EDITORIAL | THE MIXER
Photos: Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe
Mar 24, 2021 (Wed) – this day marks 52 days since the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, seized power from the semi-civilian, semi-democratic government in a violent coup d’état. The Tatmadaw claimed that the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won the election with over 82% of the votes, had committed voter fraud. They raided the homes of elected officials before dawn on the day they were supposed to start a new term in Parliament (Feb 1, 2021) in the capital Naypyidaw, and declared a one-year state of emergency. An 8pm to 4am curfew was later implemented in major cities, large gatherings were outlawed, and there have been nationwide internet outages between 1am and 9am for the past 37 nights, while some parts of the country are now under martial law. Since the coup, citizens have poured into the streets in millions in fervent protest for the release of their elected leaders and against the military coup. The Tatmadaw have cracked down on the protests in violent fashion which escalated from the use of water canons, tear gas and rubber bullets, to machine gun fire, arson and destruction of civilian property. Night raids and arrests without warrants have continued in addition to the daytime crackdowns, resulting in the deaths of over 300 civilians – the youngest being 7, and the eldest, 70. Thousands have been displaced due to different forms of persecution, and thousands more remain missing due to arrests and kidnappings – including the elected president, Win Myint, and the leader of the NLD party and state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite brutality from police and soldiers, the people continue to voice their dissent in different and creative ways – by banging pots and pans at 8pm every night for 15 minutes, by forming a temporary government known as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), by refusing to go to work in the case of government employees in what is called the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), by building barricades in their neighbourhoods and assigning night guards, by starting mutual aid funds for community welfare programmes, and by creating peopleless protests using traditional toys and other inanimate objects. In a stunning turn of events, after 51 days of relentless protests and 51 nights of civil unrest, the country went silent for the first time. And this was accomplished by design: people needed to recharge; state media has been insisting on TV that all is fine; and the crisis within the country goes largely unnoticed by the world due to a lack of in-depth coverage by international media. The people wanted to symbolically express how they are oppressed and silenced, and also highlight the silence and inaction from Western world powers – since they are very often the most vocal when it comes to human rights and democracy. On closer examination of the interests and motivations of media, political powers and businesses from the West and the international community at large, I have found clear reasons why these entities would choose to silently and cautiously observe what the Myanmar people are calling the “Spring Revolution”, instead of actively choosing a side in the struggle or intervening in any capacity. I would like to explore these reasons below from the standpoints of geopolitics, economics and human rights.
People from San Chaung spell out “Spring Revolution” with lit candles, remembering those who passed away and the detained Aung San Suu Kyi on March 2, 2021.
—I will be using “Myanmar” to describe the country and everyone in it as a collective, and “Burmese” to describe the language or the majority ethnic population native to the flatlands of the country – although “Myanmar” and “Burma” are interchangeable linguistically and historically, and the latter is anglicized.
—A lot has happened within Myanmar over the past 70 years and over the past 50 days. My summarization of 20th and 21st Century Myanmar history and the recent happenings may seem oversimplified or reductive, but I have made an earnest effort to include all information that is relevant to the current situation in the country.
This coup and subsequent uprising are not the first. The military regime first came into power in 1962 under General Ne Win. There have been multiple changes in military leadership over the decades and different uprisings opposing various leaders and policies. Every uprising brings hope of change, freedom and progress as well as vicious crackdowns. The 8-8-88 Uprising brought about the 1990 General Election, the results of which were annulled, followed by new military leadership. The Saffron Revolution (2007) brought about the 2008 Constitution, and then came the experiment with a semi-civilian, semi-democratic government for two election terms from 2010 to 2020, which leads us to the present day.
Myanmar had stayed impartial throughout the Cold War despite its adoption of Socialism, under Ne Win, thanks to his policies of isolationism and rejection of Cold War politics, among other things. However, as leadership changed in the Tatmadaw, Myanmar opened its borders to trade with China and started receiving substantial military aid. This was right after the violent suppression of the 88 Uprising, which also coincided with the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. The two neighbours found camaraderie in the quelling of political dissent and in being shunned by the international community as a consequence. This camaraderie has remained intact over the past 33 years: China remains the biggest trading partner and economic investor in Myanmar. For the Chinese government, the Myanmar military junta is a political and economic entity that unequivocally supports them, and one they can support and trade with conveniently. With similar pro-democracy movements at their doorstep, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Chinese leadership maintains support for the Myanmar military and its leaders. On Feb 3, China vetoed the UN condemnation of the Myanmar coup at the Security Council. Again on Mar 9, the UN Security Council failed to release a statement condemning the coup, due to opposition from China, Russia, Vietnam and India. So far, the UN has only released statements regarding use of deadly force from the Tatmadaw but no official condemnation of the coup. After some China-financed factories burned down in the crackdown of a protest in an industrial zone outside Yangon on Mar 14, the Chinese Embassy called for the persecution of those responsible without mention of the death of 18 unarmed protestors at the scene.
