Notably, the protests have included paralyzing strikes and work stoppages and slowdowns that are still going on despite the military’s use of violence. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the opposition isn’t about to go quietly.
The military in Myanmar (also known as Burma) has a long and gruesome history as a violator of human rights and engaging in mass rape, murder and genocide.
The coup leaders must have thought a bit of brutality and intimidation would be enough to resign people to living under their heel once again. No such thing is happening. “The military f----d with the wrong generation this time,” a young person told me.
But young people, who stood at the forefront of previous uprisings, are not alone in this battle. The protests have brought millions into the streets. A national strike was joined by doctors, bus drivers, oil workers, pizza-makers. The entire country now seems to be flashing the three-finger symbol of the resistance, borrowed from the Hunger Games films.
Even Myanmar’s U.N. ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, brandished the iconic sign at the United Nations, urging the international community to “use any means necessary” to restore democracy. The junta fired him, but his replacement resigned. The United Nations still recognizes him as the legitimate envoy of the elected government, even if many in that government are under arrest.
Pro-democracy activists are achingly aware that it can take decades to undo a coup if it is allowed to stand. They know about the endless years of repression and misery that preceded the 2011 agreement between the military and the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, that started the process of democratization. The generals agreed to allow the revered Suu Kyi — leader of pro-democracy protests in 1988 and daughter of the country’s hero of liberation from the British — to emerge from house arrest after spending 15 of the previous 21 years in confinement.
The coup came after the military’s candidates were trounced in November elections. The generals, with a penchant for miscalculation, were apparently taken by surprise by the loss. (Outside observers have rejected the military’s claims of fraud by the opposition.)
On Feb. 1, they arrested Suu Kyi and other elected officials, dissolved parliament and took power. With that, they brought an end to Myanmar’s incomplete march to democracy.
The military has staged a similar play before. After mass pro-democracy protests in 1988, which it brutally repressed, the generals agreed to elections, held in 1990. Perhaps it expected more favorable results. But when voters overwhelmingly supported Suu Kyi’s NLD, the military apparently caught by surprise, cracked down harder and tightened its grip.
Back then, the democracy movement persisted, and the rest of the world imposed stiff economic sanctions, but the country languished under the military’s boot. It took the resistance and the international community more than 20 years to make the military budge.
Do the protesters have a chance this time?
Anti-coup demonstrators have shown they have the power to cripple the economy. The military has shown it has the power — and the willingness — to kill them.
On Sunday alone, security forces killed an estimated 50 people across the country. The death toll is likely to climb higher.
On Monday, the junta expanded martial law. There’s no sign so far that the generals are preparing to compromise.
And yet, by exerting pressure from within, Myanmar’s citizens are raising the cost of the coup, creating an opportunity for outsiders to exert pressure. Their efforts deserve the world’s support. Many countries, including the United States, have imposed sanctions.
But it is China that holds the greatest sway over the regime. It’s hard to imagine the Chinese dictatorship standing up for democracy. But China wants a stable Myanmar to continue reliably pumping oil and gas into its energy-hungry economy.
When the military seized power, China protected it, calling the coup an internal Myanmar affair and brazenly describing it as a “cabinet shuffle.” Beijing blocked a move to condemn it by the U.N. Security Council. But that started to change when protesters turned furiously against China, accusing Beijing of arming and supporting a murderous junta. Several Chinese factories have been set on fire.
In what may have come as another surprise to the generals, last week China voted in favor of a U.N. Security Council statement demanding a reversal of the coup and “utmost restraint” by the military. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for dialogue so that Myanmar can continue to advance the democratic transition — a surprising exhortation from a regime uprooting democracy in Hong Kong.
Holding power is turning out to be more complicated than the generals likely expected.
When I asked a pro-democracy activist whether he’s optimistic about their chances of success, his answer was chilling, “I’m not optimistic that the military will give up, but I’m optimistic that we will fight to the end.”