Myanmar Coup Interview Series: ‘I will fight for this revolution for as long as it takes’ Features
Myanmar Coup Interview Series: ‘I will fight for this revolution for as long as it takes’

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.

Since late October of this year, violence has intensified between the Tatmadaw’s forces and resistance fighters from the People’s Defense Forces (PDF), leading to the displacement of more than half a million people (adding to the more than two million who have already been displaced). Among those in the armed resistance is a former law student, whose unlikely journey into the military began with wary optimism in the Tatmadaw, which quickly deteriorated with a stint in jail (along with her four-year-old sister). We spoke to this young fighter for the final part of our seven-part series.

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 have been published in a series of articles, have explored the challenges and opportunities facing young people in Myanmar as they navigate a country in political turmoil. This is the seventh and final interview in the series. Links to all can be found below. Please note that our interviewees’ names have been kept private to protect their security unless otherwise noted.

Interview 1: ‘Surviving is sometimes the only way to live in Myanmar’ 

Interview 2: ‘I truly believe our lives will be brighter after the revolution’ 

Interview 3: ‘The coup has made me both tougher and more compassionate’

Interview 4: ‘The fact is, I cannot bear to live under oppression’

Interview 5: ‘We will win. We will restore democracy’

Interview 6: ‘We must not overlook the ripple effect of coups happening globally’

Interview 7: ‘I will fight for this revolution for as long as it takes’

Tell us a bit about your life as a law student in Myanmar before the coup.

Before the coup, or put another way, before the junta wreaked havoc on our future, I was just another law student in Myanmar. My path to law was a bit circuitous. As a child during a period of democratization, when I would play make-believe with my friends, I would always pretend to be a judge. I was fascinated with them, and with the broader field of law. But as time went by, I became a bit disillusioned, thinking that judges were essentially just paper pushers. At that point, I began to lean toward wanting a career in international relations. Then came the time for me to take my university entrance exams. I aced them all, but earned distinctions in three subjects that couldn’t be much further from the law or from international relations — math, chemistry, and physics. Ultimately, through a lot of soul searching, consultations with my parents, teachers, and other elders in the community, and the nuances of Myanmar’s exam placement process, I ended up pursuing law.

While this all might sound a bit happenstance, I can say confidently that my interest in law has been a constant since childhood — since the days of pretending to be a judge. Throughout my university journey, I actively engaged in my studies and participated in the Mandalay University Law Students’ Association (MULSA) and various class activities until the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which proved to be a huge turning point for us all.

How did you learn that the coup had taken place? What were your thoughts when you first heard the news? 

When news of the coup first came out, I didn’t realize that the junta intended to turn our country into a battlefield. Initially, I assumed it was a temporary military takeover — one that, as they initially claimed — would last only as long as it took to secure a sound transfer of power. Back then, I believed that the military had decent intentions. I agreed that there was probably some voter fraud in our 2020 election; it would be hard to believe otherwise. I’ve always been an enthusiastic reader, largely because I like to consider a broad range of perspectives, and where possible, not assume that any one actor or side to a conflict is fully correct or incorrect. Accordingly, I figured perhaps the military had a valid reason for launching its coup, and I took a wait-and-see approach. While I didn’t initially have a strong interest in the coup, my focus shifted as the junta’s actions unfolded. I began contemplating their intentions and objectives. Despite not actively participating in the elections or expressing much interest in our country before the coup, my reading on political and legal matters allowed me to view issues, including the coup, from multiple perspectives.

In February 2021, as the coup intensified, my initial confidence in the military faded. I began to participate in various types of remote resistance activities and provided support to members of the opposition by helping them secure food and accommodations while in hiding. I also began to use my legal knowledge to try to help secure the release of people who had been unjustly detained. I sought help from lawyers in my hometown, but none could assist me at the time, leading me to try to resolve the matter alone. It was particularly tough because I had such limited information about where the military had detained our people.

By March, the junta had begun to respond to our protests with real bullets and tear gas bombs, prompting me to realize that peaceful protest alone would not be sufficient to reclaim our country. In late March, recognizing the limitations of peaceful efforts, I attempted to establish contact with an ethnic armed organization, which my brothers and I were considering joining. But ultimately our recruitment efforts fell through, and I continued at that point to support the opposition however I could, while also managing my family’s business obligations.

What happened to your family, and to you, afterward?

My father was a politician before the coup, and after the junta took control, they quickly issued a warrant for his arrest. He had to go into hiding, so I dedicated myself at that point to supporting my family financially, physically, and mentally. For business reasons, my older brother wasn’t around much at that point, and for security reasons, my younger brother had also gone to live elsewhere, so at that point, it was just my mother, my four-year-old sister, and I at home.

Then, on June 16, 2021, heavily armed police stormed our house, arresting all three of us — and yes, that includes my four-year-old sister. We were all locked up in jail.

What was life like for you in jail? How long were you held?

