“Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views. Oppose those jeopardizing stability of the State and progress of the nation. Oppose foreign nations interfering in international affairs of the State. Crush all internal and external elements as the common enemy.”
—“People’s Desire,” text from government billboards found throughout Myanmar
I remember June 2, 2012, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited Mae Sot, on the Thai-Myanmar border, as one of the best days of my life. It was the kind of day where everything oozes exhilaration and reverie; simple acts like eating breakfast and getting dressed feel ceremonious. On such a monumental day, you carefully curate the comrades you want to be with, choosing those who’ll understand. I remember collecting my best friend, both of us barely able to speak as we walked into a crowd of thousands of other reverberating, nervous-laughing souls. Grinning ear-to-ear together, donning red National League for Democracy (nld) hats, we waited hours for her car to drive by. When it did, we seemed to dissolve with jubilation, clutching at our hearts and the people around us, fists pointed toward the sky and toward children perched on shoulders, children for whom the day meant everything, as we allowed ourselves to believe, for once, that things in Myanmar would get better.
I lived in Mae Sot for four years between 2004 and 2013, working with grassroots education projects. While I was home in Montréal, I organized with the Canadian Friends of Burma (cfob), the Canadian part of the worldwide Burma democracy movement. For over 20 years, cfob campaigned against corrupt companies who did business in Myanmar 1 and lobbied the Canadian government to condemn the military regime and free Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2010, an upheaval of Myanmar’s military government triggered the release of hundreds of political prisoners, most of whom were associated with the nld, including Suu Kyi.[[Larry Jagan, “Prisoners’ Release Key to Future,” Radio Free Asia, October 13, 2011. https://www.rfa.org/english/commentaries/nld-10132011221638.html.]] The notorious “blacklist,” which for years had prevented over 3,000 people from entering the country, was scaled back; this meant that many members of the nld could finally return home to help govern. In recognition of the changes, and in hopes that things might finally get better, people dropped the British colonial “Burma” and reclaimed the country’s name as “Myanmar.” The nld re-registered as a political party, with Suu Kyi as its president. As Free Burma activists began cautiously rejoicing over these nascent reforms in Myanmar and what seemed like hard-won battles for the movement, longstanding tensions in Rakhine State in western Myanmar were escalating, and civil war between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin ethnic armed group resumed in the north of the country. At the same moment I was swooning over Suu Kyi’s visit, I was in the midst of a bitter battle with people I’d been working with for years.
The crisis in Rakhine, which by now has displaced nearly a million Rohingya 2 and caused 10,000 deaths, 3 caused break-ups between activists around the world. As violent events unfolded in Rakhine, cfob became one of many Burma solidarity groups finding themselves split between those who believe the Rohingya should be allowed to stay in Myanmar, and those who do not. Our executive director insisted on social media that there was no ethnic cleansing, and proffered the not uncommon opinion that the Rohingya population were proliferating quickly enough to soon take over Rakhine State. 4 His actions led to a painful conflict between group members, and then to cfob’s swift dissolution. Meanwhile Suu Kyi, previously revered as an emblem of moral leadership who championed demands for peace, justice, human rights and democracy, was widely condemned, mostly by the media and leaders from the Global North, for her refusal to denounce the violence. She has also remained silent on human rights atrocities in other border regions including Shan State and Kachin State, 5 and seems now to be paradoxically complicit with the very regime that imprisoned her.