The situation is similar for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The military junta is all the ASEAN member nations have ever known. Myanmar military rule actually predates the founding of ASEAN in 1967, and Myanmar did not become a member till 1997 under Than Shwe, the country’s third military leader. Over the second half of the 20th Century, Myanmar has become a source of cheap labour due to ethnic minorities fleeing persecution by the Tatmadaw into neighbouring countries. ASEAN has a non-interference policy for internal affairs of member nations, has always worked with different military leaders after coups happen in the region, and are willing to resume such a relationship with Myanmar. In mid-February, Indonesia proposed a plan to hold Myanmar military leaders to their pledge of holding a new general election within one year of the coup – which the Myanmar citizens contested – and Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi proceeded to meet with military-appointed Myanmar foreign minister Wunna Maung Lwin on Feb 24 in Bangkok, Thailand. On the very same day, Malaysia deported 1.086 Myanmar immigrants on three Myanmar Navy ships, despite a court order from the Kuala Lumpur High Court and pleas from human rights organizations to halt the deportation. The focus of ASEAN has always been maintaining diplomatic relations among its member nations – since the region has experienced instability over the past several centuries due to internal conflicts and Western Colonialism. And ASEAN, by constitution, is an economic union and not necessarily a champion for human rights.
In the West, the UN is very limited in its powers and capabilities, despite its well-meaning principles, due to veto powers from member nations like China and Russia. (Myanmar has military ties with Russia and North Korea as well.) The Myanmar people have been asking for UN Peacekeeping Troops to be deployed since crackdowns against the protests started, as they have seen in the past how these tend to escalate. The UN remains unable to reach a consensus in condemning the coup thus far. As for the US, the situation in Myanmar seems to present the Biden Administration an opportunity to flex its foreign policy prowess and get on the all-American pro-democracy soapbox. However, the US is in the midst of dealing with the disastrous legacy of the Trump Administration: Trump had actively antagonized China since before taking office; there had been threats of war with Iran and North Korea, as recently as 2020; the Coronavirus Pandemic had been severely exacerbated due to longstanding issues in public health and healthcare; the second Trump impeachment just wrapped; and the Capitol itself had been under seige in early January. In addition, the Biden Administration has already failed and/or faced delays in fulfilling campaign promises of $2,000 stimulus checks, no deportation of immigrants within 100 days of taking office, and the $15 minimum wage. Disapproval and condemnation from Washington of the Tatmadaw and their coup could easily be read as a challenge to and undermining of a sovereign foreign power, albeit an illegitimate one. And sending any US troops into Myanmar would add one more to the long list of wars the US has engaged in and could result in China facing a situation akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis. This would be a threat to world peace at large.
The EU seems to be pretty much in agreement with the US in its approach to the situation in Myanmar. Both entities have released statements condemning the coup and its use of violence against peaceful protestors, and have implemented sanctions targeting military leadership and affiliated entities.
In essence, the East has made up its mind that they are willing to work with the Myanmar military junta again, and they have been vocal about it, even if not explicitly so. The West, however, has yet to decide what their relationship with Myanmar is, especially since China has overwhelming influence not just over Myanmar but also in international politics. To navigate this precarious situation, the CRPH appointed Dr Sasa, an ethnic Chin medical doctor turned politician and philanthropist, as the special envoy to the UN. He has been meeting with local ethnic leaders making sure the country is united under a pro-democracy banner, and meeting with international leaders making a case that a democratic Myanmar will be an asset and ally to the international community – so that the Myanmar people can ask for more drastic intervention measures.
