Voices of Myanmar: The crisis as seen from the front lines

In the weeks that have passed since Myanmar’s February 1 coup d’état, as dissenters have been jailed, disappeared and killed, a group of JURIST law student correspondents* has participated in street protests by day and navigated government-ordered internet blackouts by night to report on the crisis. Below we provide an overview of the origins and nature of the crisis, and consider what the international community can and should be doing to help.

This is part one of a series of articles in which we explore the Myanmar crisis from the perspectives of our correspondents on the front lines. All five parts can be accessed via the following links:

The mechanics of the Myanmar coup

On February 1, Myanmar’s democratically elected parliament was set to start a new five-year term. Instead, the country’s military – known as the Tatmadaw – conducted a coup d’état in the pre-dawn hours that morning.

Citing unsupported claims of election interference, armed forces stormed the homes of several top officials. Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and others were detained on a flurry of evolving charges. These same leaders – members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party – had been elected in a landslide victory only weeks earlier during the November 2020 elections.

Myanmar’s highest ranking general – Min Aung Hlaing – quickly asserted his status as the country’s new leader. He claims he will retain the position of State Administrative Council until new elections are held. Many have speculated that Min Aung Hlaing masterminded the coup over concerns that the Tatmadaw was losing its foothold on power amid Myanmar’s democratization efforts. At present, the military maintains control of the administrative capital, Naypyitaw, as well as most regional capitals, and soldiers are patrolling the streets of all major cities.

Despite Min Aung Hlaing’s assertion of power, unprecedented street demonstrations, labor boycotts, and economic strikes indicate that his leadership is viewed as illegitimate by much of the population.

In the words of a JURIST correspondent who has been reporting from the front lines of the protest movement since its inception: “I hope the crisis is resolved via the removal of the military dictatorship, and the punishing of those who are responsible for the coup. I also want to see the formation of a government by those who were elected by the people of Myanmar in the election of November 2020. The people of Myanmar have made clear their desire for true democracy. I hope that as a result of our revolution, Myanmar will become a democratic nation, and we will develop a new constitution that completely removes the possibility of a military dictatorship.”

Political life before the coup

The February 1 coup halted nearly a decade of democratic transition.

Myanmar has a long history of military rule. In the early 19th century, the British conquered the territory, artificially uniting a people that at that point comprised scores of disparate ethnic groups. Once British rule ended in 1948, the country endured a period of interethnic strife, during which the military strove to impose order, often by violent means. The military seized power from a democratically elected government in 1962, and remained in total control for nearly 50 years – including a period of brutal suppression surrounding a democratic uprising in 1988.

In 2008, the Tatmadaw established a new constitution that secured the military’s grip on power while also opening the door to civilian leadership. Between 2011 and 2021, power shifted from the military junta to a pro-military civilian administration before ultimately reaching the democratically elected NLD. This signaled a major shift; the NLD was led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been broadly recognized as the face of the 1988 uprising, and who had spent some 15 years under house arrest by the time of her release in 2010.

The table below, produced by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), outlines the period of democratic transition that occurred between 2011 and 2021.

Deadly protests, boycotts and strikes

Shortly after her February 1 arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi urged citizens to protest against the impending dictatorship in a letter released via the NLD’s verified Facebook page. In the weeks that have since passed, hundreds of thousands of citizens have spilled out into the streets, protesting the military regime with a ferocity unlike any that has been seen since the democratic uprising of 1988.

As noted above, among the protesters are a group of JURIST correspondents – all between the ages of 16 and 21. These student journalists have continued to protest as military forces have shifted from a policy of largely non-violent deterrence, to one of deadly force.

The age range of our correspondents is not atypical. Many of the student protesters are too young to remember the period before Myanmar began its march toward democracy, leaving many free of the first-hand memories and fears the older generations carry with them.

“My grandparents have tried to transfer their fears to me, but I never listen to them. Look: they’ve already lived most of their lives, and my life is just beginning. I know that if I don’t fight now, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. I would rather die young for a purpose than live a meaningless life,” one JURIST correspondent said.

