By Jack McGrath
On the 1st of February 2021, the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s military – seized control of their government. They were led by Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmese armed forces: the man, almost undoubtedly, most responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya people.
Of course, military rule is not something particularly alien to the Myanmese. Since their independence from Britain in 1948, they have endured over half a century of it. And for almost three decades they were under the rule, more or less, of one man, General Ne Win. It was he who instituted the so-called Burmese Way to Socialism and he who, arguably, normalised the modern regime of terror and violence in Myanmar.
There was a brief hope that the 1988 uprising might bring about change. But those hopes were not fulfilled. Perhaps around 10,000 people died during the uprising and thousands of protestors, many of them students, faced years of imprisonment. Most of those imprisoned were subjected to horrific torture, forced isolation, and starvation. All in all, what the Myanmese people had to show for their uprising was depressingly little. The military resumed their absolute rule in 1990, after refusing to cede power in a landslide general election, and retained their rule for another 21 years.
It was thought that the past decade was slowly spelling an end to the protracted suffering and subjugation of the Myanmese people. Between 2011 and 2015, a steady march toward democracy, conceded by the government, seemed to begin. It was not, unfortunately, without its own serious controversy. In the wake of the NLD – a military opposition party – securing a tremendous supermajority in the 2015 general election, the military was quite evidently not in the mood to render unto the people what they were due. The military retained the right to appoint a quarter of all parliament members, refused to give up their control of the security ministries, and ensured that Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the victorious NLD, could not take up the presidential role. In fact, it was not until a year after the election that Aung San Suu Kyi was able to become de facto head of the government through the establishment of the ‘state counsellor’ role. In addition to all that, there was the horrific and unforgivable ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, which began in 2016 and has continued to this date. Nonetheless, it seemed at least a semblance of democracy was being born. Even if that birth was itself some sort of a monstrosity.
The recent military coup looks to unmake even that and has set Myanmar on a collision course with absolute military rule. Since its start, at least 50 people have been murdered by security forces and at least 1,700 people have been imprisoned. There are curfews, media has been restricted, and around 400 democratically elected members of parliament have been detained. Military suppression has been merciless; even health workers have been targeted and severely beaten by members of the police forces and military.
So yes, Myanmar is once again on a collision course with absolute military rule. But that is no cause for a sinister fatalism: collision is not a given. There are thousands of Myanmese protestors fighting and putting their lives on the line, for democracy and a swift end to the disturbing resumption of military rule.
Indeed, Myanmar is on the cusp of history. If its people continue to refuse to accept anything less than what they are due, then they may resume the slow march toward democracy. If, however, they break before the terror and cruelty, then they will return to lives lived in the spiritual, moral, and political dark ages. Lives which will be more brutal, more unforgiving, and more empty (for revolutions do not begin at the minute past midnight).
To the Myanmese people, the battle ahead should seem staggering, even overwhelming, but that is no reason not to fight. The measure of a people is, after all, not to be found in their suffering or their years under the yoke but in the fervour, the courage, and the seriousness with which they fight when they realise that the yoke must be surmounted.
As it so happens, I am writing this on the 150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s birthday, the internationalist revolutionary who was murdered in 1919 for being absolutely uncompromising in her ideals. On this day, I hope that the Myanmese people recognise that this is, for them, an either/or moment. And I hope that they confidently demonstrate to their overlords the fervour, the courage, and the seriousness which I believe is imbued within them, as within us all.