Since Myanmar’s military staged a coup on 1 February, Burmese civil society became synonymous with political opposition. Activists from different working sectors are engaging in a coordinated civil disobedience movement ravaging throughout the entire country, while leaders of local organizations are jointly calling on the international community to intervene. The root problem, however, remains reconciling ethnic clashes and interests in Myanmar’s fragmented political context.
The country’s civil society and the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) are proving to be the only vibrant opposition to the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military arm. Health workers, bankers, teachers, and engineers are demanding a restoration of legitimate democratic rule and firmly refuse to return to work. Meanwhile, protests have paralyzed the Burmese economy, already crippled by the COVID-19 crisis.
For its part, the military has initiated large-scale arrests which have spilled over into civil society leaders, journalists, and high-profile activists on top of democratically elected representatives of the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Moreover, the State Administration Council, the new executive governing body, has established 20-year long prison sentences to those who are deemed to be fuelling hate and weakening the regime’s stability.
The Council has also amended existing legislations that might further hinder the work of grassroot organizations. To illustrate, the Junta’s draft of an Orwellian cyber security bill is a striking example of these measures. “The law would hand a military that just staged a coup and is notorious for jailing critics almost unlimited power to access user data, putting anyone who speaks out at risk,” commented Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal advisor at Human Rights Watch.
To further complicate matters, Myanmar’s civil society has grown diverse and youth-driven — yet fragmented — in the last decade. Its reaction to the coup has been tenacious and coordinated, notably through the CDM. However, it will need to address its ethnic divergences and substantial support from the international community if it wishes to succeed.
In the past few days, Myanmar’s military and police forces have been escalating a crackdown on dissidents, just a month after the National Army’s Commander in Chief, Min Aung Hlaing, seized power and declared a one-year state of emergency. The Tatmadaw justified the putsch in the name of the country’s stability, promising new elections next year.
According to the United Nations, at least 54 demonstrators have been killed by Burmese national police forces since the military takeover. On March 3, 38 protestors died, the deadliest day yet for the anti-coup resistance. Furthermore, hundreds have been wounded, while over 1,700 were arrested and detained on unsubstantiated grounds. On February 28, the country’s notoriously overthrown civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, reappeared in a virtual court hearing, which filed two new legal charges against her. First, she has been accused of spreading information that allegedly incites public disorder, under the annex of an obsolete, colonial-era law in retaliation for her message to NLD supporters not to bend to the authoritarian grip. The other accusation is under the Telecommunications Law – a highly-criticized piece of legislation that criminalizes online defamation, a grave obstacle to freedom of expression.
Previously, the Tatmadaw had already charged the NLD leader for (allegedly) illegally importing walkie-talkie radios and infringing the Natural Disaster Law by breaching COVID-19 measures during her electoral campaign. Suu Kyi, detained with other party leaders, may now face years of jail time.
Just three months before the coup, on 8 November 2020, the NLD’s dancing peacock — the party’s political symbol — was celebrating a landslide victory in the national election, with “the Lady”, as Suu Kyi is often known, winning over 80% of the available seats in the Union Parliament. Naturally, that was a political and popular defeat that Min Aung Hlaing never accepted.
What is the history of Maynmar’s civil society?
The Burmese people are not new to oppressive military rule. The Tatmadaw has shaped the country’s cultural and political fabric — already tainted by over a century of British colonial influence — for over 50 years.
Yet, Myanmar’s civil society has a historic legacy of providing a wide-range of services to vulnerable and remote communities while filling the gaps left by the authoritarian government.
Following the country’s independence from British rule in 1948, a vibrant civil society including autonomous organizations and media organisations emerged in Myanmar’s urban areas. However, when military dictator Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, promising democratic elections in the following two years, he replaced independent media companies with state-controlled associations, he placed his men at the helm of trade unions, and he nationalized the nation’s main industries.
By 1988, a flourishing civil society landscape had re-emerged, with a new round of nation-wide protests against the totalitarian one-party system. Much like nowadays, the military government hampered its citizens’ engagement with civil societies by issuing a declaration that forbade groups of 5 people (or more) to gather, march, and deliver speeches in public. Faced by the potential loss of power and by the possibility of financial profit, the military once again leaned on the side of violent crackdowns against demonstrators.
That was until 2015, when Suu Kyi won her first landslide electoral victory. Myanmar started opening up to the world, while grassroot organizations were bolstered by a digitally savvy, new generation – which is now fully-aware of major global trends and is unwilling to cede its hard-earned freedom.
The political stance
Civil society organizations from Myanmar’s numerous states and townships have taken a firm stance against the coup. They are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all who have been arbitrarily detained, and they are demanding an end to the use of deliberate violence and the observance of freedom of expression rights as well as the right to peacefully assemble.
Unfortunately, the recent military repression against protesters suggests the Tatmadaw is dismissing these demands. For their part, civil society groups are now turning to the international community and demanding prompt action while the situation on the ground increasingly escalates.
On 12 February, a group of 177 civil society organizations (CSOs) from different ethnic areas issued a joint-open letter to the United Nations Security Council “urging enhanced monitoring and intervention, including by dispatching a delegation to Myanmar to mediate between all parties concerned to respond to the political crisis”. Ola Almgren, The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, diplomatically recalled that “the UN and its partners have, for many years, been responding to humanitarian needs caused by conflict and natural disasters in Myanmar,” adding that it is one of the UN’s priorities to “continue this work under the current circumstances”.
On 5 February, a group of progressive CSOs presented a joint-statement to the International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs) Forum, condemning the military regime of shattering the illusion of progress over the last decade. CSOs also openly urged 33 INGOs operating in Myanmar to take the strongest possible diplomatic action on top of joining the CDM and refusing to procure goods and services from military-linked businesses.
The immediate reply from international signatories assured that INGOs in Myanmar will “remain committed to working with and supporting civil society partners with urgently needed assistance to meet immediate basic needs and build greater resilience over the longer term”.
How will the civic debate evolve?
Though Myanmar’s civil society is now joining forces in the CDM, the military takeover has unraveled the divisions that exist in the country’s complex and divergent system.
For instance, there are key differences and interests among Bamar, the broader Burmese ethnic group, and ethnic-minority organizations: non-Bamar ethnic people have been experiencing political and socio-economic exclusion, as well as fundamental rights’ abuses, long before the coup.
The same divisions may be seen within the CDM among devoted supporters of Suu Kyi, who instead demand the end of decades-long guerrilla conflicts within the country and the establishment of a Federal Democratic Union.
To conclude, the civic debate should now focus on what could tie Myanmar’s plethora of ethnic groups whilst finding a solution to effectively fight the Junta – a deeply entrenched issue that has long prevented Myanmar’s democratic transition.