In the words of another correspondent: “My father knows how hard I’ve been working to be able to study abroad in America or Europe, so it was really hard for him to cope with my struggles as this all started. He told me he would sell the house and everything in it to try to get the whole family out of Myanmar, or at least to send me abroad… I understand his fears as he witnessed a similarly fearful period when he was a student in 1988. But I figured that it’s 2021 – how could it be the same?”

Our staffers in the field have spoken in frank terms about feeling driven to fight for the democratic future of their country, no matter the cost.

“I feel compelled to let the world know what’s happening in Myanmar. I don’t want us to lose any more lives. We desperately want democracy. We want to sleep soundly at night, knowing we’ll wake up safe in the morning. We just want everything to calm down so we can start building our dreams again,” one staffer said.

“The Myanmar military coup has brought about serious crimes and human rights violations. The reason I’m putting myself at risk to report on these issues is because I want the international community to understand the truth of what is happening in our country. I want them to know that in the modern world, a coup should not be taking place. We must protect our human rights and other basic rights. I stand on the side of the truth; this is what motivates me to share my story,” another correspondent said.

At the time of writing, reports estimate that upwards of 250 protesters have been killed amid the unrest, and that more than 2,000 people have been arrested. All the while, JURIST’s local correspondents have reflected a clear-eyed awareness of the dangers they face.

“I’m willing to take risks to share our story because the larger the international audience, the higher the likelihood that international authorities and members of the global community will take action. My motivation is democracy. We refuse to let history repeat itself. We need to win this revolution,” a staffer said.

But for some protestors, patience is beginning to wane. In the words of one of JURIST’s correspondents: “I hope to see this resolved by way of a triumph of justice over injustice. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a better way to fight for justice than by protesting in the streets only to be shot at. Is there really nothing else we can do to stop this crisis?”

In addition to the street protests, the citizens of Myanmar have staged large-scale strikes – with many critical workers, including healthcare workers, educators and bank employees, refusing to work until order is restored – and economic boycotts targeting the Tatmadaw’s business interests.

Protestors reckon with Myanmar’s history of ethnically motivated violence

Although Myanmar was embarking on a path towards enhanced freedom and democratization, it was not the embodiment of democratic ideals, particularly with respect to interethnic tensions and human rights.

This was poignantly illustrated by the persecution of the Rohingya people in the Rakhine Region, perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, which is dominated by the ethnic Buddhist Bamar majority. A United Nations investigation blamed the Tatmadaw for orchestrating the killings of thousands of Rohingya civilians, as well as a campaign of forced disappearances, mass gang rape and the incineration of hundreds of villages – as pictured below, courtesy of Voice of America.

© WikiMedia (Zlatica Hoke (VOA))

Although allegations of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other human rights violations primarily target the Tatmadaw, Aung San Suu Kyi was broadly seen as having turned a blind eye to the violence as it was happening. The sudden influx of social media during Myanmar’s period of democratization also played a role in ginning up anti-Rohingya sentiment among the broader population, as reported by the BBC.

Among some protesters involved in the protests, the present crisis in Myanmar has led to greater appreciation for human rights and by extension soul searching regarding the Rohingya genocide. In the words of one of JURIST’s staff members who has been protesting on a near daily basis since the coup: “I lived my life freely while the Rohingya people were [suffering from acts of] genocide. I did not even think of asking for their human rights. Now our time has come.”

Another JURIST staffer in the field in Myanmar opined that information blackouts were to blame for the majority’s lack of action with respect to the Rohingya. “The military has prevented information from leaking out of the Rakhine region for the past two years. They want to perpetuate interethnic strife so that they can boost their budgets and keep the people disparate,” she said.

“I’m sorry for the fact that the majority of people in Myanmar have turned a blind eye to the Rohingya matter; we didn’t know what was happening and we weren’t curious enough to find out that these atrocities were happening on our own territory. If it’s not too late, I hope we can join forces to rectify the situation in the Rakhine region,” a JURIST staffer said. “The military is the only villain in our story. We, the people of Myanmar, don’t wish to discriminate against any of our brothers or sisters.”

