The people of Myanmar are out on the streets, exposing themselves and their families to harm, to take part in protests against the military take-over of February 1. They are calling out the military government’s misdeeds against the people; they are co-ordinating protests and promoting civil disobedience on social media.
And while they are taking this action, they don’t know when they will join the nearly 500 people who have been detained by the military regime since the start of the coup. They don’t know when they will feature in the many gruesome and bloody images of protesters shared on Facebook. They don’t know when they will become the next Ma Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, a 20-year old student who died after being shot in the head during a police crackdown on anti-regime protesters.
Such overt resistance represents a marked change in a society entrenched in compliance with the rule of law and the belief that good citizens must be disciplined. Previously, people have questioned the point of overt resistance. They have said we cannot win against guns, that confrontations only lead to violent crackdown, deaths and injuries; that we should not fight battles we cannot win, especially when the price is lives and livelihood. They have seen such actions as foolish, reckless and futile.
“I never felt like we had freedom to begin with. Our struggle never stops.”
So what has driven usually-obedient Myanmar citizens to put their lives and livelihood at risk by participating in the protests and the civil disobedience movement?
Part of the reason is democracy, but it is not the whole story. As Stella Naw, a human rights activist who writes about peace and democracy in Myanmar, answered when she was asked how she felt about losing her freedom suddenly: “I never felt like we had freedom to begin with. Our struggle never stops.”
Even when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy led the government, Myanmar citizens did not always have their rights respected. In 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that freedom of expression in Myanmar had deteriorated further since 2016, with increasing arbitrary arrest, detention, and imprisonment of journalists. The right of ethnic minorities to their cultures and languages continued to be violated by the standardised Burmese education system, which provides limited, if any, resourcing to mother tongue education.
But despite the flaws of the civilian government, change was at least still a possibility. The military will never change. Since launching the coup, the military has illegally detained the popularly elected civilian leader and other parliamentarians and used the law to maintain what it deems to be order and to rule over the citizens. For example, it imposed an 8pm-4am curfew in several townships in Mandalay and banned public gatherings of more than five. Despite its total disregard towards the will of the people, the military government claimed to act on behalf of the people by preventing and removing “lawless wrongdoers” who participated in the protests.
In other words, the military government uses the law to rule over people but does not subject itself to law’s constraints. Their politics is not about the law, but about order. It is not the rule of law, but the rule of men, where the military leaders in positions of authority rule according to their fancies, rather than to general rules. Instead of serving and protecting citizens, the military government sees citizens as the source of disorder requiring a permanent programme of suppression.
Further, the military can destroy the livelihoods of many citizens while accruing wealth for its cronies. The military government led by Ne Win from 1962 to 1988 instituted the disastrous Burmese Way to Socialism, which saw the Burmese currency demonetised three times. In 1987, demonetisation rendered 70 percent of the circulating currency invalid, wiped out the savings of citizens and exacerbated general poverty. Public dissatisfaction with economic hardships contributed to the student demonstrations in 1988, which saw the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League of Democracy.
But perhaps the most important reason driving Myanmar citizens to put their lives at risk to fight this latest military take-over is the desire for a dignified and hopeful future, or what Aung San Suu Kyi termed the “freedom from fear”. Myanmar citizens are protesting against the denial of their right to life, a sense of security of fulfilment and a worthwhile existence. They are protesting against a return to life under the military government, when fear was the order of the day. Fear of being imprisoned and tortured, fear of being killed, fear of losing their friends, family and property.
It is perhaps their desire to build a Myanmar free from these fears that has led citizens to draw on every resource they have to resist the military.
We have seen Myanmar’s national bodybuilders protest shirtless, showing off their biceps as they posed with Free Aung San Suu Kyi posters. A group of women paraded in lace wedding gowns holding a sign that read, “I don’t want a dictatorship, I just want a boyfriend.” A group of young musicians performed a protest song on the streets using violin, cello, trombone and percussion instruments. Street artists spray painted graffiti mocking coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and lit up a building exterior with the three-fingered salute, a symbol of resistance to the military regime. Car owners parked their cars in the middle of the roads in Yangon and on bridges, pretending they had broken down to stop police and army trucks from moving through, protecting protesters.
These citizens are taking these actions by choice, to free themselves from the grip of oppression. The least we can do from our position of safety, physically removed from the dangers they face, is to hear them and support their struggle for justice and liberation.