Inside Myanmar’s new democratic revolution

How Burmese are fighting back against a murderous coup.

By: /
8 April, 2021
A protester in Yangon stands near a burning makeshift barricade during a protest against the military coup in Myanmar on March 30, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images

When the Myanmar military seized power in a coup two months ago, General Min Aung Hlaing promised to build a new “disciplined democracy.” His security forces have instead reverted to their old pattern of killing, indiscriminate arrests and suppressing press freedom.

When this reporter visited the offices of the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS) months before the coup, the charity was doing the same work it had done for two decades: providing free funeral services to the poor, regardless of their ethnicity and religion, in Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon. The FFSS also runs a school for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and a free emergency service with modern ambulances.

Kyaw Thu, manager of the FFSS and a famous Burmese actor, had no sympathy for anti-Muslim sentiments then prevalent in the country. “We are all humans,” he said, as volunteers walked down the shiny stairs of the entrance and placed the transparent casket of an old man with a cheroot cigar right next to his head in the back of a van.

But on March 4, those stairs were stained with blood when security forces raided the offices of the FFSS as part of a larger crackdown in North Okkalapa, on the outskirts of Yangon, that included arrests and killings.

“They beat everybody with the handle of the guns and sticks. How many times they beat us, I don’t know,” one 21-year-old FFSS volunteer told Open Canada by email. “They destroyed the rooms and took the security camera discs and files. They robbed everybody’s phones and money. They asked for the address of our chairman Kyaw Thu. But nobody answered.” 

Kyaw Thu was charged with incitement, an accusation he shares with Aung San Suu Kyi, the former civilian leader of the country who was ousted by the coup. Her image is depicted on a wall of the FFSS’s school

In those same hours, 23-year-old Amy, a postgraduate student who worked as a tutor at Yangon University before joining a national strike against the coup, heard from her friends in North Okkalapa and had a breakdown upon learning of the violence there. She sent this reporter a message on the Signal communications app: “Is the UN going to help us?”

Charles Petrie, former UN assistant secretary general who has extensive experience in Myanmar, doesn’t think the UN can help. “The UN is totally irrelevant,” he said in an interview with Open Canada. A solution “can only come from within.”

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Inside Myanmar, also known as Burma, the country’s new military rulers are becoming increasingly confident, according to an analyst in Yangon who asked not to be named for security reasons.

“They are not concerned with winning hearts and minds. They are not looking for friends,” he said in an interview, adding that there have been no significant defections from the military. “This is a bit discouraging, because we are nine weeks into the coup and at this point it is starting to consolidate its power.”

The Canadian embassy in Myanmar issued a statement weeks after the coup calling on the military and police “to refrain from and to cease immediately all attacks, intimidation and threats against protesters, and to release those detained.” Among those detained was Christa Avery, a dual Canadian-Australian citizen, who was placed under house arrest along with her Australian husband, Matthew O’Kane, after the couple tried to leave the country. She was freed last weekend.

Canada, America, Britain and the European Union have also imposed new sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders.

The military junta faces its most serious threats from the economic impact of the coup — including an ongoing general strike that has effectively crippled the state and its fragile banking system. A significant part of Myanmar’s economy is already in the hands of criminal groups, including drug lords and jade traders. Petrie believes state collapse is a genuine risk. “A Pandora’s box was opened the day of the coup,” he says.

Demonstrators continue to protest the coup, despite the violence deployed against them. On Armed Forces Day alone, celebrated on March 27, the army killed some 140 people throughout the country, including children as young as five and teenagers playing on the streets. A man was burnt alive while still able to call for help, according to local media.

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Ma Thida, a Burmese writer and former political prisoner, sees similarities between the current anti-coup demonstrations and a massive and unsuccessful nationwide uprising against Burma’s military dictatorship in 1988.

This time, however, she says cell phones and social media are allowing protesters to bypass government propaganda and connect with each other and the outside world.

The 1988 uprising made an icon out of Aung San Suu Kyi, who returned to Burma from Britain and founded the National League for Democracy (NLD). “This revolution will also generate a new platform, a new vision and new leaders,” Ma Thida said in a telephone interview with Open Canada.

Tayzar San, a skinny 31-year-old with big glasses, is among those new leaders of what some in Myanmar are calling the “Spring Revolution.”

“We should not depend on a leader or on a single person for our objectives. We are fighting for our future.” 

“We never had a genuine democracy. And now our struggle is not just for Aung San Suu Kyi or her NLD party. It’s for a federal democracy,” he said. “We should not depend on a leader or on a single person for our objectives. We are fighting for our future.” 

He spoke to Open Canada on Signal while hiding from authorities. An order has been issued for his arrest because he helped organize some of the first protests against the coup. He described a nationwide network of local committees and organisations in regular contact through remote meetings. Occasionally, they’ll liaise with activists in Hong Kong and Thailand who are part of an informal network of democrats in Southeast Asia calling themselves the Milk Tea Alliance.

Petrie says the coup is proving to be a catalyst for the inclusion in the democratic struggle of Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups, some of whom have been involved in an armed conflict with Myanmar’s military for decades. “There seems to be emerging a realignment of politics and society.” 

Ethnic minorities didn’t play a large role in democratizing efforts that resulted in a transition to civilian rule and relatively free parliamentary elections in 2015. But today they are marching with their flags unfurled in the capital alongside demonstrators from Myanmar’s Bamar Buddhist majority that has traditionally formed the heart of the movement.

When Myanmar’s army launched large-scale attacks against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 — actions Canada described as a genocide — it did so with the broad support of the rest of the country.

Today there is a recognition among Myanmar’s younger activists that the best democracy for Myanmar might also be a federal one that includes and empowers Myanmar’s long-marginalized minorities.

That sort of political settlement seems a long way off at the moment. Ma Thida worries that protests, and the repression of them, may become more violent. Some demonstrators wave a three-fingered salute adopted from The Hunger Games books and movie franchise about an uprising against a fictional dictatorship. Others have armed themselves with slingshots and even bows and arrows.

Tayzar San says the anti-coup movement doesn’t want to use force but must defend itself. “I know I risk my life and I think of my one-year-old daughter. But at the same time, I want to bring a peaceful and democratic future for her and the future generations.”