In a wave of defiant resistance that ignited some hope after a grim week, thousands marched across the cities of Myanmar this past weekend to demand an end to military rule. Following the military coup on Monday (Feb. 1), authorities moved quickly to squash early signs of citizen dissent, including telecommunications outages, shutting down the internet, and dozens of arrests of activists. Despite these repressive attempts to halt brewing mobilizations, people are finding ways to speak up, from banging pots and pans to sustained protests. With the imposed yearlong “state of emergency” in effect, there are many uncertainties and fears for people’s lives and future in a country still confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected key sectors of the economy especially the tourism and garment manufacturing industry. Now more than ever, “organizing, mobilizing, and international solidarity are imperative solutions in Myanmar,” says JASS Southeast Asia Regional Co-Director Kunthea Chan.
Is it the end to Myanmar’s Fledgling Democracy?
After citing unsubstantiated election fraud claims since November 2020, Gen. Min Au Hlaing led a military coup that seized power from a democratically elected government on Monday, Feb. 1 last week. The military detained Aung San Suu Kyi, cabinet ministers, opposition leaders, and activists and declared a yearlong state of emergency. In the days that followed, the army arrested hundreds of activists and human rights defenders and shut down communication in parts of the country, including Facebook, one of the most popular social media platforms and space for mobilizing and connecting across activists on critical human rights issues. People protested from their windows by banging pots and pans while medical workers launched a nation-wide strike. When people moved to Twitter and Instagram to connect, the military-run government blocked access and eventually shut down the internet over the weekend to crack down on resistance.
The military coup is a step backwards not only on the relatively significant progress achieved towards democracy but also on the gains made for advancing women’s and human rights in the country. Since 2009, JASS Southeast Asia has supported the leadership and organizing of women and justice groups from different movements, organizations, and regions across Myanmar. In recent years, JASS’ initiatives have focused on equipping women garment workers and rural and indigenous women, particularly their initiatives on opposing gender-based violence. JASS has been in touch with our women activist allies and partner organizations in Myanmar to ensure they are safe and find out their needs. They call for international solidarity in this challenging time. “We condemn the military coup and the ongoing use of armed power. Our generations have suffered since the 1962 military coup and it is devastating to see it happening again. We will stand firm in this fight for justice and freedom…We ask you all to stand in solidarity with us and support us in any way to uphold democracy and human rights in Myanmar,” says Thinzar Shunlei Yi, youth activist in Myanmar.
As direct military rule conjures the return to the “old dark days” for many, others are curious about the extent to which the military will use a heavy-hand to repress and grip on to power. Some argue that the military cannot use and sustain the same repression rulebook because it faces a different landscape than it did 50 years ago. For instance, telecommunications outages and internet shutdowns affected the functioning of essential things, forcing their lifting just after a few days. The international community has condemned the military coup, as regional neighbors such as Indonesia have given a cautious and mixed response, and others speculate important economic partner China’s reaction. While the future is uncertain, Myanmar’s coup mirrors a troubling trend worldwide. Authoritarian governments and conservative extremists use tools at their disposal – whether its violence or manipulation of public narratives – to seize and maintain power and safeguard their interests, which are usually economic. COVID-19 exacerbates these trends and make life for the majority extremely difficult.
As the crisis situation unfolds in Myanmar, supporting our allies will be more difficult and will entail more creative strategizing and international solidarity. You can join the collective call for solidarity by sharing and signing the statement with our allies and networks calling for the immediate lift of the state of emergency and return of state power to the democratically elected leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party.