Nights in Burma

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 13, 2021 - 12:00am

The people of Burma/Myanmar are taking the fight to the military. Hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country have gone on strike and are marching in the streets every day. There is a profound pathos in this moment, when the fate of the country hangs in the balance, not knowing whether Burma’s military will once again soak the ground with the blood of the people. ASEAN and other world leaders must demand the military not use force to resolve the situation.

It’s truly extraordinary to bear witness to the torrent of instant, filter-free pictures, video and stories people are providing on Twitter and Facebook about the massive protests. For decades, the military has clamped down on demonstrations. Even since 2010, under nominally civilian rule, the military has kept a tight rein on political activity. As State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi presided over growing numbers of political prisoners.

“You messed with the wrong generation” is one of the slogans making the rounds at the protests. It’s bravura but it’s also true that the young people of 2021 (28 percent of the population is between 10 and 24 according to the UN Population Fund) did not experience the draconian restrictions on everyday life under military rule.

So they’re turning up to demonstrations with all the sass and savvy of global youth culture. I’ve started collecting pictures that show the sheer joy and party atmosphere of the crowds. There are families dressed in traditional clothes, girls dressed as princesses, children in superhero costumes, unidentifiable groups in ghost costumes, transvestites and barely dressed body-builders. Young women hold up placards with hilarious messages: “My ex is bad but Myanmar military is worse,” “I don’t want dictatorship, I just want boyfriend.” There are hip-hop crews breakdancing in Myitkyina, punks posing in Yangon and nat kedaw (spirit wives) cursing the coup leader Min Aung Hlaing. It’s an explosion of people raising their voices and making noise to celebrate their freedom, fearlessly mocking the false authority of the military and demanding radical change.

“The February Revolution of Burma is not only a political revolution. It’s also a cultural revolution, a social revolution and a sexual revolution. It’s the 1871 Insurrection, May 68, Summer of Love and Civil Rights Movement of Burma all rolled into one. Whoever doesn’t like what they’re seeing in the streets of Burma today will definitely be alienated by the new society, cultures and political system that is going to replace the military dictatorship, patriarchy, Bama-centrism and heteronomy tomorrow. These people better get used to it. February 2021 wouldn’t be gone after February 2021. February 2021 is here to stay,” wrote Htuu Lou Rae Den, founder of Co-exist Myanmar (who happens to be an Ateneo alumnus) on Twitter.

But wait. This is still Burma. This is still Southeast Asia.

As I write, armed police surround a university in Moulmein/Mawlamyine, trapping students inside and threatening to shoot them if they leave. Overnight on Thursday, livestreams on Facebook showed police raiding the homes of people who had joined the demonstrations, arresting and detaining them. A well-known fortune teller was arrested in a Yangon township, someone broadcast the pictures live as crowds gathered to protest outside the police station where he was being held. There was speculation on social media that he’d cursed the coup leader to vomit blood and held a ritual involving lighting 9 candles on 9 knives between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

The government has remitted the sentences of more than 23,000 prisoners in a move echoing a similar amnesty in 1988 before the notorious mass killings of student demonstrators that freed up prison space for activists. Criminals were then commandeered by the military as agents provocateurs.

The Myanmar military is notoriously ruthless. In 2007, thousands of monks led even more ordinary people in an uprising after the military government raised the prices of basic goods. Robed in their distinctive maroon, they turned their alms bowls upside down in a symbolic rejection of the rulers. It was a non-violent protest but the military would not allow such a challenge to their authority stand. Then, as now, the regime imposed a curfew and also banned gatherings of more than five people. Across the country monks were hunted down like criminals, beaten and detained and hundreds of monasteries were raided.

The leaders of the protests managed to hide for months but were captured in the end and sent to jail. One of them told me he suffered solitary confinement, light and sleep deprivation and extended periods in stress positions. A bag was placed over his head while he was subjected to severe beatings that inflicted serious injuries and left him unconscious. For three months straight his hands and feet were shackled, other prisoners fed and washed him. At one point a prison doctor injected the monk with a drug that would make him scream for hours while he waited and watched for signs that it was wearing off, and inject him again.

Another pivotal moment that exposed the inhumanity of the military regime was the 1988 protests and crackdown. From March to September, the military and other security forces suppressed mass demonstrations throughout Burma. Then, as now, a general strike was called on Aug. 8. Thousands of students, monks, civil servants and ordinary citizens held simultaneous protests calling for an end to military rule and transition to democracy. Troops fired on peaceful protesters, killing and wounding hundreds. Two days later, soldiers deliberately fired on doctors and nurses treating wounded civilians at Rangoon General Hospital, killing them. In September the military launched a coup, soldiers returned to the streets and fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters. Thousands of activists were arrested and thousands more fled to neighboring countries. No government officials have ever been held accountable for any of these abuses through decades of military rule.

Today, warning messages are being sent: “We are living in a country where people don’t have to be afraid of thieves, but of police and soldiers at night. We are living in a country where civilians have to protect each other from them who are trying to arrest without any warrant and reason in the middle of the night.” “They are arresting innocent people of everywhere. We are heart-breaking to see this. Our night is becoming unsafe.” “People in Myanmar can’t sleep at night.” “Please save us.”

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