Protesters Refuse to Back Down in Myanmar

Thousands greet junta with three-finger salutes, banging pots and pans

By: Nava Thakuria

After initially appearing stunned by the Myanmar junta’s February 1 coup, hundreds of thousands of people have hit the streets in largely peaceful protests across the country, demanding an end to military rule and the release of all political leaders including National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. As they did in 2007, the military has come out shooting, however, killing a young woman and wounding a man in the chest at a protest at a February 9 rally in the administrative capital of Naypyidaw. Protesters returned to the streets today (February 10) despite the bloodshed.

The question is whether the military can prevail against a newly awakened citizenry grown used to even limited democracy and infuriated by the coup, reacting in Yangon by unleashing a cacophony at 8 pm each night by banging pots and pans together and any other implements to make noise after authorities imposed a curfew and broad restrictions on gatherings in 36 townships. The restrictions effectively made all peaceful assemblies unlawful in violation of international law. Government employees have resigned from government departments en masse and issued statements of protest. Demonstrators in Naypyidaw could be seen throwing debris at police, who fired back with water cannon and in Naypyidaw’s case, real bullets.

“There have been no signs that either protesters or the military was backing down in their confrontation over who is the country’s legitimate government: Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, which won a landslide victory in last November’s election, or the junta that formed one week ago and which claims the polls were marred by voting fraud,” the Associated Press reported early today (February 10).

Political observers in Myanmar say the spontaneous protest demonstrations call up the memory of the 2007 Saffron Revolution that the military met with overwhelming force, but which nonetheless later paved the way for democratic reforms in the Buddhist-majority country as pressure increased both domestically and internationally, particularly from the Barack Obama administration in Washington, DC. The police have been using tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition in the campaign to quell the rebellion.

While until 2010 the country had remained almost hermetically sealed to the outside world since the coup that took it down the Burmese Road to Socialism in 1948, limited democracy and considerable economic opening have changed the equation. The country’s 2011 economic opening, including integration into regional markets and modernization of economic and financial institutions and systems, resulted in economic growth above 7 percent annually, with poverty falling almost by half, from 48 percent to 25 percent in just 12 years to 2017, according to the World Bank. The country’s 60 million population are not interested in returning to isolation. Accordingly, the Tatmadaw, as the military are known, apparently are gambling that they can keep the lid on political protest by keeping the economy open. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has hammered growth, driving GDP growth into negative territory.

The story began when the Tatmadaw seized power on February 1, declaring an emergency just a few hours before the Pyithu Hluttaw, the lower house of parliament, was preparing to start its new annual session. The upper house, the Amyotha Hluttaw, was scheduled to convene the following morning. However, on November 8, 2020 elections, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party had its clock cleaned by the National League for Democracy headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, losing the lower house 315-125 and the upper house 161-63. That gave Suu Kyi’s NLD a majority big enough to overcome the parliamentary advantage rigged into the Constitution to be able to amend it and declare representative democracy. With 396 seats in both houses of Parliament, the NLD far surpassed the 322 needed to form a government.

That was too much for the junta. The military-run Myawaddy television channel announced a one-year emergency, justifying it with provisions in the malformed 2008 Constitution and said an interim government would be formed with retired general U Myint Swe as president. U Myint Swe was quick to transfer all legislative, executive and judicial powers to the military commander-in-chief, senior general Min Aung Hlaing.

Hlaing, 64, who nurtures ambitions to become President, recently revealed that the constitutional guidelines could be modified in the urgent need of law-enforcement and safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity. Dressed in full army attire, the retired general appeared on television to publicly announce that authorities would arrange free and fair multi-party general elections soon after the emergency is lifted. Another military officer, Zaw Min Tun, who functions as Tatmadaw’s spokesperson, asserted that the military would impose laws in accordance with the situation. Observers expressed deep doubt that the military would relinquish power, having seized it, without serious domestic and international pressure.

Although Myanmar has been run by the military since independence in 1948 from the British colonial administration, batting down resistance in 1968 and 1988 with overwhelming force, this time the international reaction has been more visible as other nations criticized the junta for its actions. They are nearly unanimous – with the exception of Myanmar’s most important patron China – that citizens have the opportunity to elect their representatives in the parliament. The United Nations, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Singapore, and India have expressed serious concern. India, which said it is monitoring the situation closely, has been steadfast in support of the process of democratic transition in Myanmar. New Delhi believes that the rule of law and the democratic process should be upheld, said a foreign ministry statement.

US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently discussed the Myanmar situation along with other issues including the fight against Covid-19, terrorism, climate change. Both agreed that the rule of law and democracy should be upheld in Myanmar and pledged as well to continue working to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, etc.

Even though Suu Kyi has lost her iconic image in the international arena after the exodus of nearly 700,000 Rohingya people, which she allegedly didn’t object to in her capacity as state counsellor, she continues to be a dominating political force. Barred from becoming president by her marriage to a foreigner – a subterfuge written into the 2008 constitution – Suu Kyi has continued to resist the junta’s stances on other domestic and international political issues, even as she has condemnation from overseas.

Following her open call to resist military misadventures following civil disobedience, non-violence and non-cooperation, a number of Burmacentric organizations including the Progressive Voice, Burma Campaign UK, ALTSEAN-Burma and the Women’s Peace Network condemned the military regime, demanding the immediate, unconditional release of all those arbitrarily detained and a return to Parliament to reach a peaceful resolution with all relevant parties.

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