other civil servants have announced a strike, publicly refusing to work under military rule again. While people do not yet dare to take to the streets, they organize collective noise demonstrations from their homes, banging pots and pans ‘to cast out the evil ghosts’, as one contact from Yangon commented on social media. Other Facebook users take inspiration from international slogans: ‘when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty’.
Given the country’s history of popular uprisings, it is only a matter of time until more civil resistance emerges. Teachers and students have traditionally spearheaded resistance campaigns, and are already raising their voices. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party has called for ‘civil disobedience, non-violence and non-cooperation’, a call which receives massive domestic support. The military may have decided to reverse the political balance, but the people of Myanmar have tasted a level of freedom and will do everything in their power to avoid going back to square one. In this process they require our moral, political and financial support.
Maaike Matelski completed her PhD on Myanmar in 2016 at the VU Anthropology department, where she now works as a lecturer and education coordinator.