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New voices of protest in Myanmar



Myanmar has known six long decades of totalitarian military rule. Then from 2010-11 began five years of loosening up, followed by five years of the first civilian government, elected in 2015.  Everyone said Myanmar could never go back to those dark days. Too much progress had been made towards democracy and an open society, they insisted.

Main image: Anti-coup protesters shout slogans on March 01, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar (Hkun Lat/Getty Images)

They are proved bitterly wrong. On 1 February 2021, the very day that a second civilian government was to be installed after winning an 83 per cent landslide victory in the November 2020 vote, Myanmar woke to the news that there had been a military coup at 2am in the night. The democratically elected leaders, including the President Win Myint and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were all arrested on spurious charges. Soldiers and military vehicles appeared on the streets in cities throughout the country. The Commander-in-Chief installed himself as supreme leader and claimed for himself all the three powers of government: judiciary, legislature and executive.

Since then, every night there are arrests of activists, artists and prominent persons who might be an active opposition. Over 23,000 criminals were released from prison and encouraged to wreak havoc, freeing space for a new intake of political prisoners. As demonstrations grew, rubber bullets and water cannons have been used; snipers have taken lives in Mandalay and the capital, Naypyitaw.

For a few days there was stunned silence. Rumours flew and confused people. The older ones remembered August 1988 (8-8-88) when 3,000 student demonstrators had been shot and bayoneted in cold blood and thousands thrown into prison where they remained for years. They remembered 2007 when the feared 77th Light Infantry Division had shot at the monks who marched in protest, killing hundreds.  

By late February, demonstrations had grown to hundreds of thousands in a hundred townships across Myanmar. The people reject the coup. They have glimpsed a new light. Let democracy’s dawn grow to a full day, they cry. They refuse to go back to those too familiar shadows. Education, a decent job, public health, a future for their children — all this was promised. It is now stolen.

The young in Myanmar have no personal memory of those events of 1988 and 2007. They are Generation Z, raised on the internet and with new ways of communicating. Their emotions overcome fear. Gen Z meets the deadly threat with humour and creative protest. Ten cars stop on the main road, lift their bonnets and tell police they have broken down. Then a bus and more cars will also stop. Brides will appear in wedding dress with a placard to say ‘I don’t want my babies to live under martial law’.  Students will go on the street with bags of onions, only the bags have holes. So the cars must wait while they keep picking up and bagging the same onions. Every night across the country from 8pm there is banging of pots and pans for 15 minutes: the ‘metal bucket protest’. Everyone joins in! Traditionally it is a way to drive out evil spirits. Now it also gives vent to deeply held feelings.


'Nowadays, every local oppression and denial of human rights has international repercussions. The protesters have successfully demonstrated to the world the feelings of millions of ordinary people in Myanmar.'


Meanwhile a nonviolent civil disobedience movement (CDM) has sprung up. Doctors and nurses refuse to go to work in government hospitals. The pandemic remains a reality, demonstrations are even super-spreaders, but the coup is considered a greater evil. Clerks in the banks don’t report for work, so the flow of money slows to a trickle. How long can it go on? How long can people wait without being paid? Can the neighbourhoods protect them from the marauding thugs?

The Tatmadaw (Burmese army) appears to be without a strategy other than dominance by force. Their playbook was their success in suppression in 1988 and 2007. It seems they did not count on the massive popular response, the creativity of the young protesters or the nonviolent civil disobedience movement. The army portrays its takeover as both constitutional and temporary; it seems keen to avoid a violent crackdown but does not know how to deal with disobedience. As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The army only knows how to hammer, not to negotiate. But this is a political problem and history teaches that there is never a military solution to a political problem.

The people smell the real reasons for this coup. It is kleptocracy. It is a grab for power and robbery of the wealth of the Golden Land. They know the proper role of the military should be to protect not to govern. Who has in fact broken the law? Even the present Myanmar constitution, written by the military, faulty as it may be, does not permit what happened with this coup d’état. The people ask for what is rightfully theirs, their hopes, their future, their democracy, to be given back.