In the following pages, I trace the Myanmar democracy movement from its inception to its tentative success, summarizing its history since colonialism, its descent into dictatorship, and key revolutionary moments. I intersperse this essay with words from Dr. Naing Aung, one of the country’s long-time activists in exile and a founding member of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (absdf), an armed resistance organisation that was one of the signatories to the 2013 preliminary ceasefire talks. I examine some of the factors, historical and contemporary, that may be hindering the movement for peace and democracy. Struggles in Myanmar deserve our astute attention because they are perched at the razor-sharp confluence of colonialism, predatory capitalism, xenophobia, religious radicalism, and deadly identity politics. They have much to teach about the failures and potential of resistance movements. 6
Paying Attention to the Flip Side
A few years ago Than Shwe, the former leader of Myanmar’s military junta and one of the country’s most murderous dictators, commissioned the creation of a solid jade statue of himself that bears uncanny resemblance to the Buddha. He had it placed in the middle of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the country’s most sacred pagoda. Worshippers touring the holy space do double-takes as they come upon the display: peering through layers of pristine glass, they think they are looking at god only to then realize it’s Than Shwe. This story epitomizes two golden rules of Myanmar: (1) find ways to laugh, or else you’ll just cry; (2) almost everything about this place entails flip sides, double meanings, and hologram-like shifts in perspective. Things change with the viewer’s angle, but both parts are still there, collapsed into one another, becoming a jumbled mess when looked at the wrong way. This timeworn society of hard knocks, tight rules, established histories, and extreme weather belies a softness and flexibility, a youthful potential and openness to change, like an ancient temple coated in fresh cement. The ruins are either wrecked or rejuvenated, depending on your attitude.
From one perspective, the 53-million person nation is isolated, impoverished, shrouded in obscurity, and pressure-cooked under a dictatorial regime second only to North Korea in its peculiarity. A closer look, however, reveals Myanmar to be a place of abundance. It has the second largest landmass in Southeast Asia, and contains some of the most diverse wildlife and oldest forests in the world. Once called the rice basket of Asia, it is extremely fertile. In other words, it is exremely fertile and resource-rich, attractive to extractive industries seeking gas, gems, and minerals. Myanmar is ethnically diverse and includes groups such as the Shan, Kachin, Kayah (or Karenni), Kayin (Karen), Chin, Mon, and Rakhine (Arakanese), all of whom have distinct languages, histories and cultures. These groups have sometimes been in conflict with one another, making it difficult to simply characterize the situation as a civil war between the centralized government and the insurgent governments of dissenting ethnic (Indigenous) groups. The country might be understood as a chaotic chorus of diverse interests, or put another way, diverse peoples whose interests often converge. Thus Myanmar, with its longstanding activist movement (as diverse as Myanmar’s population), represents perhaps one of the greatest challenges to modern representational democracies on the planet. On the flip side, this moment of rupture with its former dictatorial model may be an opportunity for doing democracy differently, perhaps in a way that might truly respect the sovereignty of its minorities, present since long before Myanmar became a nation-state.
Nineteenth Century to 1988
Until British colonization, Myanmar was a self-sufficient agrarian society with shifting empires and alliances, and distinct cultural groups living in relative independence. After the central Burman empire lost a war to the English in 1824 (incidentally British India’s lengthiest, priciest war), Burma was annexed as a province of India and forced into the colonial trade system. Britain transformed the administration of the country, and sequestered those living at the frontiers, highlighting differences between ethnic groups. 7 The British army established militaries with some of these groups, including the Chin, Kachin, Kayin, and others. By 1935, Burma had become its own separate colony, and the majority Buddhist Bamar population was increasingly unhappy with British rule. During the Second World War, Japan occupied Burma. Believing that Japan would give the country independence from the British, the Bamars were at first conducive to the occupation. Meanwhile, the British sent troops to train the Kachin and Kayin in guerrilla warfare, exacerbating tensions between these states and the central population. The Japanese army brutalized people across Myanmar, leaving in their wake devastating intergenerational traumas. 8
In 1947, General Aung San, father of Suu Kyi, formed a parliament comprising leaders of the region’s major ethnic groups in the hopes of forming a peaceful national union. Months before Burmese independence, Aung San was assassinated along with six of his cabinet ministers. Bitter infighting between would-be leaders ensued, ending with a coup by General Ne Win in 1962. 9 This began a long period of gradual isolation of Myanmar from the rest of the world, as Ne Win pursued autarky through a plan called “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” which brought almost everything under government control and impoverished the country. Ne Win was a violent and superstitious dictator. In 1987, he sought an astrologer’s guidance on how to alleviate the national debt, and followed advice to devalue all Burmese currency that was not divisible by the number nine. In one fell swoop, the government cancelled every cash note that wasn’t either 45 or 90. By 1988, this wiped out the country’s savings which led to a massive uprising. The first day of protests began on August 8. Suu Kyi, who had just returned to care for her mother, made speeches to thousands of people and called for democracy. One cannot overemphasize the importance of what is now known as 8-8-88, which marked the beginning of the movement for democracy. When asking any veteran Myanmar activist how they started out, as I did with Dr. Naing Aung, they inevitably begin by telling their 1988 story.
