By Maaike Matelski – In this picture, anthropology students from Yangon University show the ‘three fingers salute’ for democracy. Students and university staff across Myanmar have been protesting against the recent military takeover.
Since the coup of 1 February, the military has seized control of dozens of schools and university campuses. It has used lethal force against peaceful protestors, resulting in at least 860 deaths, including many university students. Over 5000 students, teachers, journalists and other dissidents have been arrested, as well as a small number of Westerners. Australian academic (and adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government) Sean Turnell was imprisoned in February, and an American editor of the journal Frontier Myanmar was recently arrested at Yangon airport on his way to Malaysia – coincidently, the same day that journalist Roman Protasevitsj was taken from his Ryanair flight in Belarus. The actual number of casualties since the coup is likely to be much higher, as ethnic minorities in the border areas are targeted with airstrikes, and internet access is severely restricted. Pictures of tortured detainees are shown in state media to instill fear, and the bodies of slain civilians are being snatched by soldiers; some can later be picked up by family members against payment.
Meanwhile, civil servants continue their peaceful strike under the banner of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CMD), to which the military responded with further repression. In May, the military suspended over 13,000 university staff members for their refusal to work under military rule again. Myanmar expert Gustaaf Houtman reports that 42 of the country’s 62 anthropology teachers have been fired. With these actions, the military resumes the damaging impact on the education system it has had for over fifty years. Students are viewed as a threat to the authoritarian rule, and social sciences are particularly targeted. Since the military retracted in 2011, many educators and students had found ways to overcome these restrictions, which they hoped would remain in the past. The military takeover threatens their future once again.
Messages of support can be sent via social media, and are much appreciated. A good way to support this cause is through Mutual Aid Myanmar (co-founded by James Scott), a collection of activists, academics, and policy makers working to support the democracy movement in Myanmar.
Picture: Anthropology Students – University of Yangon, public Facebook post 3 February 2021.
Maaike Matelski works at the VU’s anthropology department. In 2016, she completed her PhD on civil society in Myanmar. She also published on the role of state and non-state actors in Myanmar’s education system.