The new generation of protesters are confident, seemingly carefree, savvy in new technologies, but most importantly they know a return to the past will rob them of everything. For the moment their tactics are working. But Myanmar is massively divided on ethnic lines. Few people stood up for the Rohingya when it mattered. What is truly needed is an understanding that cuts across ethnic lines, focuses on discrimination felt by the minorities and is conscious of the depravations suffered by the poor. There must be a strategy that unites a divided society.

Myanmar is rich in natural resources and rich in culture. The majority of its 54 million people follow Theravada Buddhism, while at least a third of the population belongs to a myriad of ethnic peoples, among whom there are Buddhist, Christian and animist. While there is also a significant Muslim minority. At the beginning of independence, seven decades ago in 1948, representatives of seven major ethnic groups were co-founders of the Union. They committed to principles of equality and autonomy. But the yearning for equal partnership so clearly expressed then has never become a political reality. Representation available to minorities is limited, and of course that leads to disaffection. Feelings of exclusion have driven conflicts for generations. Over twenty ethnic armed organisations battle on and off with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar is not a land of peace.

It was argued in the 1950s that military intervention was then justified because political leaders then could not agree among themselves. The army stepped in, and over seventy years later, has now clearly shown that it has no intention of stepping out. It clearly eyes single party rule, like its neighbours, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Although the Tatmadaw is drawn almost exclusively from the majority Burman ethnic people, this current coup appears to be principally a civil war among the Burman people. If the ethnic groups will unite in rejection of the coup, if the festering armed struggles can be disentangled, then Myanmar will have a chance to find peace. But how can those who have relied so long on the strength of arms be inspired to thoughts of peace?

No people, no social group, can single-handedly achieve peace, prosperity, security and happiness. None. The lesson learned from the pandemic, which continues with force in Myanmar, is ‘the awareness that we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all.’ (Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, #32)

Nowadays, every local oppression and denial of human rights has international repercussions. The protesters have successfully demonstrated to the world the feelings of millions of ordinary people in Myanmar. Pope Francis spoke again on 8 February, when addressing the diplomats accredited to the Holy See, he lamenting the military coup in Myanmar:

… my thoughts turn particularly to the people of Myanmar, to whom I express my affection and closeness… The path to democracy undertaken in recent years was brusquely interrupted by last week’s coup d’état. This has led to the imprisonment of different political leaders, whom I hope will be promptly released as a sign of encouragement for a sincere dialogue aimed at the good of the country.’

What we see clearly on the streets of over 200 towns and cities across Myanmar is that, as Pope Francis has said, ‘our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people — often forgotten people,’ who ‘without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time.’

To Myanmar, Pope Francis has said: release the imprisoned leaders, honour the votes of millions of people, return to democracy, support dignity and freedom. And pray for the people of Myanmar.




This article has been left anonymous to protect the identity and safety of the author. 

Main image: Anti-coup protesters shout slogans on March 01, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar (Hkun Lat/Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Myanmar, Min Ko Naing, coup, protest



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Existing comments

It is almost like the situation in Burma under King Thibaw, just prior to British intervention, which, long term was not a good thing. Before this the Burmese kings had never really ruled over the ethnic minorities on the fringes: the Karen, Shan etc. These were different peoples with different traditions and histories. British rule led to their subjugation by centralised authority. Independent Burma/Myanmar, with modern weaponry, has been doing terrible things to the minorities. The Communist Chinese are the Myanmar Army's ruthless economic and military support. China is the dog which wags the Burmese tail. Much of the economy is run by Chinese immigrants. The population of Mandalay, the former capital and an economic powerhouse is half Burmese/half Chinese immigrant. I fear terrible things are going to happen to the brave protesters. No one from outside will intervene to help them.

