Myanmar democracy movement undeterred despite sentencing of ousted leader Suu Kyi

Protesters carry a sign reading “The land of Yangon, the more you oppress us, the more we will fight against you” on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar on December 6, 2021.

Myanmar’s military junta Monday sentenced elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi to four years in jail – later reduced to two – but this shows no sign of slowing all kinds of resistance against military rule.

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Suu Kyi has traditionally been seen as a singular symbol of opposition to the military in the southeast Asian country, and the junta hoped that jailing the popular leader would quash her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and quiet anti-military sentiment.

But just hours after the 76-year-old Nobel laureate was sentenced on December 6, protesters took to the streets in the capital Yangon and throughout the country carrying banners and shouting slogans denouncing military rule.

Many held three fingers aloft in a pro-democracy salute – the image of a movement that has evolved from having a sole leader into a country-wide resistance. “The protest is not about Aung San Suu Kyi being arrested or being in jail,” Kyaw Win, executive director of the Burma Human Rights Network told FRANCE 24. “It’s for the people. Every day people are giving their life for their country and for change.”

#Dec6Coup #Yangon demonstration

REMINDER TO SAC JUNTA. BANNER SAYS : “The Spirit of the Revolutionaries will not be stopped by hitting people with vehicles or shooting them with guns.”#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar — Shafiur Rahman (@shafiur) December 6, 2021

Much of this is down to younger generations who grew up in a period of relative democracy. While older people in Myanmar knew a culture of fear under military rule, “the youth were just used to speaking their mind on social media”, Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, told FRANCE 24. “They are used to more freedom of expression. They had a future ahead of them, and the military took that all away.”

It is still younger generations who are sharing stories of the resistance online and leading flash-mob style street protests – but older Myanmar residents are handing out face coverings to protesters even though they are banned by the military.

Across generations resistance is becoming a daily habit, whether that is through banging pots and pans every night; refusing military personnel service in shops; or denying the military profits by not buying Myanmar beer, switching away from the Mytel phone network, leaving electricity bills unpaid, or not playing the lottery – an extremely popular national pastime. “In 100 small ways, people are protesting every single day,” Farmaner said. “No one is sitting around and waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released.”

Protesters risk extreme violence

The repercussions of resistance can be severe. Kyaw Win’s organisation receives frequent reports of whole families being arrested and tortured, or mass shootings in villages. “The military has no limitations and it is on a killing spree using the same patterns as during the 2017 Rohingya genocide,” he said. “We are seeing systemic crimes against humanity.”

Extreme violence can be the consequence for something as seemingly small as criticising the military on Facebook. “The police and soldiers have been stopping people and checking their mobile phones,” Farmaner said. “Then we’ve seen widespread torture of people who’ve been arrested, the sexual assaults of female detainees or people disappearing completely.”

Ten months after the junta’s February 1 coup, local activist group Assistance Action for Political Prisoners reports that more than 1,300 people have been killed by junta forces.

In this context, hundreds of people have also trekked into rebel-held areas to join the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), a loose organisation of armed groups offering combat training and directing attacks against military targets throughout the country. PDF fighters have been credited with crafting homemade bombs, carrying out military ambushes to access weapons, attacking targets including telecoms companies and assassinating high-profile figures such as former Mytel executive Thein Aung.

Some estimates put the total number of PDF fighters at roughly 8,000. Official figures from the military say there were 986 “terror attacks”, 2,344 bomb attacks and 312 arson attacks carried out in Myanmar from February to late October.

This itself is a radical departure from Suu Kyi’s instruction against violence and protest, in favour of respecting the rule of law. Farmaner said this shows that although Suu Kyi is still widely admired, “she is not the same icon of democracy that she had been for previous generations, and younger people are not going to just follow whatever she says. They’re organising themselves.”

A new kind of resistance

In recent weeks many of Suu Kyi’s former colleagues have been sentenced to their own prison terms, including 75 years for a former chief minister and 20 years for one of Suu Kyi’s aides accused of treason. Other former members of the NLD have taken a leading role in creating a shadow government, the National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG). While it has no administrative powers, a key role for the NUG is raising awareness internationally and preventing the military from becoming the legitimate channel for international relations by default, which it has done with some success; however, the UN Monday indefinitely postponed recognising the military junta or accepting its suggested ambassador.

Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN Kyaw Moe Tun shows solidarity with the resistance by making a three-finger salute as he addresses a meeting of the UN General Assembly on February 26, 2021. Myanmar’s junta have since criticised the UN’s refusal to recognise its chosen ambassador. © United Nations, AFP

The NUG has also taken steps to distance itself from some of Suu Kyi’s more authoritarian policies should it one day govern the country. It has issued a statement indicating that the Rohingya should be recognised as a legitimate ethnic group of Myanmar and has lodged a declaration accepting the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction with respect to all international crimes in Myanmar since 2002. In a country often divided along ethnic and racial lines, the NUG has also gone to lengths to appoint people from diverse ethnic groups to its ministries.

But for now, the resistance rests in the hands of the people, which might be one of its greatest strengths. Arresting Aung San Suu Kyi has not stalled momentum in the way the junta might have hoped, and neither has arresting an estimated 8,000 political prisoners since the coup began. Farmaner said that “things are not dependent on one leader anymore, and they cannot arrest enough people because it’s not the same kind of resistance as before”.

It is proving impossible to lock up an idea that has taken hold and Kyaw Win, like many others, has hope for a better future. “I am very encouraged to see that the young people on the ground are like brothers and sisters. Regardless of race and religion we are standing up together, and that’s a very hopeful thing. To see them lead one day is my hope for the future.”

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