Protester gives three-finger salute to the police at the “22222 Revolution” protest by the Embassy of China in Yangon. February 22, 2021
Right after the coup happened, on Feb 2, the Myanmar people came up with the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) as a means to protest in a safe manner during an ongoing global pandemic, and as a way to completely stop the Tatmadaw’s State Administrative Council (SAC) from functioning. It is basically a labour strike where government employees don’t go to work, as a refusal to work under a military government, with the chant, “ရုံးမတက်နဲ့၊ ရုန်းထွက်။” – which means, “Don’t go to the office! Break free!” Myanmar is a very poor country where most wage workers make less than US $2 per day and a majority of government employees make less than US$250 per month – a situation that has been worsened by the Coronavirus Pandemic. People took a great economic risk by choosing to abandon whatever means of income they have to protest the coup.
On Feb 23, Mary Callahan, an associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington who has done research on Myanmar, wrote a series of tweets from her now deactivated Twitter account criticizing the CDM. She called the movement “inhumane” for stopping means of income for the majority of the country’s population and implied people will resort to savagery if they don’t get paid by the end of the month. (I called her a Karen in a response, which may or may not have played a role in the disappearance of her Twitter account.) Yet here we are after almost two months of non-stop protests, and the people are still going strong. The Internet is out for 8 hours every day, most bank services aren’t functional, a large portion of government employees from different sectors are out of office, and somehow the people are still well-fed and housed – with the exception of those who have been ousted from their living quarters by armed forces, of course. They continue to march in the streets in the name of democracy and in opposition to the military junta. Since the beginning of the protests, those with financial means have been distributing water and meals for protestors. As the crackdowns turned violent, people have pooled together resources to make protective gear for those marching on the frontlines, to create make-shift defenses for their own neighbourhoods and to cover medical bills. As people are forced out of their homes and families lose their breadwinners to arrests, kidnappings and killings, carts and tables full of produce and groceries have popped up across the country bearing the banner “လိုတာယူ၊ ပိုတာလှူ” – meaning “Take what you need! Donate the excess!”
Personally, I find none of this surprising: I’ve always known my people to be kind, generous, resourceful and resilient. Even after living under an oppressive totalitarian dictatorship over the past half century, they still refuse to give in to despair and are committed to taking care of each other. This form of community welfare, however, does not bode well for any capitalists who are looking to invest in Myanmar for cheap labour. The “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” that is synonymous with Western (American) Democracy is accompanied by the unwritten clause that you have to earn your keep, by working 40 hours a week, if not more. The fact that working class people, who are very poor already to begin with, have been able to not only sustain each other without paid work for almost 2 months, but fight ardently for a social and political cause they believe in, while not plunging the entire country into utter chaos, is an inspiration to the proletariat everywhere and a direct threat to the capitalist institution.
Myanmar is a major supplier for fast fashion brands like H&M, Zara and Primark, with its US$4.59 billion garment industry constituting over 30% of the country’s exports. Garment workers have joined the protests since early February, and their union, Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar, has taken steps to ensure the workers can participate in the protests and can return to work without negative consequences. However, those represented by the union remain a minority. On Feb 18, GY Sen, a Primark supplier in Yangon, held up to 1000 of its employees against their will in a factory for several hours, to stop them from participating in protests. Currently, there is an ongoing campaign for Adidas, which runs 6 factories in Myanmar, and Beyoncé, an Adidas partner, to publicly support their almost 20,000 employees and the people of Myanmar.
At this point, Western investors are in a tough position. If they vocally support the Myanmar people and their movement – and should they prevail in this fight for democracy – there is possibility of stronger labour laws and stricter regulations on foreign investors, which will interfere with their ability to outsource cheap labour. They also invite open hostility toward their properties from the armed forces, which would worsen if the Tatmadaw manages to assert dominance over the people. Much like the political powers from whence they came, most of the foreign businesses in Myanmar remain silent regarding the Spring Revolution. As for Eastern investors, just like those from ASEAN members and China, they are biding their time to work with military leaders again, but China-owned businesses don’t necessarily have a bright future in a democratic Myanmar, as people have started boycotting them, as well as products made in China.
Pro-democracy fighter who lost his life from gunshot to the head during Hlaing Tharyar protest is surrounded by mourning family. March 14, 2021.