Dr. Naing Aung: At that time, I had just graduated from medical school. We youth and students, we had this authoritative regime throughout our life, and we finally saw how bleak things were. The student movement grew, and we started fighting to have more freedom for our future. We saw a great sea of people protesting on the street, everyone was coming out making demands, demanding an ousting of the regime, and of Ne Win… it all gets into your blood. You’re flying in the sky when you see that, you have a lot of energy, a lot of hope… that energy of the moment when we all decided together that we need this movement, that we are going to do everything we need to do to make this change.
8-8-88 and its Aftermath
During four months of nonviolent protests, 3,000 people were killed. Key organizers and nld members were sent to prison, where they would remain for the next two decades. By the end of 1989, 6,000 people had been arrested, 10,000 people had gone into hiding, and an estimated 10,000 were killed. 10 At the height of the protests, Ne Win resigned, and his successor, General Saw Maung, established the State Law and Order Restoration Council (slorc), which imposed full-blown martial law in the country and changed the name from Burma to Myanmar. In 1990, Suu Kyi ran for presidential office with the National League for Democracy. After winning in a landslide, she was placed under house arrest by the slorc and confined to her family home in downtown Yangon. In the early 1990s, the military junta doubled its troops. Army offences in ethnic areas resulted in mass internal and external displacements along the borders with Thailand, China, and India.
In 1997, the regime changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (spdc), established by Than Shwe, who did no work for peace or development whatsoever. If these long-winded names for government feel uncannily Orwellian, it is because George Orwell spent formative years living in Burma while it was under British rule. The worlds he created in Animal Farm and 1984, books that have been banned in Myanmar for years, would bear eerie verisimilitudes to Myanmar decades later, begging the question whether Orwell envisioned, long before, what colonialism might leave in its wake. 11
The 1990s saw a proliferation of civil rights activism. Dr. Naing Aung described how groups of internally and externally displaced activists fled to the border zones and began the Burma democracy movement.
Dr. Naing Aung: We had so much hardship and so many problems, but managed to form the absdf. We had branches in all the ethnic areas, were making our own decisions, and the leadership was our own. So we were kind of liberated, we felt that sense of liberation in our hands, and realized we could form a movement. We started to teach and learn with many different groups, and formed a lot of civil society groups on different topics: women’s issues, workers’ rights, migrant worker issues, and human rights defender issues. Then we talked with international donors and international non-governmental organizations (ingos), who were present along the border, and started to look at how these issues should be brought into Burma. Most of the leaders inside Burma were in jail at that time. We were pushing for the cross-border movement. Then the international Burmese solidarity movement formed networks, lobbied their governments, and encouraged support for political prisoners. Combined with the strong civil society movement formed along the border, we united by pushing for regime change.
