In the nearly three years that have passed since Myanmar’s coup d’état, the global media has shifted its attention to other crises, from the sudden withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. But despite a lull in headlines, the turmoil that resulted from the coup remains life-altering for the generation of young activists who have been displaced by the shattering of democratic ideals.
Myanmar’s military — the Tatmadaw — staged a coup d’état on February 1, 2021, detaining top government officials, including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The military claimed that the election results were fraudulent, but independent observers have dismissed these claims. The coup has sparked widespread protests and civil disobedience, with many people calling for the release of the detained leaders and the restoration of democracy. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organization dedicated to justice in Myanmar, more than 4,000 people have so far been killed by Myanmar’s military junta since the coup, and upwards of 24,000 have been arrested, charged or sentenced.
For JURIST, coverage of the Myanmar coup is personal. Despite the risks, Myanmar law student correspondents – most of them women – covered the coup for JURIST from its beginning and have kept reporting in its aftermath. In a bid to keep the crisis in the public dialogue, we have conducted a series of interviews with some of the law students and young lawyers whose lives have been affected by Myanmar’s tumult, ranging from law students who fled abroad to save their futures and continue their studies to those who put down their textbooks and went into the jungle to take up arms against the junta as part of the pro-democracy resistance. Their accounts reflect the full range of emotional responses, from despair to anger to hope.
The interviews, which will be published in a series of articles, explore the challenges and opportunities facing young people in Myanmar as they navigate a country in political turmoil. This is the first interview in a seven-part series. Please note that our interviewees’ names have been kept private to protect their security unless otherwise noted.
Would you briefly introduce yourself? What was your life like before the coup?
I am a third-year law student. I am a Myanmar woman in her early 20s. Before the coup, my life was pretty normal; I went to school regularly, joined many club activities, skipped classes sometimes for a little bit of fun, participated in moot court competitions, spent many hours in the library, and thought life would be just a straight-line till after graduation. Before the coup, Myanmar was not a completely democratic country, but it was a country that was able to offer endless possibilities for a young university student like me. At the time, I thought I could easily come up with a 5-year plan or a 10-year plan.
How are you doing now, two and a half years after the coup?
I am surviving. Surviving is sometimes the only way to live in Myanmar. Our daily life is filled with unpredictable political events. It’s hard enough to try to figure out how I’ll keep meals on the table for the next month, let alone making long term plans. Just as grocery prices continue to change overnight, my path toward legal education has been caught up in the storm. If things had gone as planned, I would be preparing to graduate this year and I would probably be planning for my Master’s study abroad.
Being a law student who learned about concepts like the rule of law, justice, and human rights at school, I’m able to recognize the many unlawful and unethical acts the military junta carries out in plain sight; I can even identify specific actions as violations of specific norms of human rights and international law.
In the beginning, I couldn’t see this as anything more than a curse; my heart just ached to witness it. But I have since come to look for opportunities in the darkness; I do everything I can to share news of our plight with the world. I have seen many traumatic things. I’ll never get used to seeing such horrible things. But at some point, I realized that I have a duty amid these historic events. I am no longer just a law student; I have taken on the role of a citizen journalist, and by virtue of my background, I have a legal perspective to share.
As a law student, do you think the international community is showing enough support for the people of Myanmar? What more could they do to help?
Many key actors of the international community have shown support for Myanmar. In my opinion, I think everyone has the capacity to do more than this. Failing to help Myanmar would not be recorded as just a minor event in a third-world country. This would be remembered as a failure of humanity. The whole international community will share this burden and will bear the consequences. Later on, a military coup could become just a mere trend and a genocide case could become just a temporary entertainment on the news. To prevent this collective failure of humanity, the international community needs to come up with more “actions.” Your voices of comfort and official statements have helped, but I respectfully remind you that this coup has been going on for more than two years and has resulted in over 3,000 deaths.
In addition to sanctions, attempts to bring the military juntas to the International Court of Justice, and recognition for the National Unity Government, I would like to make a request. I hope that Myanmar updates are frequently highlighted in the global mainstream media. I hope that Myanmar news is accessible to the international audience in any possible way so that the whole international community stays “curious” about Myanmar, about a random law student from Myanmar, about the Myanmar people who grit every day to prove that truth and justice shall always win. The silence and ignorance of the international audience would strengthen the military juntas. If we think about this in common sense, would abusers think they need to stop committing a crime when nobody is watching them or taking action against them? I would like to tell the international community that Myanmar desperately needs their constant attention. The misery of Myanmar should not be buried among the world’s media trends. This is life-and-death news.
What are your thoughts on the Civil Disobedience Movement as a law student when the military junta is pressuring all university students to go back to classes?
