Aung San Suu Kyi once again under house arrest. Tanks in the streets. Protesters massing, chanting slogans in defiance of a military coup. In just days, the generals who seized control of Myanmar’s government on February 1 have tried to turn back the clock on a decade of democratic gains.
But it’s not quite that simple. From the remote hills of Chin state—which only recently got an airport—to the 20-lane highways of Naypyitaw—ironically built by generals to better isolate themselves from threats—to meme-fluent centennials in Yangon: almost all of Myanmar is resisting.
“We need to show our students what is right and wrong,” a teacher said in a video shot by a journalist at a protest on Friday in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city. Does she worry about being fired? “If it happens I will accept it.” Another was more blunt: “We want to be role models. I want them not to accept this situation.” With the pandemic still a threat, both wore masks and face shields. But they also had red ribbons pinned to their uniforms. The color of the resistance.
Red is also and aptly the color of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). But democracy has been the exception to long periods of violence and military rule in Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s father was assassinated by rival factions in 1947. The country gained its independence in 1948, but quickly descended into instability as disenfranchised ethnic rebels challenged the new post-colonial government. Periods of turbulence were the norm until General Ne Win seized power in 1962. Aside from what may be generously called quirks—he was rumored to bathe in dolphin’s blood to stay youthful—Ne Win embodied the xenophobic, Burmese Buddhist nationalist strongman, a role played today by current commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.
The 64-year-old senior general was appointed to lead the armed forces, called the Tatmadaw, in 2011, just as Myanmar’s reformist generals were ending decades of successive military dictatorships and opening the country up to the world. They abolished censorship laws, paved the way for a boom in smartphone use, and invited American multinational businesses like Coca-Cola, Ford, and the much-anticipated Kentucky Fried Chicken to open in the country. In 2010, Suu Kyi was released from her Yangon villa, where she had lived under long stretches of house arrest since 1989.
Suu Kyi has been the face of opposition to military rule since the 1988 student uprising, after which she rose to prominence as a human rights icon, winning the Nobel prize in 1991. During a total of 15 years under house arrest, Suu Kyi continued to lead the movement as her allies and supporters languished in prison, were tortured, or fled into exile. When she finally emerged she went on a whistlestop global tour, came home, and quickly won a seat in 2012 by-elections, bringing her previously banned National League for Democracy (NLD) to parliament. Three years later the NLD triumphed with an electoral landslide in the first free and fair general election since the end of direct military rule.
But there was always an underbelly to the story, and that began to show. Press freedoms dwindled, a fraught peace process with ethnic armed insurgents stalled, and Myanmar’s armed forces appeared uncomfortable with the messy freedoms of democracy. They stubbornly clung to the 25-percent share of parliamentary seats gifted to unelected military MPs in a 2008 constitution drafted by the military. It was approved in a sham referendum held just days after a cyclone devastated Myanmar, killing hundreds of thousands. The military’s fierce attachment to power resulted in the only outcome possible: more violence.
On January 29, 2017, U Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and Suu Kyi ally whose grand mission was to get rid of the tainted constitutional charter, was shot and killed outside the Yangon airport in a plot that included former military officers. The murder shocked the country with a clear message: Change is okay, but too much of it will get you killed. At the time, I was living in Yangon in a small apartment right across the street from Ko Ni. Something in the air changed after the killing. Little errands cast sinister shadows. A paranoia took hold.
What happened later that year was one of the most appalling developments in the predominantly Buddhist country’s long history of persecuting ethnic and religious minorities. In August, the military launched a series of “clearance operations” against Rohingya Muslims in what was billed as a crackdown on militants who had carried out deadly attacks on police posts. But it soon turned into what the UN has called a “textbook” case of ethnic cleansing, as more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims were driven into Bangladesh by a campaign of murder, rape, and the wholesale destruction of villages.
The man in charge of the military and overseeing those operations? Min Aung Hlaing, who is now overseeing the destruction of democracy as head of the State Administrative Council, the official name of the new junta-led government, which has already appointed new ministers to fill posts vacated by force. As of February 8, 170 people, mostly officials and lawmakers but also activists, have been arrested or detained since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The first week of the coup brought a torrent of “I told you so” analysis from the upper echelons of the Myanmar expert cohort, with many arguing that the Tatmadaw’s actions added up. But none of it really made sense. Why seize power when they already had significant political influence, a mountain of wealth through military-owned businesses, and guarantees of immunity? Why remind a population that you never had to answer for your crimes under the previous junta by starting a new one? Why oust Aung San Suu Kyi when she defended the military’s actions, even asking the UN International Court of Justice in 2019 to drop charges of genocide? The answers came in droves. It was Min Aung Hlaing’s ruthless ambition. Or maybe the military saw a chance to use Trump-like charges of voter fraud to hop back into the driver’s seat. Or Myanmar never had a democracy in the first place, and this lifted the mask on who was really in charge.
But the truth is no one knows, at least not yet. Trying to understand events in Myanmar can sometimes be like looking back over the course of your own life, piecing together narratives and stories to give meaning to something that is mainly a chaotic series of unpredictable events. Of course, you have to try.
One certainty is the growing revolt in the country, which is not ready to give up the freedoms it earned the hard way. The freedom to write what you want, say what you want, communicate with the outside world, travel, gather, assemble, debate, argue, disagree, tweet, retweet, comment, post, email, chat. Celebrities, students, doctors, teachers, monks, aviation industry employees, state media workers, food delivery drivers, even—reportedly—soldiers and police have expressed opposition to the military. Parliamentarians blocked from taking their seats swore in a virtual session over Zoom and established a shadow government, which has to be a first in the pandemic era. The military’s attempts to ban Facebook led to more Myanmar Twitter users. Then the military went after Twitter and eventually the entire internet on Saturday, ordering a temporary nationwide shutdown in order to curb what it called fake news and instability. Services were restored on Sunday, however, as the largest demonstrations since the 2007 monk-led Saffron Revolution took place near Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. Even more marched on Monday, while the reported shooting of protesters in the capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday is guaranteed to fuel resistance. There are now daily protests where thousands of ordinary people bang pots, honk horns, and hit whatever object is at hand to “drive the devils out” in a cacophonous rebellion.
The coup is destined to fail because it has the potential to unite people in a way that Suu Kyi’s administration failed to do. That is already happening. As protesters adopted the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games movies in a nod to pro-democracy forces over the border in Thailand, photos emerged of Rohingya refugees making the same gestures in camps in Bangladesh. They were signalling support for protesters in Myanmar even though many of those same protestors had not spoken up when the Rohingya needed it most. “Thank you,” one woman wrote on social media. “We were not with Rohingya when they need [sic] us. But they are with us. . . After this revolution, we must stand for them.” Tun Khin, a Rohingya activist based in London, told me that since the coup he has received “many messages” from people in Myanmar apologizing for their lack of support during the 2017 operations and admitting they were lied to about what had happened. “I hope that when people see Rohingya in the refugee camps and around the world showing solidarity with them, they will see we should be working together against a common enemy, the military.”