“This time the people are united”

Coup d'état in Myanmar

13 September 2021

On 1st February, Myanmar’s government was toppled in a coup and Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most powerful civilian figure, was arrested. Journalist Anrike Visser had been living in the former capital Yangon for four years when the army moved in and bore witness to the bloody civil uprising that erupted in response.

The first time I seriously considered the possibility of a coup was on 4th November 2020, four days before Myanmar’s general election. General Min Aung Hlaing, commander in chief of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, and the most powerful man in the country, made unfounded claims about election fraud. When it was announced that the National League of Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, had won by a landslide I talked to a journalist who told me there were bets in their newsroom about when, not if, a coup would happen. The military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had been humiliated and everyone in Myanmar knows that things don’t tend to end well when the military feels humiliated.

On 1st February, the day the new members of parliament were supposed to take their seats in the capital Naypyidaw, the army made its move. The moment was captured by a YouTube fitness instructor whose livestream inadvertently screened the moment their tanks rolled in behind her. A state of emergency was declared, elected officials were arrested and Aung San Suu Kyi was seized. The 76-year-old veteran politician had spent much of the past three decades in jail or under house arrest as she agitated for a transition from military to semi-civilian rule. But now, following five years of slow but steady democratisation under her NLD party, the Tatmadaw was fully back in charge.

People remembered the loss of life during bloody crackdowns in 1988 and 2008, so rather than take their anger to the streets, discussions began on social media about a smarter way to protest. The main comment heard during those first days was about not giving the military an excuse to turn violent. People stayed at home for the first 72 hours to signal their peaceful disapproval. Then they started to protest by hitting pots and pans at 8pm every evening, blocking traffic junctions, boycotting military-linked businesses and going on strike. The civil disobedience movement was started by healthcare workers and joined by a wide range of citizens including students, engineers, government employees and ethnic minorities. They adopted the three fingered salute, first seen in the Hunger Games trilogy of films, as a sign of solidarity in a dystopian world.

It only took a few days before the military started shooting with live rounds. On 9th February, 19-year old Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing was shot in the head at a protest in Naypyitaw. She died ten days later in hospital having spent her 20th birthday in a coma, the first known casualty of the coup. On 12th February, the military suddenly released 23,000 prisoners, mostly inmates unconnected to the protests. Activists feared the mass release was an attempt to terrorise the population. That night, unverified pictures on social media sparked fear that former prisoners were roaming the city, burning buildings and poisoning water supplies. I was in downtown Yangon at that time and when a suspicious person was spotted people warned each other by banging on pots and pans. Young men from the neighbourhood would then rush out and try to stop the potential assailant. Real or imagined, it created a climate of terror. In the morning, people were exhausted, but they continued protesting.

Every night I could hear gunfire and explosions. Every morning, when the wifi was turned on after the nightly shutdowns, pictures of those arrested and killed were shared on social media. On 14th March, 58 protesters were killed in Hlaing Tharyar township, a blue collar neighbourhood in Yangon. The next morning posters had been put up, allegedly by protesters, stating that for every killing by the military, a Chineseowned factory would be set on fire. China has been Myanmar’s closest ally and one of the biggest foreign investor over the past two decades but protesters were angry that China had blocked any censure of its bloody crackdown at the UN, calling the coup an “internal affair”. In the days after the Hlaing Tharyar killings, 32 factories were destroyed. After the loss of its factories, which caused an estimated $37 million worth of damage, China sent soldiers to its border with Myanmar and demanded the Tatmadaw protect its economic interests.

The potential for Myanmar’s unrest to entangle other countries was clearly illustrated on 27th March, Armed Forces Day. Representatives from China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand attended the traditional military parade, signalling their unwavering support for the Tatmadaw. Simultaneously, at least 90 protesters were killed around the country. A further 114 people were killed the following day, the deadliest of the coup so far. By early July, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an NGO based in Thailand set up by political exiles, 900 people were dead, including 43 children. More than 6,500 alleged protesters have been arrested, charged or sentenced. As Marlar, an expert on women’s rights in Myanmar, told me, “anyone can be charged: activists, writers, academics, musicians, celebrities. They don’t need a reason to arrest anyone.”

