Lessons from Myanmar

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The flag of the National League for Democracy party flies over protesters taking part in a demonstration against the February 1 military coup in Yangon on Wednesday. AFP

Over the weekend and into this week, thousands upon thousands of people across Myanmar have been denouncing the military coup on February 1 and demanding the release of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The peaceful mass actions, whether in cities or towns in the country of 52 million, are continuing despite the military junta’s earlier shutdown of the internet in an apparent effort to curb protests by monks, students, teachers, civil servants, and health professionals, as well as a fast-growing civil disobedience movement.

The Tatmadaw under Army commander Min Aung Hlaing, who seized power claiming that the November 2020 election was fraudulent, had warned of severe action if the crowds did not disperse – to no avail.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres’ support for the right of Myanmar’s people to protest the return to military rule is clear: “Coups are not acceptable in the modern world and I reject and condemn the coup,” he told Channel News Asia on February 6. “I would strongly recommend the people of Myanmar to express their grievances but to do so in a peaceful way.”

Per reports, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners has documented the detention of more than 130 government officials including Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, Cabinet ministers, and lawmakers, and 14 activists and prodemocracy figures. An Australian adviser to Suu Kyi has been taken in, as well as filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, whose nephew, Kaung Sat Naing, said: “I think they arrested all dissidents who could share the right information to the public.”

Many Filipinos know first-hand the circumstances of their own country’s descent into martial rule in September 1972 – the shutdown of the print and broadcast media, the arrest of opposition figures, the disappearance, torture, and murder of activists and other dissenters. Despite blatant attempts at altering history for the benefit of Ferdinand Marcos’ heirs and their associates, it remains on record that his dictatorship plundered the Philippine economy, mired Filipinos in poverty, and transformed a vibrant regional leader into the “sick man of Asia”.

It took 14 years for Filipinos to dislodge the dictatorship, longer to stamp out its vestiges, including a militarised system that, ever attractive to politicians, gains fresh wind now and again. Myanmar’s people are showing the world that its delicate democratic experiment is too valuable to give up. They are resisting a return to the Tatmadaw’s 49-year dictatorship that ended in the 2011 election swept by Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. And they are up against “a completely unreformed and unreconstructed, authoritarian, brutish institution that has violence and cruelty in its DNA,” as the Yangon-based independent analyst David Mathieson told CNN.

ASEAN, which Myanmar joined in 1997, has a policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of its members – regrettable in a modern world where principled interaction and cooperation among governments can ensure peace, justice, and the wellbeing of peoples. Thankfully, a hopeful note was sounded by the call of Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for current chair Brunei to arrange a special meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers to discuss the military takeover in Myanmar.

The coup, said Muhyiddin, was “one step backward in the process of democracy in that country.” (In the Philippines, a founding member of ASEAN, President Rodrigo Duterte’s mouthpiece could only say that the coup was an “internal matter” with which this country could not interfere.)

The Tatmadaw is said to control the mining of gems, telecommunications, hotels, textiles, even beer breweries. But under Suu Kyi as de facto head of state, Myanmar’s young democracy has not posed a significant threat to the Tatmadaw’s huge business interests. Another egregious contradiction: Suu Kyi has not protested the Tatmadaw’s barbaric offensive in Myanmar’s Rakhine State that pushed close to a million Muslim Rohingya to flee into Bangladesh, where they remain in squalid refugee camps. She has even defended the Tatmadaw from international prosecution for the crime of genocide.

Still Suu Kyi – now charged, incredibly, with illegally importing walkie-talkies – continues to command the support and admiration of Myanmar’s people. They are fighting against the military takeover and for The Lady who did not bend under house arrest of 15 years, and who endured not travelling to England where her British husband lay dying because it meant not being able to return to her motherland.

There are lessons for Filipinos to learn in the Myanmar people’s resistance to military rule. In Freedom House’s stirring words, “The promise of democracy remains real and powerful. Not only defending it but broadening its reach is one of the great causes of our time.”

Editorial/PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK