Following the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021, the country’s pro-democracy movement transformed from a peaceful, leaderless camp into a quasi-military structure. Many demonstrators took up arms to defend the civilian population against the atrocities of the regime. Where is the standoff going between the junta and the pro-democracy fighters?
When Myanmar’s democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi could not be located and the military announced a state of emergency in February 2021, many people were at a loss as to what to do next. Yet it didn’t take long for a wave of colorful protests to sweep across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have lined the streets of cities and towns across Myanmar, often getting creative to challenge the putschists.
Some dressed as ghosts, grooms, wizards or bodybuilders – they all carried posters carrying two important messages: restore democracy and free the country’s detained political leaders. The revolutionary songs chanted by the crowd united them in their demands before the junta decided to violently repress the demonstrators.
According to the Political Prisoners Assistance Association (Burma), a non-profit human rights organization, the death toll among protesters recently exceeded 1,600, while more than 10,000 people have been charged. or arrested for being part of the pro-democracy movement.
“Peaceful activism is no way to overthrow the junta,” said Phyo Wai from the northwestern town of Homalin. “That’s why we chose armed resistance. The junta is too strong to be overthrown by peaceful activism.”
“PLEASE HELP US!”
Myanmar protesters have called on the international community to help them restore democracy. Some envisaged a military intervention, thinking back to the UN-led coalition that overthrew the repressive Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011. While it is highly questionable whether this intervention achieved its humanitarian goals and was carried out legally, many protesters in Myanmar believed that the international community was obliged to help them based on the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
This UN principle, highly controversial in some circles, is meant to be used when the government of a country fails to protect its own people from any large-scale crime, especially war crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity. Theoretically, in these situations, the UN can take action to protect civilians, even if the government does not consent and the action violates the country’s sovereignty.
However, as the months passed and the number of civilians killed at the hands of soldiers grew without anyone being held accountable, many young people in Myanmar concluded that they “just can’t wait to get help.” help until [they] are dying,” said Gum Tun, previously a very active street protester, living in the country’s biggest city, Yangon.
“Armed resistance and peaceful activism like diplomatic pressure must be integrated,” added Phyo Wai, who has turned into a pro-democracy fighter.
In this context, many countries have deployed sanctions against the regime. Some companies have pulled out of the country, while others have found themselves attached to Myanmar due to legal constraints or have chosen to stay, believing that there are still ways to conduct responsible business in Myanmar. This may be true in the clothing industry, where companies such as H&M have created jobs primarily for women.
Many protesters have fled to border regions to be trained by Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) which are also fighting against the Burmese junta. They then formed defense groups aimed at carrying out assaults on the regime’s soldiers.
Although the resistance movement always reports that it lacks proper military equipment, it nevertheless boasts of having succeeded in killing soldiers, convincing some to desert, sabotaging important infrastructure and, controversially, to target civilians working for the military administration.
Shortly after the coup, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) was created as a form of boycott against the military junta. En masse, people abandoned their jobs in public administration, schools, railways and the private banking sector, brutally paralyzing the local economy.
As a result of these attempts to cripple the junta, Myanmar’s currency depreciated, driving up prices and leading to widespread food insecurity.
“The protests have evolved from going out on the streets to supporting the movement,” said Omo Ra, a resident of Nyaung Shwe, a small town on the shore of Inle Lake in Shan state. FairPlanet.
“Since we realized that being on the front line without reinforcements cannot be good in the long term, many have tried to raise money for the movement,” he said. “But when it comes to the MDP, the purpose is the same as the protests.” The goal, according to him, is “to stop the administrative machinery”.
A total of some 440,000 people have been newly displaced following indiscriminate attacks by junta soldiers who burned down private homes and places of worship used as hiding places.
“No matter how many times we have evolved, we still share the same dream which is to restore our rights and freedom,” Oma Ra said.
The pro-democracy movement now has its own government in exile, which, although unrecognized, is in frequent contact with foreign partners such as the EU.
In the midst of the Russian-Ukrainian war, many activists lament that their cause receives far less attention and support. Phyo Wai argues that the people of Myanmar “should be provided with the necessary arms and ammunition to win the people’s defensive war against the military junta”.
The European Union has, however, repeatedly alluded to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a driving force in bringing peace to Myanmar, but the regional organization has so far proved ineffective.
Burmese protesters have also rejected any form of peace negotiation with the junta, which has seized power by force. On the other hand, the junta classifies all members of the resistance as terrorists and has stripped the most prominent members of the movement of their citizenship.
As the junta and pro-democracy fighters stand at a crossroads in the power struggle, no imminent winner is expected to emerge for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, it seems that the continued inaction of the international community will only lead to more criminal acts and violence.
Image by Pyae Sone Htun