Myanmar is notorious for its human rights violations. Even under a semi-civilian, semi-democratic government, the Tatmadaw managed to carry out the Rohingya Genocide in 2017. With military officers in charge again, persecutions of ethnic minorities are back in full swing, in addition to the well-documented use of excessive force on protestors, medics, and civilians who are not involved in the upsiring. Nevertheless, without action taken by governments or businesses, any documentation of crimes against humanity won’t even go into history books but will devolve into hushed whispers warning the next generation of what despots are capable of. Nowadays, many governments and businesses will not openly criticize the human rights abuses in foreign nations because they are responsible for similar abuses themselves. Over the past few years, criticisms of human rights violations from one country by another have been rendered essentially ineffective due to the adoption of “whataboutism” in international relations. This tu quoque logical fallacy has been expertly deployed by Russia specifically to deflect any inquiries on its human rights issues by the media, by bringing up unresolved issues in the US and EU – a technique Trump quickly adopted to avoid accountability for actions taken by his administration. And it seems no government or business has the moral authority to chastise the Tatmadaw for its offences.
During summer 2020 in the US, the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum and people took to the streets after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among many others at the hands of law enforcement. Police exercised extreme brutality toward those who were protesting police brutality, and politicians overwhelmingly backed the police and ignored the demands of the people. Airstrikes in the Middle East have continued from the Obama Administration, through the Trump Administration, to the Biden Administration. And the list goes on for human rights offences the US has committed within its borders and throughout the world. In the East, China continues to put their Uyghur population in internment camps, maintains its domination of Tibet, violently suppresses the uprising in Hong Kong, and regularly threatens to invade democratic Taiwan. In India, the Modi Administration is running a fascist regime that has been redefining citizenship laws to exclude and persecute Muslims. In 2020, Thailand concluded a five-year military rule with the military head, Prayut Chan-o-cha, leaving the military only to become the civilian Prime Minister – the same exact move pulled in Myanmar just a decade earlier by Thein Sein, who went from being an army general to a uniformed Prime Minister, then civilian President. The Thai people’s demands were rejected, and the military and royals have only grown more powerful since. In the Philippines, the Duterte Administration has been carrying out extrajudicial killings in an aggressive war on drugs. Myanmar, over the course of its post-colonial history, has had similar issues to all these aforementioned countries. But none of their governing bodies will hold or are in a position to hold the Myanmar Tatmadaw accountable for the crimes they are guilty of as well.
Although the Myanmar people are unable to rely on governing entities in the international community, they have found friends in similar movements. Myanmar has become the newest member of the Milk Tea Alliance, which consists of Asian netizens in different parts of the world engaged in different pro-democracy/liberation movements for their own people and/or opposing Chinese imperialism. Milk tea has become their symbol, since most tea in South and Southeast Asia contains milk but traditional Chinese tea doesn’t. #MilkTeaAlliance has been widely used on social media by netizens with origins in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, India and Myanmar. Many of the measures to counter brutal crackdowns by armed forces actually come from fellow Alliance members. The pro-democracy movement in Myanmar has also adopted the three-finger salute from the “Hunger Games” franchise – a phenomenon started by protestors in Thailand in 2014 when their military coup happened. It was first used by medical workers, spread very quickly among Myanmar citizens, and has now been seen at the UN.
The positive, I should state, is that despite the reluctance from the international community, including our nextdoor neighbours, the Myanmar people are now willing and ready to resolve issues that have long existed in the country. Since the time of the kings, the Burmese population of the flatlands have exerted dominance over ethnic minorities of the highlands, of which there are over 130 different tribes. We gained Independence from the British thanks to the Panglong Agreement signed by ethnic leaders along with the Burmese. This agreement stipulates that these ethnic groups would have self-determination and self-governance under a federal government after gaining Independence – a promise gone unfulfilled since 1948. On Mar 17, the CRPH released a draft of the new constitution for a federal democracy, which fulfils this promise. The CRPH, thanks to the efforts of Dr Sasa, has been able to galvanize ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), which had been fighting the Tatmadaw since the late 1940s, with the promise of forming an ethnic Federal Army. Buddhist dogma had been the prevailing ideology in the country’s spirituality since its early recorded history in the 11th Century. Amid the protests, due to lives and livelihoods lost as a result of brutal crackdowns, leaders from different religious groups have come together to hold interfaith vigils and prayer circles. When the boycott of China-owned businesses and made-in-China products started, the people were quick to clarify that they are against the CCP and not Chinese immigrants in Myanmar. (For a third-generation Chinese immigrant in Myanmar who has had to hide their Chinese ancestry growing up due to xenophobia, this brings me a lot of joy.) During protests, many have been seen carrying signs apologizing to the Rohingyas for the 2017 genocide. The CRPH has also put forth a plan to take the current military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, to the International Criminal Court for the crimes committed by the Tatmadaw.
