Published in the Bangkok Post Opinion on 11.02.2021
Myanmar's political crisis is deepening rapidly, raising fears of an imminent violent confrontation between the military and pro-democracy protesters. Every day hundreds and thousands continue to demonstrate their refusal to accept the military coup. In the past few days, the military have begun a concerted crackdown: using water cannons, riot police charges and shooting above the crowd's heads to scare them.
Already a 20-year-old girl has died of her wounds in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, according to doctors at a hospital. But the protesters persist despite these threats and heightened danger, even as the mood has changed over the past two days from what was a party atmosphere. "I am now really scared, I don't want to die," said Ma Myint, a young communications consultant who has been joining the protest every day. "I owe it to my friends to join them: it is our duty to protect our democracy," she said as she set off to the protest around Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon.
Undaunted by the military's threats, protesters have poured into the streets for five days straight to show their disgust over the military's seizure of power. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested throughout the country -- at least 70 in the second largest city Mandalay in the past few days, according to one of the city's civil disobedience campaign organisers.
Over the past 10 days since the military seized power in a bloodless coup, protests against commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing and his cohorts, have grown. It started as a "banging brigade" -- beating pots and pans or anything that could make a sound -- taken from the Myanmar tradition of banging on tins or metal pots to drive away evil or bad karma.
"We have digital power, so we've been using this to oppose the military junta ever since the start of the coup," human rights activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi, who is one of the main organisers of the "Civil Disobedience Movement" which has taken the country by storm since the coup. "And we must continue to use it: to seek an immediate end to this culture of coups," she told the Bangkok Post.
Since the coup, the civil disobedience campaign has grown continuously from silent protest to massive street demonstrations and now a general strike -- with the country's health workers at the forefront of the initial action. The civil disobedience movement and the strike has severely affected hospitals, schools and other government offices. In Yangon and Mandalay, most hospitals are closed and the wards locked, according to several witnesses. In one Yangon hospital there is only one doctor left out of a hundred, said one patient who was discharged earlier this week.
"It isn't that we don't care about our patients -- we certainly do -- but we can't work under a military government again," said Dr Mya Oo, a doctor at a Mandalay hospital who went on strike on the first day. "We all feel we must do everything we can to stop this bullying and preserve our democracy."
In the meantime, the military's attempt to tolerate the movement seems to have come to head. After failing to stem the tide of protest last week, the military is planning more drastic measures. Initially they banned social media platforms -- Facebook and Twitter -- and over the weekend they launched a full internet blackout, all of which had little practical effect.
In the televised speech to the nation on Monday night -- the first-week anniversary of the coup -- the army commander stopped short of openly threatening the protesters, but nevertheless clearly issued a warning to cease and desist.
Curfews have been imposed -- from 8pm to 4am -- in most towns across the country. At the same time, there has been a ban on gatherings of more than five people. This does not seem to have daunted protesters who were out in full force again yesterday -- defying the military's orders. Barricades have been put up at all the bridges into Yangon to stem the traffic flow and people hoping to join the protest downtown. Barricades have also been put up elsewhere to prevent access to areas in other cities, especially in the capital Nay Pyi Taw.
"They're clearly employing their favourite strategy: discourage, deter and disperse. The question now is how long before the soldiers and their guns are deployed to crush the movement," said a retired Myanmar government official who declined to be identified.
Trucks of thugs armed with large sticks, truncheons and knives are being deployed strategically to step up the government's harassment campaign in Yangon and Mandalay, according to a doctor leading the civil disobedience campaign.
Apparently the authorities are also resorting to their traditional tactic of the past -- when the paramilitary group the Union Solidarity and Development Association (a precursor to the political pro-military party the Union Solidarity and Development Party), or white shirts as they were known, were used to intimidate, harass and attack members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). They were responsible for the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi in Depayin in 2003.
"We voted for Aung San Suu Kyi and now the military are trying to steal this election from us and put us under their harsh controlling power like before," said a young university graduate named Sandar. "We won't stand for it: we have tasted democratic freedom and we know it's the only way for our country to develop," she told the Bangkok Post.
But the new junta is pressing on with its mission to establish its version of democracy -- guided democracy where the military have a prominent role. Amid the chaos and protest they have tried to calm peoples' fears and assure them life is returning to normal and its business as usual. They are rolling out a new administration -- executive and judiciary at least -- outlining their priorities and policies, and trying to give the impression they are in total control.
It is clearly an attempt to return to the former leader Than Shwe's "Seven stage road-map to discipline democracy" -- drafted by the intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, before he was toppled by an internal palace coup. After the elections there was to be a transition "coalition government" for 10 to 20 years -- Khin Nyunt told me several years ago shortly after he was released from house arrest.
The military's plans were thrown off course by the opposition leader and her party's overwhelming victory in the November 2015 elections -- which they barely tolerated. Then a second overwhelming defeat to the NLD left them in their minds with no other option. This coup is intended to put Myanmar's political future back on course.
The country's current transition to democracy has reached a critical crossroads -- in the aftermath of Aung San Suu Kyi's second massive electoral victory, winning more than 80% of the popular vote in the Nov 8 polls. In response the army chief eventually launched a military coup and assumed all government powers -- of the executive, judiciary and the legislature and -- for 12 months after declaring a state of emergency.
On the day of the coup, Min Aung Hlaing promised that after the year was up, fresh elections would be held and power transferred to the winner.
Most observers and diplomats doubt these elections will be held. If they are and the NLD is allowed to compete, the outcome is unlikely to differ from 1990, 2015 and 2020.
"Most people in Myanmar support the ideals of democracy and want the army to withdraw from politics permanently," said Ma Tin, a teacher from the outskirts of Yangon, who has joined the street protests almost every day from the start.
"And Ma Suu [Mother Suu, as she is affectionately called by her supporters] represents the aspirations of the Myanmar people."