Students in Myanmar have played a vital role in resisting the military coup regime, since it took control of the government in February. Left Voice spoke with two student activists in Myanmar about their country’s history, their role in the current protest movement, and how the international Left can help. Both used pseudonyms to protect their identities.
How has Myanmar’s history of colonialism and imperialism affected the country?
M: In 1885 the last ruling dynasty in Myanmar came to its demise at the hands of the British colonists, who by then ruled virtually the whole of Myanmar. But the interesting thing to note is that the British never ruled Myanmar as a singular entity. The ethnic minorities were administered separately. For example, the British classified subjects into various ethnic groups. This strict distinction was somewhat artificial and arbitrary and still looms over today’s ethnic politics. The Burmese military ultimately came into being during the struggle for independence from Imperial Japan, which occupied Myanmar from 1943 to 1945. It’s quite a problematic legacy and one could say that Tatmadaw has fascist seeds since its very inception.
As you described, Myanmar’s ethnic divides are largely a byproduct of foriegn interference. How has the dynamic changed between the different ethnic groups living in Myanmar in the midst of the current struggle against the coup?
M: Before, the Bamar had been largely indifferent to the sufferings of other ethnic minorities. Now, because of the tragic predicament that the people are in, they’re much more sympathetic. Many young people came forward to apologize for turning a blind eye. Many now regret the hostile attitude towards the Rohingya people who were the damned of the damned. The door has opened to genuine reconciliation among all the oppressed people to build a new society together where we can coexist meaningfully, but there are many challenges ahead.
K: A lot of young people have come to a realization that when apologizing to other ethnic groups, they usually leave out Rohingya people. They recognize that there can be a genocide, but still they don’t accept them as a part of us. And it’s still happening. Our interim government, National Unity Government (NUG), has been cooperating with some minorities. But their promises and declarations in their federal charter and their actions are not very promising for the other ethnic groups. So I’m afraid that there could be huge problems for people after we have won this revolution.
How did you get involved in activism and what has it been like taking part in this massive resistance?
K: For me I was not a part of the student unions or anything, but I was part of a student-led group. We shared political knowledge. So I was familiar with this stuff and when the coup started, we protested and took part in organizing the protests.
I read somewhere that a lot of youth in Myanmar are inspired because they had lived through less military rule than other generations. Is that true? Is that driving a lot of the youth activism?
K: Even in colonial times, the key figures of the movement for independence were from the student union. I think the students were always the consciousness and the conscience of the country, even when the working class has been bewitched by the ideology of the oppressors. There was this cult personality worship of figures like Aung San Suu Kyi. And even at the times they were popular, the students remained on the side of resistance.
I wanted to ask a little bit about the activism after the coup. What were the protests like? What have students done and what role has the working class played in the protests?
M: What’s interesting is that at the beginning of the coup, people were told that it is necessary to wait and sit still for 72 hours. A lot of people bought into such nonsense. But after three days, it became clear to the people that sitting still will not get them anywhere.
It was the working class people and the students who started the protests, and the protests only grew stronger and stronger. Right after the coup, the student union had meetings and discussed what we would be doing at the time. We decided that it is necessary to tell the people to spread the truth, to come to resist this, to counter propaganda.
At first the demands were pretty moderate and it’s partly because Aung San Suu Kyi and her government had bewitched the working class and the people. Protests merely asked to free the leaders, meaning Aung SanSuu Kyi and the elected NPE members of the parliament, and to give power back to the NLD government in accordance with the outcomes of the election.
What do you see as some of the obstacles that the movement faces? You talked a little bit about the role of Aung San Suu Kyi in trying to co-opt the movement. How are the people on the streets organizing against that?
M: At the beginning of the protests, the military responded with violence. There were casualties, civilian casualties. There was this girl standing and I think she wasn’t even protesting. She was just standing there and the police shot her head. You can search for those photos. It’s all over the internet. But even at the time when there were casualties, the violence was still restrained. But then the military panicked as the movement gained momentum and very bloody massacres ensued.
A lot of people died when the military cracked down on a student sit-in protest. The military and the police cracked down and the students ran away. Those from the neighborhood hid the students. At one house, the military knew that the students were hiding in the house. They asked the women from that house to turn them in and the woman refused to leave. She simply refused. So she was shot point blank. She was shot dead on the spot just because she was helping the students.
In some areas the protest has evolved into armed conflict. Some people are doing an insurgency in some areas with their own handmade guns.They initiate defensive attacks on the military soldiers.
Do you think there’s going to be more of an armed conflict if things continue the way they are?
M: I think struggle in the form of armed conflict is the only resort if things continue the way they are. The military wants to hold onto power no matter how many people they have to massacre. To overthrow them we have no choice but to resort to an armed struggle. Many people in Myanmar are waiting. They’re waiting for there to be a United Liberation Army, perhaps the federal army that is still nowhere in sight. It is only by being united, united between the major ethnic group and other various minor ethnic groups and so on, that we can defeat our foe. The National Unity Government has announced the creation of the People’s Defense Force (PDF). We have no idea how credible it is, if it is merely a show.
I wanted to ask a little bit about the role of the working class in the strikes that have been going on. What has that been like?
K: Working class people are one of the most important parts of this revolution. Their revolutionary spirit is so strong that the military government has had to impose martial law in the areas and townships where workers live. And they also target the protests where the working class participates the most. Workers are also a huge part of the civil disobedience movement.
M: Especially railway workers. The military cannot run trains all over the country because all the working class people have been on strike. Working-class people have been crucial to our movement. And they will continue to be crucial if we are going to take up arms.
Myanmar is very geopolitically important because of its proximity to the Indian Ocean. And it’s become in some ways a strategic backdrop for the growing tensions between the United States and China, who both have economic interests in Myanmar. How is this shaping the conflict that’s going on right now?
K: China is probably a crucial part of these influences. They have a lot of economic interests here. China, along with Russia, supports the military. And they don’t just support the military. They also support the ethnic organizations when it comes to weapons. And they can also use their influence in the United Nations. That has done a lot to repress our revolution.
M: So far, a victory is still far from us. Regarding the Left in the United States, we could still use some help. There are capitalists in the United States and all around the world that still do business with Tatmadaw. And I think the University of Yangon Students Union is currently working on this project called Federal University to educate the masses and the students who are not going to school. It would be great if leftist academics in the United States were able to assist them. We could do the necessary translations to make it more accessible to the working class, and the children can get some proper education needed to fight against the official regime.
K: The military has been controlling us for decades. It’s not just several years or so. For the Left in the United States, I think the most important thing that you guys can do to help would be showing solidarity and not forgetting this revolution.
One last question, what would victory mean in Myanmar and how do you think it can be achieved?
K: Well, for most of the people, including us, a victory would mean the fall of the military institution and the emergence of a federal democracy. And then there would be the fall of cronyism. After one revolution, we need a strong judicial system to punish these oppressors.
M: Victory will mean that all the oppressed in the country will have a future in a new society that we have to build and achieve, it is not going to be possible with Tatmadaw around. We have lost so much during this revolution and many people have sacrificed their lives for freedom. And while we grieve, we will continue to take up the mantle of revolution.