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Trigger Warning

Nina Davies explores how a violent military take-over in Myanmar triggered large-scale economic protest and community unrest.

A little over a year ago, dreams of democracy in Myanmar shattered as a military coup d’état began to unfold. In a move reminiscent of developments in Thailand in 2014, the Tatmadaw—the national military of Myanmar—seized power from the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD), arrested party members and declared a state of emergency.

Since then, in its effort to impose ‘disciplined democracy,’ the Tatmadaw has done what decades of ethnic conflict could not: united the country against itself. The junta has adopted an aggressive counterinsurgency policy to maintain control, which involves terrorising villages with deadly violence and mass arrests. According to the Assistance for Political Prisoners, a non-profit human rights organisation based in the region, over 1,500 deaths and 12,000 civilian arrests have occurred since the Tatmadaw took control. The extensive brutality has led an estimated 400,000 people to flee Myanmar.

Tit-for-Coup d’tat 

Despite violent crackdowns, much of Myanmar has refused to be intimidated. Younger generations have been particularly resolute in their defiance of the junta, and resistance movements opposing the Tatmadaw have gathered momentum. One such movement is the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a concerted effort by workers in Myanmar to shut down the national economy to pressure the Tatmadaw. The CDM has attempted to translate economic influence into political power by encouraging workers to disrupt sectors of all kinds; retailers, trading houses, railways, dockyards and even schools have been affected by strikes organised by the CDM.

Most subversive perhaps were strikes organised by hospital staff, who were among the first to take to the streets in protest of the coup. Many healthcare workers remember the neglect faced by their sector during the previous period of military rule, during which they were allocated one of the lowest national healthcare budgets. The initial “white coat revolution” involved close to 70% of all staff at state-run hospitals going on strike. The National Unity Government (NUG), a government in exile founded by ethnic minorities, young people, and former NLD lawyers, reports that close to 400,000 civil servants have resigned—a purportedly inflated statistic that nevertheless represents the scale of disruption inspired by the CDM. Some 2,000 soldiers and police have also sided with the CDM.

These counter-movements have not gone unpunished. The Tatmadaw has raided homes, sought arrests, and interrogated workers. Many striking workers have had to flee their homes and now live in exile, where they rely on community donations that typically cover less than half their foregone income. The families of striking workers are also subject to persecution. The willingness to endure such sacrifice reflects the depth of desire for democracy among workers in the CDM.

Discounting the Future

For all the harsh penalties imposed by the junta, what may ultimately hurt the people of Myanmar most is the crippling of their national economy. In the face of infighting, poor governance and a global pandemic, the country has seen its budget deficit grow. The World Bank estimates that Myanmar’s economy has shrunk by as much as 30% due to the political and health crises. The coup has threatened business interests in the country and spooked foreign investors. Chevron and Total, both multinational energy companies, have withdrawn from Myanmar’s largest offshore gas project. Human rights groups fear that such withdrawals will lead to further concentration of the economic control held by the Tatmadaw—something observed in other countries, such as Iran. The military already controls a sprawling network of businesses in Myanmar, the largest of which yield US$435million annually. Tortoise media suggest that sales from oil and gas could generate five times as much revenue for the junta.  

The exodus of foreign businesses is a focal point of concern for the people of Myanmar. Norwegian telecoms giant Telenor has expressed a desire to leave the country, which civilians argue would put personal data, such as phone records, in the hands of the Tatmadaw. In a country already subject to strict Internet censorship, the loss of access to the independent services provided by international businesses could further curtail individual freedoms and threaten personal safety. 

The bitter reality is that, as it seeks liberation through collective economic action, the CDM is compounding the harm already inflicted by the Tatmadaw on the economic prospects of Myanmar.

Myanmartyrs 

The future is fraught with poverty, persecution and even death for the people of Myanmar. Communities face an impossible choice between sacrificing their immediate economic future or relinquishing ideals of freedom and self-governance. It remains to be seen how the people of Myanmar will decide and what this decision will yield. What is clear is that the recent glimpse of democracy under the NLD has captured minds; as one 18-year-old describes the situation in an interview with the BBC, “they may have guns, but we have people; the power of minds and unity.”

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