The coup in Myanmar: answers for my friends in the West
Up until now, I have not written or posted anything online about what has been happening in Myanmar since the military coup on 1 February.
I am not in Myanmar. I get my information from news websites and Twitter, in English. I am not Burmese and I don’t have any special expertise of my own: I don’t know enough to add much to the debate. Nothing I say will be new. You will get more insight and better analysis by looking elsewhere (search for the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar on Twitter, or try some of the links near the end of this post).
Still, knowing that Myanmar is important to me, friends and family here in Britain have asked what I think about the situation, and I realise that I may be doing my Burmese friends a disservice if I hide behind my ignorance and avoid giving what answers I can — especially if those answers might encourage even a few people here in the West to support their cause and take some action.
So here are some responses.
What has happened in Myanmar?
Since 2016 Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), had been leading a partly civilian government, under a constitution which continued to reserve very extensive powers, including control of major ministries and a quarter of parliamentary seats, for the military.
In a general election in November 2020, the NLD won a second landslide victory. The military made unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud and then, on 1 February 2021, before the new parliament had been sworn in, the armed forces moved to take over the government completely, installing a new military junta and arresting Daw Suu, along with the sitting President U Win Myint, and many legislators and other prominent figures.
There were widespread popular protests and a civil disobedience movement aimed at reversing the coup. For a few days these took place in peace, but security forces then began to respond more and more brutally, first injuring and then killing peaceful protesters. At the time of writing (late March 2021) the violence continues to escalate. The Tatmadaw (the Myanmar armed forces) has now killed over 400 people and detained more than 2,000.
What is going on now with the protests?
To begin with, many of the protests were marked by humour: you might have seen videos of whole crowds of people stopping traffic by pretending to drop bags of onions on the road and then helping each other to pick them up; or staging mass engine breakdowns on major highways. Then the humour turned black: greeting the sound of gunshots at night by setting off fireworks and shouting ‘happy new year!’
Now, in addition to the thousands marching peacefully at risk of their lives, some protestors have turned to barricades and petrol bombs and slingshots to defend themselves. But as far as I can tell the overwhelming majority of protests continue to be peaceful marches, at some of which unarmed people are being shot in the head; women are being savagely beaten and killed, men burned alive, schoolchildren murdered, babies injured with rubber bullets.
Is it civil war?
There is a civil war going on in Myanmar, but it isn’t new: with intermittent treaties and ceasefires, the Tatmadaw has been fighting against the armed forces of many ethnic minority groups around the country for decades now. That is still happening.
There is also speculation about how the democratic opposition will interact with the ethnic armed groups, and whether there will be an alliance here, with an common goal of a federal democratic state and greater protection for minorities. Many of the minority groups have condemned the coup and voiced support for the resistance. In Kayin State fighting has intensified, and the KNU, the biggest ethnic armed group in that area, has been providing armed protection for some peaceful protests. The Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw — which speaks on behalf of the parliament that was prevented by the military from sitting — has indicated some openness to a new federal constitution once the coup is defeated. I have no idea how this will play out.
Were you expecting the coup?
No, I wasn’t. But lots of people were.
Many Burmese people have been waiting for this to happen for a long time. Regardless of the moves toward democracy in the last decade, they never trusted the Tatmadaw, and always felt that what freedom they had was constrained, fragile and precarious.
I know that my own assumptions about Myanmar have been coloured by lots of things, including the fact that I had never known the country under full military rule (I first went there in 2013), and the fact that as a white British visitor I had little to fear personally from the security forces. Most Burmese people see the Tatmadaw very differently, based on long, painful experience.
I also thought that Myanmar’s growing economy provided some protection against a return to total military rule: in a country where corruption and cronyism are rife, and where the military runs some of the biggest industrial corporations, there were plenty of chances for the generals to profit from rising prosperity and international investment. I thought they might not want to rock the boat. It seemed to me that they were doing pretty well out of the hybrid constitution, that seemed to leave them mostly unconstrained to do what they wanted, while providing a veneer of democracy to keep people happy inside and outside the country.
I was wrong. Most of their wealth is likely to be protected whatever happens, so I suppose they had less to lose than I thought. Partial control wasn’t enough, and maybe that veneer of respectability for the outside world never meant much to them. My assumptions were complacent, and arrogant too. Lots of people had much deeper fears, based on much longer experience. They were right.
What will happen next?
I don’t think I should be making any predictions.
When they made the decision to go ahead with the coup, the generals knew that there would be resistance. So it should be no surprise that they have been willing to be utterly ruthless in trying to crush it. Myanmar under the old military regime was always one of the most repressive security states in the world, and that machinery was never dismantled. None of that makes me feel optimistic.
Is it possible that the scale and courage of the protest movement, and the civil disobedience tactics that aim to make the country ungovernable for the military, could be even more than the Tatmadaw bargained for? Could they change course with pressure from outside? Could there be splits from within? I just don’t know. I don’t think anybody does.
What does the coup mean for the Rohingya?
Everything that relates to the Rohingya is contested. There are complicated relationships between the Rohingya, the Rakhine (the Buddhist ethnic group who form the majority in Rakhine State), the military, the political parties, and the different parts of government. I’m not an expert and this wouldn’t be the place to go into it even if I thought I was.
It is clear, though, that the Tatmadaw was the perpetrator and instigator of appalling violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, and had a lot to gain from stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment across Myanmar more generally, so that it could then cast itself as the defender of the Union.
It seems safe to assume that the Tatmadaw will remain brutally hostile towards the Rohingya for the foreseeable future. It has also made peace overtures towards the Arakan Army (AA), the main Rakhine armed group operating in the area, while the AA itself has, after some delay, publicly condemned the coup. How the other relationships will play out over the long term, and how the coup will affect them, I don’t know.
