[WSMDiscuss] Myanmar’s joyful young protesters press for democracy – but history is not on their side (Nathan VanderKlippe)
jai.sen at cacim.net
Fri Feb 19 17:47:07 CET 2021
Friday, February 19, 2021
Myanmar / Burma in movement…, Resistance in movement…, Democracy in movement…, Peoples in movement…, Ecosystems in movement…
[A sobering commentary more than a news report, on the present state of things in Myanmar; by an outsider, written a couple of days ago :
Myanmar’s joyful young protesters press for democracy – but history is not on their side
February 17 2021
Protesters wave banners and shout anti-coup slogans on February 17, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar. (Hkun Lat/Getty Images)
Demonstrators in Myanmar gathered en masse on Wednesday in some of the biggest street protests since armed forces staged a coup earlier this month, amid warnings from international observers that the military was dispatching more troops to the country’s cities.
But behind the ebullience of crowds seeking to weaken the military’s ability to govern – chanting, “Don’t go to work, public servants”; “The people will feed you”; and “To destroy a dictatorship” – a gnawing fear was taking hold. By nightfall, video shared on Facebook showed armed clashes in Mandalay that left residents cowering in fear at what sounded like gunfire. In Yangon, army trucks carrying troops rolled through city streets.
“It’s quite dangerous out there – anything can happen,” said Honey Mya Win, 29, a regular protest attendee who runs an online startup. But for a few years, before and after the 2015 elections that brought Aung San Suu Kyi into power after many years under house arrest, “we experienced what freedom is,” she said.
Now, “only if we win this, can we continue with our lives,” she said. “It’s all-in for us.”
History gives little cause for optimism. Generations of Burmese have defined themselves by their fights for democracy, most of them unsuccessful attempts terminated by bloody crackdowns. Thet-htar Thet, a 25-year-old development worker, measures it in family terms: For her father, this is the fourth coup.
“I grew up under military dictatorship, but this is my first coup,” said Ms. Thet, who has become an information broker for protesters.
“And I think for a lot of people in my generation, we all feel similarly – that we want it to end with us. That we cannot imagine having to pass on another heritage of military dictatorship.”
This week, she and many thousands of others have demonstrated at government workers’ offices and residences, urging bureaucrats to refuse to work as part of a civil disobedience movement. On Wednesday morning, dozens of cars were stopped on main streets, with drivers claiming mechanical problems. The resulting gridlock was intended to frustrate commuters’ ability to get to work.
“We are trying to make it so that all civil servants, and even those in the private sector, are willing to go on strike in solidarity in order to undermine the current authorities’ ability to function as a government,” Ms. Thet said.
It’s an effort that risks severe consequences. The military regime has amended laws to threaten seven years in prison for anyone who hinders government workers from doing their duties. Other changes can send people to prison for 20 years if they are found guilty of stirring up “disaffection” for the military or obstructing law enforcement “engaged in preserving the stability of the state.”
The country’s generals have also shown a long-standing willingness to employ lethal force.
“Everyone understands in Myanmar what they’re up against,” said Tom Andrews, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
“They have in the past massacred large numbers of democracy demonstrators and advocates,” he said. “They have gunned down demonstrating monks in their saffron robes. They are responsible for mass atrocity crimes against the Rohingya ethnic minority.”
Mr. Andrews said he is “terrified” of what could happen now, particularly as he receives reports of soldiers moving from border areas to cities. “At the drop of a hat, the military could turn on the people of this country and begin shooting,” he said in an interview. Averting such an outcome will depend in part on the continued willingness of demonstrators to record and distribute images of violence.
But international sanctions and an international refusal to recognize the military regime can also help, he said.
“The progress that has been made with respect to democracy before the coup occurred precisely because of economic and diplomatic pressure that was applied on the generals,” Mr. Andrews said. China, in particular, could use pressure to avert disaster, while the United Nations Security Council could also impose sanctions and issue an international arms embargo.
China’s ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, told local media outlets this week that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see.” China backed a Security Council statement calling for the release of those detained since the coup, including Ms. Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has counted 452 people arrested or detained since the coup on Feb. 1; 35 have since been released, and three already sentenced. Across the country, military and police have threatened arrest and violence against doctors, bureaucrats and employees of state-owned companies who do not return to work. Some of those arrested have been held in unknown places and barred from legal representation. It’s “arbitrary arrest by an illegal regime,” said Ko Bo Kyi, a founder of the association. “They see people as the enemy.”
It’s left Thwe Thwe Soe, 26, in a “constant state of anxiety.” The civic tech worker describes waking up hopeless, regaining some optimism at demonstrations – and then returning home to Facebook livestreams of violence and tumbling back into despair.
Thawzin, 27, has packed a weapons backpack with a knife, a metre-long section of metal scaffolding, a construction helmet and goggles. “I carry it with me during the night,” he said. After the military regime released 23,000 prisoners, he was among a group that descended upon three people they suspected of trying to poison local water. The crowd tied up the three people and shaved their eyebrows and their head, “so we know these people are branded as thugs,” he said.
Amid widespread reports of teens and children drugged and paid by authorities to create havoc, suspicions are running high. “Anybody who doesn’t look right can become the enemy,” said Thawzin, who runs an internet startup.
This is not new to Myanmar. During democracy protests in 1988, “there were instances where innocent people were murdered on the street,” he said. Since the coup, older relatives have recounted stories about that time. The 1988 uprising ended with the military opening fire, killing 3,000 people and leaving the generals still in power.
Thawzin is hopeful this time will be different. But he can’t escape the feeling that history is repeating itself.
“The first day of the protest, I met my uncle, who was telling me about when he was 18 [and] having to guard the streets at night because there were hooligans going around burning peoples’ houses and looting them,” Thawzin said. “Now I am in his shoes, having to do the same thing.”
Independent researcher, editor; Senior Fellow at the School of International Development and Globalisation Studies at the University of Ottawa
jai.sen at cacim.net <mailto:jai.sen at cacim.net> & <mailto:jsen at uottawa.ca>jsen at uottawa.ca <mailto:jsen at uottawa.ca>
Now based in Ottawa, Canada, on unsurrendered Anishinaabe territory (+1-613-282 2900) and in New Delhi, India (+91-98189 11325)
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