The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) is one of the most powerful counteracts against the military juntas. I made the decision to join the CDM since the beginning of the coup, and I have seen how far this movement has brought us in this revolution. Not only is this a clear message to the juntas that they cannot rule without our cooperation, but it is also a demonstration of individuals’ understanding of how democracy is all about ruling ourselves, not being ruled by a group of juntas.
My stance is that I will never go back to the classrooms run by the professors under military rule. I take the ethical value “Legal profession is a noble profession,” which we learned in our freshman year, very seriously. Even when I went to law classes before the coup, I sought real educational experience through mock trials, moot courts, and internships when I felt that the class lectures at a local university in Myanmar could not offer “a quality education” that met my own standards. I was a law student who tried to be creative with all the resources available. So, for me, a quality education is more than a degree.
However, I also understand the other view that thinks we should all go back to school for a college degree. No matter how talented a person is, an official certificate or diploma is needed in the local work environment. People with language barriers and financial difficulties cannot seek opportunities outside of Myanmar. For various reasons, I have seen my own classmates and close friends go back to school despite their promises at the beginning of the coup. On the other hand, many CDM students would view them as traitors and even discuss setting social punishment after winning this revolution.
Now that the revolution is more than two years old, I see a slight change in the dynamics that individuals have their own limits on the extent of their active participation in politics. Many of the university students who decide to go back to school now, not since the beginning, may not have harmful thoughts against the whole revolution. They will surely have their own situations. They might have made a decision to join the CDM at the very beginning, but we cannot ignore the fact that the military juntas cause difficulties in basic human needs over time. Surrounded by waves of challenges for themselves and for their families, they might not be able to seek the common good but to look after themselves first. As we all know, this is a natural human tendency.
I hope that the university students who go back to school do not cause any significant harm to this revolution, even if they cannot be of great help anymore for the time being. However, I do not think that social punishment for deciding what they think is best for them would be a fair solution. This will forever divide all the legal scholars and professionals in our generation. I hope that they can act upon their own beliefs and together contribute to Myanmar’s legal and political affairs in the future. As long as they are not acting out of fear, I sincerely hope that they act upon their own convictions.
What do you think about the leadership of the National Unity Government as a parallel government of Myanmar?
I think the NUG is making progress over the years. As a citizen who has vested her trust in the government she approves, I understand that the NUG focuses on earning strong recognition through diplomacy on the international horizon and leading the People’s Defense Force in the defensive war against the military juntas. Putting myself in the shoes of political leaders in the NUG, I can sympathize that this is not an easy job overall. Nonetheless, they must listen to the voices of people who call the NUG their government and keep trying everything with endless effort. As a citizen, we do our job which is to keep the NUG in check.
There is something I would specifically like to point out as a law student. Recently, I attended a panel discussion titled “Ending Impunity Through Transitional Justice” held on June 15, 2023. U Thein Oo, the head of the Ministry of Justice, said that the ministry is working on collecting evidence and getting ready to take action after winning the revolution. In response to that, other panelists also discussed how we should come up with mechanisms to take action even before we announce a clear win in this revolution. I agree with the latter view and my main concern here is that the country will be in need of legal scholars and professionals who can execute the goals we are setting right now.
As a law student, I want to demand that the NUG comes up with more actions on:
- How law students can continue their legal education either within or outside the country.
- How they will open doors for Myanmar students who pursue a legal education in different places and wish to contribute in Myanmar in the near future.
- On planting seeds in much younger generations who seek to become legal professionals.
In the era of federal democracy, this revolution shall bring more human resources in the legal field, the merrier.
How do you anticipate the Spring Revolution will end?
I strongly believe we will win. It may take time, but we will win. This is more than intuition. Looking back at what Myanmar has gone through over the decades; we have always been meant to win this revolution.
Do you have any parting words for law students and lawyers across the international community?
If I could get the opportunity to exchange thoughts with law students from different parts of the world, I would like to ask them what kind of legal professional they want to become after graduating from law school.
A very common thought is that many law schools teach us how to read and apply the existing laws. In a simple sense, we obey the laws. However, Myanmar’s experience should serve as a lesson that law students must also learn to challenge the existing laws when it is necessary. Merely knowing the law is not enough anymore. We need to see the intentions behind the formation of each law.
Just in case a law becomes unjust or we have someone sitting above the law, we should be well-prepared with the techniques and stamina to resist unjust laws. I would like to tell fellow law students that it is now our duty to formulate constructive doubts about the existing legal systems, but be hopeful about the better changes we can bring.
I believe that law students should be agents of change. We should use our knowledge of the law to challenge injustice and make the world a better place. We should not be afraid to stand up for what we believe in, even if it means challenging the status quo.
I am hopeful that the next generation of law students will be up to the task. I believe that they have the power to make a real difference in the world.