Some Burmese friends, and others I have seen commenting online, are hopeful that the coup and the violence unfolding now will turn out to be the moment when Myanmar’s different nationalities could unite, recognising the Tatmadaw as the common enemy of the whole population, and putting behind them the years of propaganda that have fed divisions. I hope they are right.
Friends in the West often ask me about Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity in all of this: was her hand forced by the military? was she a prisoner of public opinion? has she actually been supportive of the violence against the Rohingya? I don’t know, and they might not be the right questions anyway: I don’t think that either the original idolisation of ASSK or her subsequent demonisation have been very helpful lenses for looking at Burmese politics. What matters now is that the Rohingya, just like everybody else, are likely to be even worse off under the junta than they were before.
What can or should Western countries do?
It seems safe to say that no amount of verbal condemnation from the ‘international community’ will make the slightest bit of difference to the Tatmadaw. Some protesters seem to have briefly entertained the hope of military intervention by the UN or by NATO, but that will not happen. There are some targeted sanctions that are worth Western countries pursuing (withdrawal of military cooperation, arms embargoes, sanctions against individuals, or against the economic interests of the military), but I think these count more as gestures of solidarity than as measures that will change the junta’s strategy. The consensus among Burmese people commenting, as far as I have seen, is that broader economic sanctions would only harm the people and will make little difference to the generals.
The countries whose actions will make a difference are Myanmar’s neighbours, including the other ASEAN countries: but more importantly, China, which is by far and away the biggest investor and partner in the economic schemes that benefit the military, and also the main source of equipment and support for the Tatmadaw itself. If Western countries can place any effective pressure on China, however marginal, to reduce its support for the Tatmadaw, that would probably be the best thing they could do. In the UK, there is a huge amount of debate currently about what China’s actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong mean for our economic relationship with them. Chinese support for repression in Myanmar should have a place in that debate too.
In short, I don’t see that there are easy things that will make a difference. But I think we should be trying to do the difficult things. Our governments have told the Burmese people that we stand with them. The Burmese people have a right to expect us to show what we mean by that.
What can I do?
Following the news about the protests is probably a good start. People in Myanmar are risking their lives to tell the world what is happening in their country. The least we can do is listen.
Next, you can add your name to campaigns calling for an arms embargo and further sanctions on the military (visit https://action.burmacampaign.org.uk/). If you’re in the UK, you can write personally to your MP: if they haven’t already signed the Early Day Motion in protest at the coup, you can ask them to do so, and if they have, thank them for their support and ask them to keep advocating in Parliament for action for Myanmar.
You can donate money. Your pounds and dollars and euros won’t reverse the coup, but they could help the work of local activists and organisers, provide aid to families who have seen loved ones killed or injured, and give support to journalists risking bullets and beatings to report on the situation. It’s hard to do much due diligence about where your money will go before donating to an emergency appeal set up in a situation like this one; I think it may be better to do something rather than nothing, but I accept that that’s a judgment call. There are fundraisers listed at this site, and you can donate directly to news outlets such as Myanmar Now and the Irrawaddy that have defied the military in order to keep reporting.
If you want to know more about the situation in Myanmar, here are some accounts on Twitter you might want to follow for a combination of news, campaigns, analysis and argument: the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which gives daily briefings on the coup and the mounting death toll; journalists including Aye Min Thant, Winnie Thaw, Poppy McPherson; Burmese-British writer Mi Mi Aye; and talking bowl of mohinga Soup Not Coup.
Post-script: how do you feel about it?
This is an afterthought, because how I feel doesn’t really matter. But it’s the thing that friends ask me most often, so here is an answer.
I am not usually very empathetic when it comes to news about the world. I read about terrible things happening, and I care about them, but usually in quite a detached way: I understand that something is bad, and that it matters to me, but I don’t form a deep emotional connection. That makes me worry I am a bad person, but I think it’s probably not uncommon. I take a bit of comfort in George Eliot’s line about how bad things happen so often that we can’t take them all to heart:
That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
The result is that it takes a particular resonance or a personal connection to get through the wadding of stupidity. For me, Myanmar has done that.
Seeing the scenes of protest and then of violence unfolding on familiar streets in Yangon has felt strange, unearthly. We see carnage on the news all the time, but the fact that I knew those streets violated a law I hadn’t known about: a law, I suppose, of privilege, which dictates that news, and especially bad news, is something that happens somewhere else.
Myanmar isn’t ‘somewhere else’ to me. I am scared for my friends who live there, and at the same time I am more cut off from them than ever. I don’t know what communications are being monitored and I don’t know what’s safe; I think I can ask someone on Facebook if they are okay, but I don’t think I can ask anyone to say much more than that. A fortnight ago, a friend of mine found out that her father had been taken from his home in the middle of the night; he now faces a charge of treason. The same thing could happen to anyone I know. I don’t know what I would say to my friends if I could talk to them freely — be safe? be brave? Because in Myanmar now, you can’t really be both.
There are selfish concerns mixed into all this: fear of losing something precious, even if it never belonged to me, and many kinds of guilt. Guilt at being safe, at having always been safe. Guilt at being silent, guilt at saying things that don’t help, guilt at saying things but doing nothing. Guilt at knowing that, for all the letters and the motions and the statements, my own country won’t really help. Guilt at having been so complacent, at having been part of the whole charade in the first place. Guilt, now, at all this self-pity: enough of that. I don’t have a right to a clean conscience. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter at all, next to what people in Myanmar are going through. I am not ‘going through’ anything.
In short, I am sad, and angry, and afraid, but I am not the one suffering here. Thank you for asking. And if Myanmar doesn’t mean much to you — if it feels like ‘somewhere else’ — I can hardly blame you. But if you are in a position to help, please do.