The Free Burma movement was thus formed as a transnational effort comprised of exiled activists, politicians, and allies stationed abroad, along Myanmar’s borders, or as part of clandestine networks within it. While groups at the borders worked hard on training, creating reporting networks, and preparing civil society for the moment the dictatorship fell, international solidarity organizations worked to raise global attention and influence foreign policy. These groups rallied around Suu Kyi’s nld and pushed for international sanctions on the regime, the release of political prisoners, and an end to civil war in ethnic areas. While they were successful in having the eu, Australia, Canada, and the us impose sanctions, they struggled with an overall lack of international public awareness about Myanmar, and with the influence of China and Russia, which consistently blocked motions to put Myanmar on the un Security Council’s watchlist. China, North and South Korea, and Russia never placed sanctions on Myanmar; they have been continuously supporting the military’s business conglomerates, which still control massive parts of the economy. 12
A “Disciplined Democracy”
In 2003, the military drafted a “Road Map to Democracy”—what they called a “disciplined democracy” with a seven-step plan, the first of which was to ratify a national constitution. This plan, however, kept the military in control of key cabinet posts, granting it 25 percent of the seats in parliament and the ability to suspend democratic freedoms at any time. Critics dismissed the plan as a sham. This view was later affirmed, given that the junta took several years to implement the plan.
In 2007, Buddhist monks—a powerful force in Myanmar—made the unprecedented move of beginning nonviolent protests in what was called “the Saffron Revolution.” The advent of social media, combined with the diligent work of local journalists working to get information out to the international press, meant activists had greater success in raising awareness about Myanmar. Images of monks marching barefoot with their alms bowls turned defiantly upside down, and later images of authorities shooting at and beating them, swept the world. Myanmar finally captured the imagination of millions, allowing activist groups to mobilize the general public around the long-endured suffering of Myanmar’s population. This shamed some of Myanmar’s cronies, while the US government froze the bank accounts of several generals and powerful businessmen. That year, the military finally followed through on the first promise in their seven-step plan, and drafted a new constitution.
In 2008, the constitution was ratified, “voted upon” by an alleged 22 million people (in the middle of Cyclone Nargis), and printed en masse for the public. The charter guaranteed multi-party elections in 2010, ostensibly ending official military rule. However, it also retained 25 percent of military chairs in parliament, foreclosing the ability of ethnic leaders to gain more autonomy. In this way, the military made an impression of designing the transition and enacting the sweeping reforms that lifted press restrictions and freed Suu Kyi and hundreds of others. In one sense, they have been willing actors in the changes. In another, their thirst for domination and disregard for life in Myanmar did not change. They continued to implement their “Road Map to Democracy,” holding elections in 2010 from which the nld was excluded. After working to meet election criteria, the nld became the official opposition in 2012. Countries in the Global North, chomping at the bit for new business opportunities, dropped sanctions. Along with new capital interests, this meant a huge influx of ingos creating offices inside Myanmar and withdrawing the offices around the border regions. In the 2015 elections, the nld won a majority and appointed Suu Kyi as state counsellor.
Today, there are an estimated 650,000 internally displaced persons within Myanmar. There are 200,000 official refugees living in border zones, and half a million newly displace Rohingya refugees. There are also at least six million Myanmar migrant workers outside the country living with precarious status. Refugees and migrants in border zones have endured severe cuts to aid. 13 Violence persists throughout the country. The press, while less restricted, continues to be policed. Several people have recently been jailed or prosecuted over their Facebook posts, and journalists across Myanmar have stated that threats to press freedoms are getting worse. 14 At least 90 political prisoners still languish in prisons. 15
The ongoing human rights abuses across Myanmar are at once an effect of a military that continues to hold firmly to its power, and a governing party that is in the shadow of that power, while also pandering to its majority Buddhist-Bamar base. The tragedy of Suu Kyi is that after 20 years of moral leadership, after publishing books like Freedom From Fear, she has followed the all-too common path of leaders who cater to their perceived base, no matter the cost.
Dr. Naing Aung believes part of the problem is that the nld is not consulting with oppositional political parties, civil society organizations, ethnic groups, and international solidarity organizations. This may be in part because many nld leaders spent decades in prison, and were unable to build relationships and organize with Free Burma groups outside the country. Thus, when human rights abuses occur, leaders often concede to political pressure rather than take a stand. Yet, Dr. Naing Aung insists all hope is not lost, and provides examples of ongoing tangible moves toward change.
