Starve the government of legitimacy and recognition; stop it from functioning by staging strikes; and cut off its sources of funding. That is the strategy emerging from a mass movement in Myanmar aimed at toppling the new military dictatorship.
As protesters defying the February 1 coup brave beatings, arrests, water cannon, and even live ammunition, activists hope a “no recognition, no participation” approach can sustain pressure even if demonstrations are stamped out with violence.
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“The immediate aim is to take away the military’s power by stopping all of its governance mechanisms from working,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, who like many activists is now in hiding to avoid arrest.
“It will disable the military’s ability to rule.”
Myanmar’s fragile 10-year experiment in democracy was snuffed out in early February when soldiers arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other top officials in early morning raids as military chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power.
A civil disobedience movement began almost immediately and amassed support from broad swaths of society. Trains have ground to a halt, hospitals have closed, and ministries in the capital, Naypyidaw, are believed to be straining amid mass walkouts.
Many thousands including nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, farmers, railway staff, civil servants, factory workers and even some police officers, have gone on strike or defected in a bid to cripple the new military government.
Disrupting military’s business empire
In a statement published on a military Facebook page on Thursday, Min Aung Hlaing said “unscrupulous” people were inciting civil servants to leave work.
“Those who are away from their duties are requested to return to their duties immediately for the interests of the country and people,” he said.
The strikes are also disrupting parts of the military’s vast business empire. A copper mine in northern Sagaing region, jointly owned by the military and a Chinese company, has ceased operations after more than 2,000 workers walked out.
And hundreds of engineers and other staff working for Mytel, a telecoms operator part-owned by the military, have stopped work.
Calls for a boycott of products produced by army-owned companies have also gained momentum. Local business owners have destroyed cartons of cigarettes produced by the Virginia Tobacco Company, which is part-owned by Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, a military conglomerate.
Lim Kaling, a major Singaporean shareholder in the venture, announced he was divesting this week after facing pressure from activists at Justice For Myanmar and elsewhere.
Japanese brewer Kirin, meanwhile, has said it will withdraw from a joint venture with a military-owned beer company.
The movement’s tactics go further than a similar uprising did in 2007, when there were widespread street protests similar to those seen in recent days, but no coordinated efforts to hobble the military government with industrial action.
One difference today compared with 2007 is that many people in the formerly isolated country own smartphones and are online, allowing calls for civil disobedience to spread rapidly in the aftermath of the coup, even amid sporadic internet shutdowns.
Another is that, after a ban on trade unions was lifted in 2011, Myanmar has a young but tenacious workers’ rights movement with years of experience organising strikes.
Approximately 5,000 workers in Hlaing Tharyar, an industrial zone in the main city of Yangon, have joined the general strike, a union organiser who requested anonymity told Al Jazeera.
“I can’t say how long we’ll be on strike, but it will be until the abolition of the dictatorship,” she said.
Workers’ rights groups, joined by student activists, were among the first to protest in the streets on February 6, galvanising others who had been reluctant to march because of the military’s history of shooting protesters.
Civil servants risk jobs
Trade unions took the lead because they had no other option, the organiser said.
“Even under the democratically elected government, we didn’t have our rights, so under a dictatorship, we don’t have a chance.”
Myanmar’s civil servants, who have spent the last five years working for the only credibly elected government most people in the country have ever known, are also risking their livelihoods and their freedom to avoid a return to the dark days.
Than Toe Aung, deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of Construction, announced he was joining the strike on Monday.
“I call on my colleagues to follow suit to help bring down the dictatorship,” he said in a statement posted to Facebook.
Staff from the ministries of investment, transport, energy and social welfare, among others, have also pledged not to return to work until power is handed back to Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
Myanmar’s ambassador to the United States, Maung Maung Latt, said last week he is seeking asylum in the US to protest the coup, and urged other diplomats to follow suit.
On Thursday, staff from the Myanmar Economic Bank, which disburses government salaries, also joined the strike.
Threat of defections
But perhaps most worrying for the generals is the threat of defections from the military-controlled police force.
During a rally in Naypyidaw on Tuesday, a police lieutenant named Khun Aung Ko Ko broke ranks to join protesters.
“I am aware I will be put in jail with a long prison sentence if our fight for democracy does not succeed,” he wrote in a statement handed out at the demonstration afterwards.
“My sacrifice for the people and members of the police force, to fight for democracy and the fall of dictator Min Aung Hlaing, will be worth it.”
Another officer joined protesters in the coastal town of Myeik, while dramatic footage from Magwe in central Myanmar showed three riot officers leaving their lines to defend protesters from water cannon with their shields.
Then on Wednesday, 49 uniformed officers from the police department in Loikaw, the capital of eastern Kayah state, joined a march there with a banner that read, “No military dictatorship.”
The officers are now in hiding and the remaining members of the department are looking to arrest them, The Kantarawaddy Times reported.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi said she believed that not just police officers but also rank and file soldiers want to join the movement.
“I hope this is possible,” she said. “In the past few years, I’ve been contacted by different soldiers asking for help because their rights have been violated. They’ve been bullied, they’ve been harassed, they’ve been tortured. It’s brutal inside the military.”
In Myawaddy, a Burmese border town, thousands are showing up daily to demonstrate against the Myanmar military coup. Protesters have called for an abolishment of the Constitution and democracy. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar #HearTheVoiceOfMyanmar #Myanmarcoup pic.twitter.com/EPvpGqaYRL
— Linn Let Arkar (@ArkarLet) February 12, 2021
One of the key demands from protesters has been for the military to return power to Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party. But many activists, especially those from often ethnic minority groups who feel betrayed by the party, are pushing for more radical demands.
“Some people are demanding the military accept the 2020 election result and restore democracy,” said Maung Saungkha, a prominent freedom of expression activist, referring to a November 8 poll, which the NLD won in a landslide.
“If we accept the 2020 election, then we will still be under the military’s 2008 constitution, and with that constitution, coups will happen again and again,” he added.
“So, we need to negotiate with protesters about the strategy and a set of common demands.”
The military government’s crackdown has already begun. Dozens of protesters have been arrested and one young woman is on life support after police shot her in the head on Tuesday.
The military government is also making plans to impose a so-called “cybersecurity law” that would mean three-year prison sentences for speaking out against the government online.
Activists said the movement’s best hope of survival is solidarity.
“For this revolution to be successful, everyone needs to participate,” said the union organiser.
“Workers, students, even soldiers and the police. Everyone.”