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Myanmar people power

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - February 28, 2021 - 12:00am

A month after the armed forces staged a coup in Myanmar (or Burma), the streets of its major cities are still scenes of civilian protests. This is in some ways reminiscent of the Philippine People Power movement; but also different in other ways.

The world, especially the Western world, was caught by surprise by this development. First, the military had supposedly the mechanism to remain in power no matter the election result. A quarter of the parliamentary seats was reserved for the military and it remained an independent structure. The armed forces also had the right to appoint all the heads of the security agencies like defense, interior and border control.

Secondly, it seemed that Aung San Suu Kyi was cooperating with the military apparatus. In fact the Western world had expressed disappointment in her when she did not resist the military attacks on the Muslim minority in their country.

In fact, as late as early November, right before the elections, observers said that Suu Kyi is not a liberal and runs her political party with an iron fist. According to the Economist magazine: “Ms. Suu Kyi’s authoritarian streak extends to government relations with civil society. It has repeatedly tried to muzzle its critics in court.”

Last year, twice as many Burmese surveyed by the Asian Barometer Survey prioritized the economy over democracy.

“Gains from the economic reforms and growth from the economic reforms and growth under the NLD government have yet to be widely perceived by ordinary citizens.”

On hindsight, this was also the time when the Western world was condemning Suu Kyi for failing to protect the country’s Muslim minority. She was stripped of all the international awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. The perception was that she was cooperating with the military. A few observers, however, felt that the prejudice against the Muslims was widespread among the Buddhist majority and the persecution of the Rohingya minority was actually acceptable to most Burmese. The Economist had this to say in its November 2020 issue: “Younger, rural Bamars (i.e. the principal ethnic group) are more likely to admire the men in uniform… These Burmese believe that Muslims pose an existential threat to the country’s survival and that the army is necessary to repel them and keep order in a fractious nation.”

Suu Kyi’s lackluster economic performance gave the military hope that the NLD would do poorly in the elections. With a quarter of the parliamentary seats reserved for the military, the generals needed only to win a third of the remaining parliamentary subject to election. They would then continue to rule and elect one of the generals as the next president.

Much to their surprise, and also to some Western observers, Suu Kyi’s NLD won 83 percent of the parliamentary seats while the general’s party – USDP – won only 7 percent of the seats. The head of the armed forces, General Min Aung Hlaing, saw his plan of being the next president in jeopardy.

The military’s party claimed there was massive fraud and demanded a nationwide recount. This is reminiscent of Donald Trump. The government refused and the parliament met. This was when a coup was staged in February and all the major political figures of the opposition, including Suu Kyi, were arrested.

At the start of the coup, only a small demonstration took place in Mandalay, Mynmar’s second largest city. Very little opposition to the coup was expected because of the detention of Suu Kyi and most of the NLD leaders.

At the beginning only the All Burma Federation of Student Unions was planning protests across the country.

It did not take long for the protesters to increase from a handful to thousands. At first the internet was completely banned; but this restriction was lifted because of the negative effect on business.

At the beginning, dealing with the protesters was left to the police. But the demonstrations started numbering into thousands in cities all over Myanmar. The additional difficulty in controlling the demonstrations was that there did not seem to be any coordinating group since most of the leaders of the NLD, Suu Kyi’s party, were in detention. There were also reports that many policemen were not exerting any effort to stop the demonstrations.

Then the demonstrations led to labor strikes by health workers, civil service workers, movie stars, teachers, labor unions and other organized groups. “Noise barrages” as a sign of protest became daily occurrences. The protesters have also become more creative. An Economist report said that at intersections across the largest city, Yangon, cars were parked with their hoods raised as if they had broken down. By late morning the city was paralyzed.

The military has now been deployed to face the demonstrators. They are expected to be more ruthless than the police. Already three demonstrators have died from bullets fired by soldiers. The majority of the world has condemned what is happening in Myanmar.

One notable exception is China, which reported the coup as a “Cabinet reshuffle.” Beijing will do business with anyone in power in Myanmar as long as its proposed railroad connecting China to the Indian Ocean by passing through Myanmar is guaranteed.

It is too early to arrive at any claim of a triumphant People Power in Myanmar. It should be remembered that in the Philippines, the large demonstrations against Marcos lasted from Aug. 21,1983 when Ninoy was assassinated and ended on Feb. 25, 1986 on EDSA.

But a Burmese citizen, Wai Yan Phoe Moe, said: “We are afraid of being beaten or killed or shot. But we have also seen that many people have sacrificed their lives fighting injustice during the military dictatorship in past decades. This time it is our duty to end the injustice.”

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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