Edward Fido | 02 March 2021  

Where are the developed countries doing to help the people of Myanma, as they fight for democracy...perhaps stop all trade .. We must do something.. Should we remember Cambodia !

Bernie | 02 March 2021  

A well thought out piece of the evolution of a fledgling democracy cut in the bud by a jealous military who saw their grip on the parliament slipping and mounted a coup d'etat to stem the rising tide of freedom. Now as well as rubber bullets they are using live rounds and have no regard that the eyes of the world are upon them. Torture, arrests, imprisonment of the demonstrators now result in the bloody crackdown. Is this all a result of Xi's recent visit? Some secret deal struck to support the Burmese Generals? Those these Generals are militant Buddhist, their treatment of the Rohinga is similar to the treatment of the Uighar by China. Have assurances been given by the military to Xi to protect his oil supply to the Indian ocean? To protect Chinas access to their ports? Prayer and platitudes from Pope Francis wont solve this impasse. It will need military intervention from the UN to restore democracy.

Francis Armstrong | 03 March 2021  

This is another sad case where the world looks with disdain, not wishing to become involved in yet another coup in Burma/ Myanmar. As Edward observes, Myanmar is a collection of ethic groups brought together by a European power, Great Britain , one of many examples of the 'fruits' of western colonialism whether it be in the Middle East, Africa ,Australia or Asia. We continue to see the unfortunate results of these forced amalgamations in internecine warfare in Central Africa ,the Sudan and the Middle East .These 'states' are in most cases held together by use of force by the dominant ethnic group, usually led by a strong man with the support of the ethnically organised armed forces. The Tatmadaw in the latest coup may have seriously underestimated the resistance of Myanmar's young people, who unlike their parents and grandparents may put up much more resistance this time ."They can't kill us all"; is one refrain I have read .A very brave people but with a very uncertain future. There is no doubt China is relishing its influence with the military in this resource rich country, however discontent may, as has been the case in other Southeast Asian countries, lead to anti Chinese riots if the situation deteriorates further.

Gavin O'Brien | 03 March 2021  

I heartily agree with your post, Gavin. Ethnoreligious nationalism is raising its ugly head everywhere in the world and South and Southeast Asia are certainly not immune. A Sri Lankan friend, not Singhalese, refers to Tamils, some of whose ancestors have been in the country for centuries, as 'Indians'. Most Burmese see the Rohingya as 'foreigners'. I wonder what idea about the future of Myanmar most of the predominantly Burmese protesters have? Is it one of continued Burmese supremacy with the logical consequences? That sort of view was the bane of Ireland's history during the long, dark years of the Ascendancy. The relics still linger in Northern Ireland. It was a view held by many that Britain's longest colonial war continued on there till very recently, indeed that it is still dormant and could flare up again.

Edward Fido | 05 March 2021  

This why we need a US that is willing and able to prowl the earth like a wrathful lion. Invited by the NLD-loyalist UN ambassador, park a fleet in the Andaman Sea. Declare an exclusion zone over Myanmar air/seaspace. Tell the Tatmadaw to deploy to the North as a buffer against China. They’re not tested and will fold. Pack the tinpots into exile. Insist that the NLD hold a truth and reconciliation commission as this will embarrass the militarists for years. Insist that the Sunni Rohingya return and be given full citizenship. It’s going to irk the impotent Muslim world that the ‘crusaders’ were the ones to save their kin, but that’s a payoff the US should get in return for the trouble, which they can use against Pakistan, Turkey, the Arabs and maybe even against Shia Iran. Allow India to hum and ha because it has a complicated relationship with China but move in anyway. Bangladesh won’t complain. Thailand won’t say much because it has a corrupt monarchy-military nexus and a population that may be inspired by popular sentiment in Myanmar. Ignore China. Leverage Rohingya gratitude as code to India and Sri Lanka to cool it against their Muslims.

roy chen yee | 08 March 2021  

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