- UCL Diplomacy Society
Do you hear the people sing? – Myanmar’s counter-coup movement. By Sam Fowler
Since the military took power in the South-East Asian state of Myanmar on the 1st of February, there has been a key question lingering, how would the people of the country respond? Now it is clear through the civil disobedience, online campaigns and public protest that the Burmese people will resist the coup of their elected de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Military rule is depressingly familiar to the country which lived under a military dictatorship from 1962 to 2011, after which time Suu Kyi led a movement of liberalisation culminating in the first free elections held in the country six years ago. The reason for this new military government remains hazy as the regime is yet to give detailed comment. However, they claim that Suu Kyi’s NLD party did not investigate electoral fraud claims in November’s election – elections that saw a landslide victory for the NLD over the USDP, which is sympathetic to the army’s interests. There were no questions from international observers over the integrity of the election.
Concerns have mounted internationally that the coup threatens the civil liberties of ordinary people, especially as the new government has declared a year-long state of emergency and has consequently granted itself extraordinary powers. Governments across the globe and the UN have condemned the takeover of power and the mass arrests of senior NLD figures and democracy activists, including Aung San Suu Kyi. A UN Security Council statement strongly attacking the leading generals of the junta was blocked by China’s use of its veto power; China feels that international pressure and particularly sanctions are unhelpful, but many observers have called the action tantamount to supporting the coup. The monitoring of the human rights situation has been further limited by the army’s blocking of the internet, meaning it will be difficult to understand and interpret the reality of the situation in the country.
The internet shut-off has also prevented many Burmese people from organising their resistance, which had initially been done via Facebook. Civilians had used other Facebook-owned apps such as Whatsapp to plan protests and civil disobedience and share news rather than using the now censored state radio and television services. Despite initial calm immediately following the removal of the elected government citizens are beginning to take to the streets, heeding the call delivered on the NLD Facebook page of Suu Kyi to resist the coup leaders.
Civil disobedience by teachers and medical professionals has marked that many Burmese civilians are unwilling to be intimidated by the reassertion of military power and want to take a stand for the rights they so briefly held. That message was reinforced at the weekend by the turn-out of tens of thousands to the streets in the country’s largest city, Yangon. Myanmar had not seen protests on such a scale since 2007, when monks voiced their dissent against military government policy. Suu Kyi is well used to house arrest, and her supporters are used to years of activism to get what they want, but the fear of violent retaliation by the army persists. Until the last couple of days, it had been assumed that this pressure would keep people off the streets as they turned to the safer options of protesting at home, at night or online.
Plainly the situation for the military junta is not as simple as they might have hoped, as the citizens of Myanmar refuse to return to a dictatorial status quo. Internet connectivity has risen in recent days from 16% to 50% of pre-coup levels, but social media remains blocked, so issues of human rights monitoring and news distribution remain.
The coup is of particular concern to the Rohingya Muslim community of the north-west Rakhine state. They have faced determined persecution even under Myanmar’s civilian government in recent years. Still, the army has a long history of even more severe treatment of the minority community with allegations of ethnic cleansing. In combination with the lack of internet, there are real concerns that abuses against Myanmar’s Muslims could continue without accountability for the perpetrators.
Myanmar’s army numbers over half a million troops, even without counting the reserves, militia and border forces. Combined with police forces, there seems little doubt that the regime could hold onto control via force if necessary. However, as with the liberalisations from 2011, the army's position may become untenable should the population disobey its instructions and continue to recognise Aung San Suu Kyi as their leader. There appears to be little desire for foreign intervention, but the people of Myanmar have consistently shown themselves to be willing and able to fight their own battles.