Over the past four years I have witnessed the tug of war between Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Aung Hlaing. Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD comfortably won the 2015 general election and she was given the title of ‘state councillor’ because the country’s constitution, drafted in 2008, bans anyone such as Suu Kyi with children with foreign citizenship from being president. The power struggle between the civilian and military parts of the government continued, with the civilian side hampered by the constitutionally-enshrined role of the army in governing the country.

Despite the tension, Myanmar has seen some successes in recent years. The post-2015 opening up of the country and subsequent increase in GDP – over six percent a year – made tremendous material improvements to people’s lives. Tourism increased, infrastructure projects were booming, foreign investors considered Myanmar Asia’s last frontier market and developmental aid poured in. There were more and better job opportunities. Mobile phone subscriptions skyrocketed and access to electricity grew.

But Aung San Suu Kyi received international criticism for not improving the plight of ethnic minorities, especially the Rohingya. In 2016 Myanmar’s army carried out what United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein, described as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” with a crackdown against the Rohingya that created almost one million Muslim refugees. Aung San Suu Kyi’s defence of the military’s actions at the International Court of Justice in The Hague was widely criticised outside of Myanmar, but domestically she was more likely to face voter pressure for the slow process of revamping public education and health care.

In 2017, U Ko Ni, Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer, was assassinated in broad daylight at Yangon International Airport while holding his grandson. U Ko Ni had been advising the Lady – as Aung San Suu Kyi is still known, an echo from a time when it was illegal to say her name in public – on abolishing the 2008 constitution. As one activist told me: “This was the moment I realised they [the military] were never going to give up power. They could have assassinated him in his sleep but they wanted to send a message.” Although the military denied responsibility, three former military officials were accused by the police of having orchestrated the assassination. One was later jailed for destroying evidence, another fled the country.

The battle between civilian and military rule continued and in March 2020, building on U Ko Ni’s ideas, Aung San Suu Kyi tried to change 30 percent of the articles of the 2008 constitution ahead of November’s general election. Despite the NLD’s overwhelming majority in the parliament, the military were still guaranteed a quarter of the seats, and were able to block the proposed reforms. Virtually every change was voted down.

According to one former Tatmadaw captain I was in contact with, who defected in March, the bloodshed in Myanmar is only going to get worse. “They [the military] have a plan to kill more people,” says Lin Htet Aung. He says he resigned because the State Administrative Council, the body set up to rule Myanmar after the coup, “lied that the NLD committed election fraud and seized power. And they brutally cracked down, firing with grenade launchers and shooting at people’s heads, so I decided to leave this institution. It is lying to the people.”

Lin Htet Aung fears a repeat of the 1988 crackdown, when as many as 3,000 people were killed. But there are, he believes, vital differences between now and then. “This time the people are united and they are more educated. They know how to avoid danger,” he said. “In the past, there was no social media, we knew nothing about the news. The information flow was nothing. People from Mandalay [the second-largest city] didn’t know what was happening in Yangon.”

In the months following the coup, explosions from homemade bombs have become a daily occurrence all over Myanmar at government offices, police stations, military-linked businesses and government schools.

Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in court on 24th May declaring the NLD would continue because it has the support of the people even as the military moves to dissolve the political party. She will likely face prolonged detention whilst being kept mostly incommunicado.

Difficult months lie ahead. I spoke with Richard Horsey, senior advisor for the International Crisis Group, who says that the civil disobedience movement “succeeded in grinding the economy down to a halt, but this didn’t have the intended outcome of forcing Min Aung Hlaing to back down. I think we’re looking at an extended deadlock, lasting months or even years.” The military, Horsey adds, needs very little to sustain itself – it is effectively a country inside a country, completely separated from the rest of society, with its own farms, banks, hospitals, mobile phone network, universities and television stations. The soldiers are insulated against the collapse of the country’s wider economy; as Horsey says, “they even make their own bullets.”

Lin Htet Aung also believes the stalemate looks set to continue, with any sort of power sharing agreement unlikely. “The national unity government won’t agree to it,” he says. “Even if it did, the people will not accept the plan.” A decade after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest caused a sense of relief and elation across the country, the dark days seem to have returned.

Article by Anrike Visser.

This article was first published in August 2021 in issue 42 of Delayed Gratification magazine.

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