Honestly, every minute in prison felt like hell, but I didn’t shed a single tear, because I knew I needed to be strong for my mother and my little sister. During those days, my mother’s anger towards the police was palpable, and my sister, being so young, couldn’t comprehend the situation. So I put on a brave face. I felt that revealing any vulnerability in the prison environment, particularly in front of my mother and sister, would have altered our circumstances.

After 15 days of detention, the police released my little sister, but my mom and I remained, and ultimately were charged under section 505(A) of the Myanmar Penal Code [ed: per Human Rights Watch, this section was added in post-coup Myanmar to criminalize the “causing of fear,” the spread of “false news, [or] the direct of indirect provocation of a criminal offense against a Government employee.”] The police interrogations were brutal. My mom and I were separated, and the local police chief accused each of us of undermining the government, and tried to poison us against my father. He threatened me, saying I would regret it if I continued to participate in the resistance. Despite my fear, his aggression, and the fact that he was armed, I looked him dead in the face and said: “I will fight for this revolution for as long as the dictators persist and the junta deprives us of our freedom.” At that, he struck me in the head and ordered his staffers to return me to my cell. Soon thereafter, I got sick with COVID-19, at which point i was transferred to an old, dilapidated section of the prison, where sometimes I went days without food.

Once trial started, it took less than a month for the judge to conclude we should face the strictest possible sentence under the penal code — three years. Even given my limited trial experience, it was abundantly clear this was a sham trial. We had no right to a self defense, and we benefited from no transparency into the process.

We began to serve out our sentences in the central prison in Mandalay, but then after just about four months, we were freed in an amnesty.

What has your life been like since your release?

No sooner were we released from prison than did the police begin re-arresting people who had just been freed under the same amnesty. We all went into hiding. My older brother was caught and has since been imprisoned for seven years, ostensibly for acts of violence, while the rest of us remain scattered.

Throughout my time in prison, I kept telling my fellow inmates that I would join the People’s Defense Force [PDF] upon my release, and I have stayed true to my word. I joined the PDF about a month after my release. My parents urged me to go abroad with my sister, but I am committed to fighting the military and retaking our country.

Why did you join the People’s Defense Force? 

Put simply, I wanted to. I’ve always been drawn to adventure and I believed I had what it took to be a good fighter and support the revolution. Initially, I wasn’t even thinking in terms of a willingness to sacrifice my life for my country — to fight for our freedom. At first, I was driven simply to do what I wanted to do.

What was the transition like for you as a law student? 

As a law student, my education centered on legal codes and interpretations, on case studies and exam prep. My life is totally different now. I now focus on adhering to strict military codes, working toward the goal of ultimately serving as a future soldier of the federal army of Burma. Adapting to military discipline was initially challenging; saluting commanders and obeying commands seemed so foreign to me. But I came to understand the importance of discipline during our basic military training. Once completed, we were prepared for the battlefield, but unfortunately, in my opinion, we were not sent into battle. Instead, I was assigned to the strategic department of the military intelligence agency.

In this position, I conducted a lot of research to assist in preparing strategic plans for our armed forces. This was really the only tie-in with my legal studies.

After six months in this role, I relocated to join a unit up north. For the security of our revolution, I can’t speak my duties in detail for now, though I can say that they are in support of the National Unity Government (NUG).

What are your thoughts on the National Unity Government? Are their leaders doing a good job?

There’s no doubt that the National Unity Government (NUG) is making significant progress, bringing about substantial changes for the Spring Revolution in Myanmar. Sure, certain necessities are lacking; more resources would make it easier to resist the junta. But we don’t have the luxury of time to dwell on the drawbacks of our government. While we have a responsibility to critique our government in various ways, our collective focus should be on reclaiming our country from the junta’s grasp through a balanced and coordinated effort.

How do you balance your identities as a PDF soldier and as a law student?

We all became involved in Myanmar’s Spring Revolution with a certain set of skills that we acquired from our educational and professional backgrounds. But during basic military training, we must shed our outer shells — our degrees, our wealth. We didn’t become soldiers out of sheer enthusiasm; being a soldier isn’t our passion. We enlisted in response to our country’s needs. As a PDF soldier, I strictly follow commands from my superiors and fulfill obligations without complaint. On the flip side, as a law student, I consistently consider our rights and responsibilities in the context of human rights. Balancing the life of a soldier and a law student, I’ve tried to find equilibrium.

What do you plan to do after the revolution? 

I never imagined ending my education the way it has unfolded until now. Nevertheless, I still harbor the intention and aspiration to pursue further legal education, specializing as a lawyer in international criminal law. Who’s to say that I won’t bring the junta to the international criminal court, armed with the data we’ve collected, serving as a prosecutor for international criminal justice and genocide?

Do you have any message for other law students around the world?

There’s a well-known saying, “No one is above the law.” But just look at Myanmar; there are so many people who are fully above the law. It’s critical to go deeper when considering that phrase. You have to consider the lawmakers, the systems of government — the human factor at play in crafting, executing, and upholding the law. My message to law students around the world is that if we genuinely want to breathe truth into the words “No one above the law,” we must begin by focusing on the morality of individuals within the legal and policymaking profession.