Dr. Naing Aung: We should continue to mobilize the rights-based civil society movement. We should be pushing for the minimum wage, freedom of expression, civil, political and cultural rights, and the big environmental issues. We are pushing for the reform of local administrative laws, the ones that allow local people to elect their local administrative leaders, or village heads. Currently there is one vote for each household. Now we are talking about changing this so everyone over 18 can vote. If that happens, local leaders will need to come and listen to everyone in the community, instead of just their superior officer who is appointed by the Interior Ministry. So at that local level, we would like to make a local administrator face back to the Ministry. Eventually we want Townships Administrators elected so that local development projects can be screened by local community.
Despite the challenges, the Myanmar solidarity movement remains strong and strategic. Groups like the Alternative asean Network on Burma (altsean-Burma), a network of activists, scholars and international workers, learn from the situation in Myanmar to promote democracy and human rights throughout Southeast Asia. ALTSEAN-Burma brings together activists from all over the region so that they can learn from one another and share strategies. The network also places emphasis on women’s leadership. While the Rohingya crisis has presented significant interpersonal challenges, activists have not faltered in their work. After decades of activism, the movement is resilient to challenges. That the reforms and freedom of a leader has not brought the changes we hoped, and that they happened in tandem with one of the greatest human rights crises the world, there are lessons to be learned about the intertwined roles of colonialism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, economic land-grab policies, and the failures of ingos to alleviate crises.
The global practice of seizing lands from powerless communities has increased exponentially over the past 20 years, resulting in what political economist Saskia Sassen terms “expulsions”: the mass dispossession and/or death of both human and non-human beings as a result of what is called “development” or capital growth.[[ Saskia Sassen, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Boston: Harvard up, 2014); “Is Rohingya Persecution Caused by Business Interests Rather than Religion?,” The Guardian, January 4, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2017/jan/04/is-rohingya-persecution-caused-by-business-interests-rather-than-religion.
]] Notions of disposability and dispossession follow capitalist logics used by governments and the businesses they indulge. In many parts of Myanmar, extractive and agri-businesses are coercing or forcing people to leave their homes and abandon traditional livelihoods. Land dispossession has been ongoing for communities across Rakhine for years, as Chinese, South Korean, Australian, and Saudi Arabian firms have partnered on oil extraction projects there. The slow ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya is the result of land exploitation combined with decades of xenophobic administrative policies, including their exclusion from the list of official ethnic groups under the 1982 citizenship law. 16 Racism and anti-Blackness also play a role, as the Rohingya are among the darkest-skinned of Myanmar’s ethnic groups. 17 Violence towards them also emerges in response to geopolitical forces. The violent Buddhist 969 movement, 18 led by radical monk Wriwathu, began in reaction to the increased presence and fear of radical Islamist groups worldwide. 19 This fear of radicalism works reflexively to satisfy government agendas that rely on pervasive and transnational anti-Muslim sentiment.
In a recent essay for Jacobin, Azeezah Kanji and David Palumbo-Liu read the mass murder and displacement of the Rohingya along with that of the Kashmiris and Palestinians, arguing that these examples of state violence and dispossession are enacted by leaders who explicitly learn from and refer to one another’s models. Kanji and Palumbo-Liu trace the way that India, Israel, and Myanmar have used the media and educational propaganda to shape rhetorics that frame land and resource theft as necessary in the “War on Terror.” Refugees have “become terrorists, abusive states become heroic counterterrorism warriors, and the most wretched of the earth are framed as the perpetrators of illegitimate violence rather than the primary victims.” 20 Kanji and Palumbo-Liu insist that activists consider the intertwined ways the War on Terror works globally to support apartheid, genocide and colonialism. Activist movements must work together to expose how state violence works to shape victims into threats to the nation-state, thus excusing the nation-state’s complicity in their harm.