Myanmar’s LGBTQIA+ community protests on February 19, 2021.
As things stand, the Myanmar people are on their own. The East has its allegiance pledged to the military leaders, who are easy to please and easy to deal with, unlike a yet-to-form truly democratic populace. The West has yet to make up its mind, and the Myanmar people are quickly learning that foreign powers that so often profess values of democracy and human rights can be hypocrites acting out of self interest. Still there is no choice but to keep reaching out to the international community, out of principle, that perhaps someone would care and take the initiative to intervene in the interest of the Myanmar people. There is, of course, great comfort and encouragement in being part of the Milk Tea Alliance and knowing they are not alone; any victory won by the people in any of the Alliance nations can lead to victories for others.
Given the damage done to them by the Tatmadaw since the first coup in 1962 – including the lives and livelihoods lost during the recent protests – the Myanmar people are coping surprisingly well. Since day one of the coup, the people have come up with strategies and tactics to counter whatever action the new regime might take to keep them oppressed and obedient. Some plans, like the new constitution, had been in the works since before the coup – since the 2008 Constitution was designed to legitimize any potential military coups. In fact, it was the people who made the first offensive move against the new regime by initiating CDM. After almost 2 months, military leadership is still unable to fill administrative positions at the local level due to people’s refusal to cooperate. Naypyidaw is just a bunch of generals calling themselves kings with no peasants to pay tribute to them. They can keep sending soldiers and police officers to shoot citizens and loot their homes and businesses, but that can only last for so long until their subordinates defect or turn against them. The fact that the violence keeps escalating means the generals are desperate, and we have already started seeing defectors.
Currently, it may seem that the Tatmadaw and the Myanmar people are evenly matched in this struggle for control over the country. However, the people clearly outnumber the soldiers and police, and they can’t kill or put everyone in jail – unless Min Aung Hlaing is really committed to becoming the king of ashes. The people don’t have guns or ammunition, but they have control over all the resources in the country, and the means to transport or freeze them. And they have the most important and necessary resource of all: each other. The people of Myanmar are more united now than ever, like never before in history. They had, in the past, come together under leaders they trust, with Aung San Suu Kyi being the most recent example – and her father, the pro-Independence leader Aung San, had been one before her. Over the course of these recent protests, the pro-democracy icon has not even been in the picture at all, and yet the people continue to fight for their own future and for each other. This is a movement with no designated leader, which makes it much harder for the Tatmadaw to stop. The Myanmar people had experienced some freedom and progress over the past 10 years under a semi-civilian government. They want more, they don’t ever want to go back, and they are determined to depose anyone who stands in their way.
Perhaps, a lack of interest for the Myanmar people or inaction regarding their plight from the international community may not be an entirely bad thing. With the ongoing brutality from soldiers and police, many more will fall unfortunately – and I will personally say the international community is complicit in these tragedies, since their inaction is a calculated choice. However, given all that the people have accomplished over the past several weeks, I have absolute faith that they can rebuild whatever has been lost, heal their collective traumas, and come back even stronger. Myanmar may even turn out to be the Milk Tea Alliance member that accomplishes its goals before other members do. As a clear winner emerges toward the end of this struggle, the international community may finally take a side in the interest of their future business prospects in Myanmar, and may even take credit for the people’s victory. In that case, I insist we celebrate it explicitly as the people’s victory: it will be hard earned and deeply appreciated, and the rewards of a new federal democratic union should be their own.
ADDENDUM: Since the writing of this essay, the Tatmadaw has escalated its rule of terror. The youngest recorded casualty is age 5. There have been airstrikes on villages in Karen State. On Mar 27 – once called Revolution Day that commemorates the fight against Japanese fascist forces and now rebranded by the Tatmadaw as Armed Forces Day – 114 lives were lost, including a 40-year-old father of four in Mandalay who was burned alive. The CDM has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and the death toll stands at 573 as of Apr 1.