Resisting the Coup in Myanmar: “A Fight to the Finish”

By Fauwaz Abdul Aziz

main image

Notes from PI Seminar: “Myanmar: From Anti-coup Protests to a Federal Democratic Union Movement”, by Dr. Francis Loh.

ON 1 FEBRUARY 2022, the military conducted a putsch in Yangon, Myanmar. State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and other National League for Democracy (NLD) senior leaders were arrested, and Parliament was suspended. Predictably, there occurred widespread protests. With fire power at its disposal, the military expected to “wrap things up” by Armed Forces Day, three months after the coup.

However, the anti-military struggle has persisted until today. Initially, when repression was heightened in mid-2021, the protestors resorted to various tactics to circumvent the military restrictions: protests were moved to side streets; from day-time to night-time; from listening to speeches to the banging of pots and pans. Also, the struggle moved from the Bamar-majority cities to the rural hinterlands where the ethnic minorities resided, and has now even led to the formation of the Peoples’ Defence Forces to combat the military.

Why has the 2021 struggle persisted while the 1988 student-led uprising petered out after six months?

Addressing this question on 24 June 2022 at Penang Institute, the former professor of political science and currently senior advisor to the Ottawa-based Forum of Federations, Dr. Francis Loh Kok Wah, gave what, in effect, was a “masterclass” on current developments in Myanmar.

The answers lie in the economic, social and political transformations that had taken place in Myanmar since the regional financial crisis of 1997/98. Forced by circumstances and enticed by foreign capital and humanitarian aid, the military took steps to open up politically, economically and socially to the world. More strident efforts towards liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation took place in the late-2000s as the increasing numbers of imports and exports paralleled the experiments of political liberalisation and democratisation.    

The years 2010 to 2020 were particularly crucial; while still a very extractive economy based on its gas, gems, seafood and wood exports, Myanmar’s increasing gross domestic product (GDP), wealth and incomes fostered the increasing use of information and communication technologies (ICT) and other amenities and conveniences such as foreign vehicles, food and beverages and textiles.

With the economic and material transformations, social changes were also taking place that changed the outlook and expectations of millions of Myanmar citizens. Great strides were made in education as considerable resources and energies were mobilised to provide basic as well as advanced education to youths at all levels – including the previously excluded populations of ethnic minorities in the “frontier” regions and states.    

Finally, political and administrative reforms – even if some were eventually reversed by the military – gave people a taste of what greater democratisation could offer. These ranged from elections and the formation of town and municipal committees and other “bottom-up” changes to administrative structures, to the drafting of federal education and health policies and the movements for a national multi-ethnic and multi-religious government and constitution.

Among the most exciting developments taking place in Myanmar, said Loh, is the remarkable leadership, role and resolve of the country’s youth.

“Compared to their parents, this younger generation appears fearless. They have declared that this is a fight to the finish. They will be the last generation to live under military rule.”

Fauwaz Abdul Aziz

is a Projects Researcher at Penang Institute, and is currently completing his PhD dissertation in anthropology at the Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) Erlangen–Nürnberg in Bayern, Germany.