Aid, as a potential enabler of oppressive capitalist projects, requires attention. A scathing independent report finds that the un and ingos did nothing to stop the mounting system of apartheid between the Rohingya and Rakhine populations. 21 ingos have played a role in Myanmar for decades, and are currently expanding their work. Thus, deep critiques of their capacity to effect positive changes are needed.
ingos are direct descendants of the pejorative and white supremacist mission work model. Critics argue that coordination between organizations is often chaotic and unclear, hindering their effectiveness, 22 and that ingos and non-profits fail to effect authentic social change, stymy social movements, create class stratification by nurturing categories of “professionals” among communities they are embedded in, and follow neoliberal logics. 23 The drive for organizational funding is “the paradox at the heart of the field” of the ingo industry 24 : “the fact that global inequality, which humanitarianism seeks to alleviate, is simultaneously its very condition of possibility” 25 leads to a self-perpetuating loop in which ingos have little incentive to solve the problems that caused them to exist. Because they are situated within economies of scarcity in which they compete for funding, ingos prioritize compliance with Western demands over real needs in the Global South, 26 imitate market logics, and promote depoliticized managerialism and competiveness. 27 These are the results of how people in the international development field are trained: Development Studies programs across universities avoid critical analyses of political economy, focusing on micro-economics rather than global structural change. 28
Long-time researcher and Burma expert David Mathieson has decried Myanmar’s exclusion from conflict studies departments across the world, leaving a gap in expertise and analysis on the conflicts and the peace process. 29 Because of this, Mathieson argues that international solidarity work around peace in Myanmar has been largely left to international aid groups and donors, whose short-term view and donation cycles deflect from the space, time, and depth required to properly assist with conflict resolution. Deeper and more detailed critiques of ingos in Myanmar, and how they often support and enable corrupt governments are necessary.
Without deep critiques of liberalism and capitalism, those decrying Suu Kyi’s leadership will always miss the point. Suu Kyi teaches us that placing faith in one person’s leadership is a flawed, liberal strategy. As Soe Lin Aung notes, Suu Kyi is doing her job and therefore, anti-capitalist politics, paired with critiques of narrow understandings of ethnicity and identity, are sorely needed. 30 Liberal economic frameworks that critique leaders while avoiding analyses of the economic complicity of the Global North are part of the problem. Narratives that continue to position Canadians, Americans, Western Europeans, and Australians as more orderly and civilized, while our governments greenlight trade deals, weapons manufacturing, and environmental destruction that resonate globally, distracts us from our involvement with violence abroad. Naming settler colonialism as it continues to occur in multi-tentacled forms is imperative. Without doing so, we will continue to treat the symptoms, not the root causes of dispossession and displacement of vulnerable communities around the world.
I began this essay with a suggestion that we should seek different perspectives when learning about Myanmar’s issues, and that we should practice an ethic of questioning our assumptions. Scholars, humanitarians, and activists often arrive with colonial baggage and approach Myanmar as a problem to be solved. What’s required is an approach that is more open to listening, learning from, and working with the wisdom and critique of local communities.
Ethnic groups across Myanmar, whose lands are desired and threatened by corporate interests, are often characterized by ingos, scholars, and the media as isolated victims. Perhaps this isolation is by design, what anarchist and subaltern-political scholar James C. Scott calls, “the art of not being governed.” 31 Ethnic groups living along Myanmar’s borders have long maintained their desire for sovereignty, and have held onto their territories, belief systems, and languages through tactics ranging from limited engagement with the central government, to purposeful retreat from it. They have moved further into mountain ranges and remote regions not out of fear or instinct, but as a calculated political tactic to maintain their autonomy, and to refuse encroaching colonial powers and their attendant forced nation-state formations. 32 This perspective opens the way to a deeper understanding of the rich and sophisticated theoretical landscape of nationhood and insurgency in Myanmar. International scholars and activists alike should turn from colonial frameworks of aid and crisis to Indigenous politics of resistance, resurgence, and decolonization. This requires that solidarity activists around the world, as well as the Myanmar activists who call on them, begin unlearning the Eurocentric development framework, and instead, begin to read Indigenous theory, and study movements that work for local people. In the case of Myanmar, they are abundant. 33 •