International responses to the coup: varied and disparate

Since the coup, many foreign governments and intergovernmental bodies have pilloried the Tatmadaw and threatened to impose or double down on sanctions.

In a statement this month, the UN Security Council (UNSC) condemned the violence against peaceful protestors in Myanmar, called for the immediate release of government officials and others who had been arbitrarily detained under the Tatmadaw, and expressed concern over rights restrictions imposed against medical workers, journalists, members of civil society and others. However, the statement fell short of referring to the upheaval in Myanmar as a coup d’état, due reportedly to objections from permanent UNSC members Russia and China, both of whom have lengthy track records of criticizing perceived Western democratization efforts.

Since the start of March, the United States has imposed multiple rounds of sanctions targeting the country’s military leadership and has called on international allies to join its punitive efforts. “The United States calls on the international community to speak with one voice in support of the people of [Myanmar] who, in spite of the brutal violence perpetrated by… security forces, continue to demonstrate courage and determination in their efforts to reject the military coup.  We urge the military to restore the democratically elected government, cease all attacks on peaceful protesters, immediately release all those unjustly detained, and stop attacks on and intimidation of journalists, civil servants, and activists,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a statement.

The European Union has likewise imposed sanctions targeting the Tatmadaw. Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have all also taken punitive action.

The reaction in Asia has been mixed. Japan has expressed “grave concern” over the crisis in Myanmar but has also been criticized by Human Rights Watch (HRW) for its failure to back up its words with meaningful action. South Korea has suspended military ties with Myanmar and is reviewing its development assistance to the country. Other Asian leaders – including those of Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia – have reportedly called for an end to the violence.

In short, for the time being, international solidarity remains elusive.

What the international community should be doing

A JURIST staffer who has been involved with the protest movement since the coup asked poignantly what it would take for the international community to take meaningful action: “We need to win this revolution. If we fail, our lives and future may never be beautiful. Too many people have already sacrificed their lives to this revolution. And so many more have been injured. I would like to ask the international community: how many dead bodies are needed for the United Nations to take action?”

As foreign powers continue to develop their Myanmar coup responses, advocacy groups are imploring governments to think strategically before imposing sanctions to prevent unwanted humanitarian consequences.

The International Crisis Group has urged foreign governments to take care to shield Myanmar’s civilians from economic harm in the process. “Governments that impose sanctions should adopt measures that target coup leaders and insulate Myanmar’s people and broader economy from their effects. Regional governments should consider such steps to protect regional stability. All external actors should cooperate to prevent violence,” the group wrote in a recent report.

© WikiMedia (သူထွန်း)

HRW has echoed the importance of insulating civilians from harm when imposing international sanctions. “Whenever measures are imposed, governments should ensure that they are compatible with international human rights law and tailored to have minimal negative humanitarian impact. In considering the imposition of sanctions, governments should assess their impact on the human rights of the affected population, especially vulnerable or marginalized groups. Of particular concern is their continued access to food, shelter, clothing, water, sanitation, and medical care. Having timely and accurate information about a particular country situation is critical to gauging the effectiveness and appropriateness of sanctions,” the organization wrote.

HRW added that sanctions should be tied to clear benchmarks and should be guided by clearly defined goals rooted in international human rights norms and standards: “Open-ended and overly broad sanctions are more likely to have negative impacts on the humanitarian needs and enjoyment of human rights of the general population.”

We close with a grim request for relief from a JURIST correspondent in Myanmar: “Sometimes I wonder what the United Nations are waiting for. Are they waiting for a certain number of dead bodies to pile up before they’ll take action? If the UN would just tell me what that number is, I would sacrifice myself if it meant they would help our country. That would be easier than continuing to watch our people suffer. To be honest, it seems like [intergovernmental organizations and foreign governments] just want to gather data and file reports about our situation; but reports can’t protect us from bullets.”

*Please note: Due to substantial security concerns, as evidenced by increasing death tolls and mass arrests in Myanmar, we cannot publicly identify our student correspondents at this time. All have been referred to below as JURIST correspondents only. We will revisit this policy as appropriate, pending the security situation in the country. 

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