Civil disobedience, opposition to coup is growing
published : 6 Feb 2021 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
Opposition in Myanmar to the coup is escalating daily, as the new military-led regime tries to pacify the business community and quickly return the country to normal. The civil disobedience campaign initiated by the country's health workers is also growing in numbers, affecting hospitals, schools and other government offices. So far, the authorities have been powerless to stem the movement. But as the momentum grows there are increasing fears of a major confrontation between the peaceful protesters and the security forces.
Every night since the day after the coup, the "banging brigade" has got louder and louder, as the country's main urban centres come to a standstill and all that can be heard is the rhythmic sound of the beating of pots and pans — alternating with health workers singing in unison — all showing their opposition to the military and their coup. At 8pm every evening, the noisy protests begin like clockwork — even those queuing to use the ATMs clap their hands or pound on nearby posts, elsewhere others stand in their front rooms loudly thumping furniture. Originally they lasted five minutes, but have lengthened every night since. And last night they continued for over 30 minutes.
During the day the civil disobedience campaign is growing daily. Originally, it was doctors and nurses in Yangon who took the lead, refusing to work and gathering outside their hospital to protest against the military coup. This quickly grew to many hospitals throughout the country — congregating and kneeling outside their hospitals in uniform and wearing the red ribbon of protest and defiantly holding up the three-finger salute of protest from the film Hunger Games — also popularised in the student-led protests in Thailand. By the end of the week thousands and thousands had joined this silent protest.
It has spread to schools and universities throughout the country, civil servants and government factory workers. At least 50 staff at the government-owned Myanmar National Airlines are absent affecting flights. Staff at the government TV channel are also protesting. All are wearing the red ribbon symbol of protest. There has also been a flood of resignations from government posts, including the General Administration Department (GAD) — a bureaucratic network of district and regional administrative staff, largely dominated by ex-military people — the eyes and ears of the military and government throughout the country.
"It's difficult to estimate how many red ribbon campaigns because they are growing every minute," said a leading civil society activist who declined to be identified. "I estimate more than 150 hospitals and clinics — in Yangon and Mandalay, nurses training schools, dozens of ministries, 20 government factories, and at least 500 artists from the film and music industry."
The pro-democracy leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi is believed to have signalled her support for the movement in messages from her house arrest in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, according to senior party officials. Late yesterday the NLD's Central Executive Committee (CEC) released a statement to support the current civil disobedience movement in defiance of the army's illegal power grab. It is an unconstitutional act, it said. "In order to take back the country's sovereignty — invested in the people — and restore democracy, all the people of Myanmar people should support this political resistance movement — in a peaceful and non-violent way."
The NLD convincingly won the elections held last November though the army and its political allies dispute the result and claim they have evidence of over 10 million irregularities and cases of fraud. And after weeks of simmering tension and last-minute talks aimed at resolving the deadlock, the Tatmadaw took things into their own hands and launched the coup.
It is reminiscent of the mass pro-democracy protests of 1988 which brought the country to a standstill for months and ended in a coup that brought the military back to power — till the election of 2015 ushered in a form of "limited democracy" with Ms Suu Kyi's landslide victory. Of course there were "multi-party" elections in 1990, which Ms Suu Kyi's NLD also won — but was never allowed to form a government.
In fact, a key 88 student leader of the time Min Ko Naing — who has also spent much of the time after that in prison — has assumed political leadership of this burgeoning movement. He avoided arrest on the morning of the coup and has been on the run since, In a statement released earlier yesterday he called for a general strike — much like in August 1988 — to bring the government to a standstill. In a statement to the media, he appealed to the public to resist the military in every way by using all forms of civil disobedience: including issuing pamphlets and posters, social media posts, nightly banging of pots and pans, and quitting the civil service.
Min Ko Naing also called for a public boycott of all beer brands, mobile Sim cards and movies owned or associated with the military and their families. The famous Myanmar Beer — produced by one of the military's economic conglomerates — is already suffering. In Mandalay, an agent admits they can't sell a drop — everyone is asking for anything other than a military brand. "Beer Chang will soon become the country's best seller," he joked.
Meantime, the government seems undaunted in rolling out its new administration and filling the posts. The military government is desperate to spin its intention as bringing the country back to normal as soon as possible, cleaning up the mess left by the previous NLD government and establishing a national coalition of unity. It is a curious mix of former military men, civil servants, minsters and advisers from the former Thein Sein regime — with a fine balance between military and civilians.
Many of the appointments are obviously intended to appease international investors and local business people. Stress has been laid on continuity and stability — especially in regard to the economy and foreign affairs. These ministries have been given to old hands who are indeed professional and capable — agriculture, finance and investment. Clearly the priority of the government is the economy, infrastructure and agriculture. The commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing reportedly reassured local businessmen that policies were not going to change in regard to politics, the economy, peace and international affairs, during the interim administration.
It is also noticeable that several leading politicians from political parties, other than the NLD or other staunchly democratic parties, have been co-opted as members of the ruling junta and less significant ministries. Though there are several civilians appointed as chief ministers, all of them have close associations with the military or its political pawn, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. It is a blatant attempt to show a united face to the public and garner political acceptance if not support. It obviously shows the Tatmadaw leader's eyes are on the next election, which he insists is a year away — six months after the state of emergency ends. However, most democratic politicians, diplomats and observers are highly sceptical.
Unlike 1988, 1996 and 2007, people are responding calmly to the coup from their homes, said an independent observer in Yangon who declined to be identified. Of course if they heed Min Ko Naing's call for a national strike it may prove to be a game-changer either way.
People are encouraged by the calls from the UNSC and US president, according to analysts and residents. "The resistance movement seems to have widespread public support, and it looks like people will join the "pots and pans banging and the civil disobedience in the coming days, weeks and months", said a local activist.
A specialist on Myanmar
Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.