The Burman majority is finally understanding the abuse ethnic minorities have long been experiencing at the hands of the military.
The Myanmar people’s struggle against dictatorship has undergone a long journey since the February 1 military coup in the country. As an activist who has been fighting against fascism and standing for peace and the rights of oppressed minorities for 10 years, I believe we are now in a better place than ever before to come together as a nation to resist ethnic nationalism, destructive political polarisation and the military’s attempts to scare us into submission.
My own views on what an anti-fascist revolution in Myanmar could and should look like have also changed in the eight months since the coup.
During the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy’s (NLD) five-year rule between 2015-20, I devoted much of my activism to speaking out against their abandonment of democratic and human rights standards and failure to promote peace in areas of the country populated by ethnic nationalities, where conflict between ethnic armed organisations and the military has been ongoing for more than seven decades. I even boycotted the November 2020 general election, which delivered the NLD a second sweeping victory.
So when the coup happened, I initially was not sure where I should stand. While I was disturbed and angered by the military’s power grab, I did not want to put my support behind the NLD, ignoring its past treatment of minority communities, political opponents and activists. But I ultimately decided that the coup is more than a political dispute between the NLD and the military – it represents the forceful suppression of the people’s will, and should be resisted.
I demonstrated from February 6, the day anti-coup protests began in Yangon, through the second week of March, when the junta added my name to its arrest warrant list for “sedition” and raided my house and office. My family and I narrowly escaped. Knowing that our lives were in danger, my wife and children fled the country, and I took shelter in the territory of an ethnic armed organisation.
Having been sued twice during the NLD’s term in power for supporting ethnic struggles for self-determination and rights, I believed that I understood the perspectives of oppressed minorities in my country.
But staying in their villages, where I listened to people’s stories and learned about their daily realities and struggles, I realised how superficial my understanding of ethnic issues in Myanmar had been.
Although I had a conceptual awareness of what it is like to live as a small-scale farmer in an area affected by civil war – where children commonly walk for hours to get to school, and it can take days to walk to the nearest clinic – it was very different to witness first-hand the toll of war on communities.
Since the coup, fighting between the military and armed resistance groups across the country has displaced at least 230,000 civilians, many of whom fled military air strikes and heavy-weapon attacks. I have passed close to clashes and seen the remnants of landmine explosions. I have also visited displacement camps where people are struggling to meet their basic needs.
But none of this is new for ethnic minority communities in Myanmar. Indeed, Burmese soldiers have been tormenting these communities for decades – looting and burning their villages, conducting arbitrary arrests and committing acts of sexual violence against them. My hosts told me that they rarely build strong houses, because they know that they may need to flee at any time.
Despite standing with oppressed ethnic minorities in my country for over a decade, I only realised the depth of their suffering, and more clearly understood why so many of them see armed resistance as their only option, after this experience.
As my own perspective has shifted, so, too, has the direction of the national protest movement.
In mainland cities where most people are from the ethnic Burman majority, protesters had initially focused on freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and elected officials, pressuring the military into accepting the results of the election, and convening parliament.
But as the military began terrorising people in urban areas, it opened people’s eyes to the rights abuses other ethnic groups have long been facing. As a result, protesters started broadening their ambitions.
Many from the Burman majority began apologising for their prior ignorance or denial of the military’s atrocities against non-Burman ethnic people, including the Rohingya, and calling for justice.
As ethnic armed organisations took a leading role in protecting fleeing dissidents and fighting against the regime, urban youth began trying to learn about ethnic political struggles too.
By the end of March, the leading protest groups were demanding an overhaul of the military-drafted constitution and the establishment of a federal democracy, in line with the calls ethnic nationalities have been making since long before the coup.
With few alternatives, the people have also started to increasingly see armed resistance as the only way to overthrow the junta, and have joined forces with ethnic armed organisations and formed new civilian defence forces and urban guerrilla movements.
On May 5, the National Unity Government (NUG), a body of elected lawmakers, activists and members of civil society in exile who are operating a government in opposition to the junta, announced that it had established a People’s Defence Force (PDF) as a precursor to a federal army, bringing armed resistance groups under a central command.
And on September 7, the NUG declared a nationwide “people’s defensive war” against the military junta, calling on all citizens across the country to join in a “necessary revolution for building a peaceful country and establishing a federal union.”
Now, we face a critical juncture in our revolutionary journey, and I worry that the people’s strength and unity may diminish if we cannot continue to build trust and maintain communication between the predominantly Burman resistance groups and ethnic nationalities.
For the revolution to succeed, we must continue our efforts to come together over a shared vision that benefits not only the Burman majority, but also promotes the self-determination and rights of other ethnic people within the country.
The NUG must do its utmost to engage with the country’s diverse ethnic communities and place non-Burmans in leading roles, and its PDF must join forces with ethnic armed organisations and sincerely commit to their political objectives.
It is also imperative that the NUG initiate a national apology process for the atrocities and inhumane treatment committed by successive governments towards minorities, including the Rohingya.
The majority must create an inclusive platform and collaborate with all ethnic people to build together a new federal democracy based on freedom, justice and equality.
By: Thet Swe Win