“I want to tell everybody living in Burma that the February revolution is going to be successful. Eventually we’re going to make ourselves the last generation that’s going to witness a military dictatorship as well as a genocide on Burmese soil.”
Confident words spoken by activist Htuu Lou Rae Den as mass demonstrations in Myanmar/Burma reach their height. As I write, millions of people have joined a general strike and brought the biggest cities across the country to a standstill, in scenes that echo those seen in Manila 35 years ago to the day, with the demonstrations that eventually ousted Ferdinand Marcos.
“If we oppose the dictatorship, they might shoot us. Everyone knows it. But we have to oppose dictatorship. It’s our duty,” one strike committee member told Nikkei Asia.
The uprising is apparently as fearless as it is leaderless. General strike committees with members across communities have been formed across the country. The coup leaders have managed to unite people of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds across the largest mainland southeast Asian country with their power grab. It’s as if the generals who have ruled the country since the 60s have finally tested the people beyond endurance. Something in Burma’s soul snapped, broke free and is roaring through the mountains, valleys and plains, to the cities where, pounding on pots and pans, shouting and singing, people are reshaping the political map.
The military explains its coup by alleging election irregularities in polls last November which returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to power by a landslide. It’s arrested the party leadership and hundreds of other activists. Coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, has declared a year long state of emergency and martial law. He has been roundly ignored.
Around the world, several countries have expressed their concern at the situation and some are imposing sanctions. “The international community can support the movement by realizing that this is not a tug of war between the Tatmadaw and National League for Democracy. Political reality and the nature of the movement is a lot more complex than that,” said Den, who is the founder and coordinator of the Coexist civil rights organization and also a member of Anti-junta Mass Movement Committee, which started the street protests in Burma.
More excited than scared, Den thinks the coup has to lead to something better. As far as he’s concerned, the situation before the coup was an “authoritarian electoral system” combining the worst aspects of democracy and dictatorship because it could guarantee some rights and make some economic activity possible, thereby allowing international actors to turn a blind eye to human rights violations committed by the military and civilian leadership, including the Rohingya genocide. He thinks that with the coup, the people feel they have nothing left to lose, and are ready to risk everything.
Den and his colleagues think the NLD’s demands are too narrowly focused on the release and reinstatement of the civilian political leaders including the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the resumption of parliament. They want the military dictatorship and military-backed constitution abolished to be replaced by federal democracy.
Burmese people, so often portrayed as victims or vicious bigots in recent years, are reinventing themselves as revolutionaries, empowered by several generations’ worth of experience resisting the military. “An entity which is one of the best at staging a coup in the world versus the people who are one of the best at resisting the coup” is how Den (who happens to have been a student at the Philippines’ Ateneo University) put it.
On Monday, the crowds of protesters brought several cities to a standstill, the scenes were awe-inspiring and impressive but it was only the first day in the battle of wills between the people – refusing to work for the generals – and the generals, who would apparently have every strategic advantage.
The fear is that, as in previous uprisings in 1988 and 2007, the Tatmadaw will use its weapons against unarmed non-violent protesters. If so, the question will be whether the singularly rigid and ruthless record of Myanmar’s army will hold in the face of the witty and truly popular baiting by a tech-savvy, leaderless mass movement, and soldiers will take to the streets intent on death and destruction.
The military would also seem to have the advantage of having the resources to simply wait out the demonstrations. The coronavirus pandemic knows nothing of people’s political aspirations. The general strike means people won’t get paid and food doesn’t get on the table.
The potent hope of Burma contrasts with a listless fatigue and boredom in the Philippines. Several people have told me how veteran activists of the 88 Generation Uprising in Burma asked to visit the Philippines in their first trip abroad after years in prison because they were so inspired by what happened in Manila in 1986.
Those years since the overthrow of the Marcos regime stretch from my own middle-age to youth. Den’s confident enthusiasm reminds me of those days when there was everything to gain, nothing to lose, and anything was possible. Everyone will have their own opinion about what went wrong with the dreams of a new start for the Philippines in the intervening three and half decades.
With one metaphorical foot in Burma and the other in the Philippines, what strikes me most is the power of political imagination. People aspire to what they can imagine: an idea of a better life, in a society where rights are upheld and government is for the good of the many, not the few.
History indicates that progress, in terms of human development, comes through a kind of collective act of imagining within a society. Somehow, we in the Philippines seem to have lost that ability and must work to regain it.