In the silence of a field in Aung Myay Tharzan township, the shrill ringing of a phone disrupts the rhythmic gardening. It brings news former high school teacher Aye Lin Aung and his wife, also a former teacher, are not particularly glad to hear.
It is November 1, and the pair have just been informed that schools have officially reopened under the junta. Soldiers are stationed on campuses, another crude attempt at imposing normalcy upon post-coup Burma.
“I am worried about the children’s education but, at the same time, I am concerned for their safety if they return to school,” Aye Lin Aung says, adding that a rumor that untrained, junta-selected teachers will be running classrooms has brought him little hope that this latest reopening will go any smoother than the last.
“But letting the children wait a couple of years is not a problem if it means a brighter future.”
For teachers across the country, waiting is just what they plan to do. Exactly ten months ago, Burma’s civil servants committed never to work under the coup government and unified in what quickly became known as the Civil Disobedience Movement.
In the early days of the coup, with three fingers high in the air, the CDM struck passion into the hearts of millions. A majority of Burma’s education and medical professionals—and tens of thousands of others employed by the state—decided they would no longer be showing up to work, bringing the country to a standstill.
The movement was reminiscent of the protests of 1988 where, on a smaller scale, civil servants were encouraged to slack off, take long lunch breaks, and slow down administrative work.
But, after ten grueling months, it is clear that the CDM of 2021 is on an altogether different scale.
Refusing to countenance working under the tyranny of Min Aung Hlaing, state employees—driven into hiding or obscurity from participating in the movement—have adjusted to a life of self-reliance outside of the state apparatus; teaching themselves small-scale agriculture and livestock rearing, and fitting into a variety of other makeshift roles.
All the while, a steady stream of donations from the Burmese diaspora helps former civil servants survive the shrinking economy.
Over one million government staff have hence been forced to identify either as “CDMer” or “non-CDM”—labels that can now equate to death sentences for all parties involved, as the junta’s security forces—and to a lesser extent guerrilla resistance groups—hunt those refusing to either support the military or forgo dependable state earnings.
Carleton College political science professor, Dr Tun Myint, who also played a leading role in 1988’s pro-democracy protests, earlier this year estimated that some US$300 million was needed to support all Burma’s abstaining civil servants for one year.
According to Dr Tun Myint, there are roughly one million civil servants on strike.
According to him, most CDM donations are made through informal channels, making quantities difficult to calculate. The traditional hundi system (which is also under attack by the junta) is typically how foreign donors are able to contribute, using money changers, trusted businesses, and close friends inside Burma to send money to CDMers on note of credit, with personal debts sorted out after the fact.
Dr Tun Myint’s personal CDM fund, Mutual Aid Myanmar, has donated over US$700,000 to 12,000 participants, attributing one lakh kyat (US$60) per person.
He says although CDM is no small commitment, Burma’s people are accustomed to not relying on their government for support.
“The government has been a problem their whole life, meaning the government takes property away, fails to give people economic freedoms, things like that,” he said.
“So with that in mind, CDM, and not having a government, is not a big issue.”
With only 30% of Burma’s money flowing through its (junta-regulated) banks, the addition of foreign donations into the country’s cash economy grows the economic capabilities of the country’s citizens, Dr Tun Myint says, allowing them to develop the agricultural and private sectors outside of military control.
In Sagaing, Bago, Mandalay, and Magway regions, some have traded in their stethoscopes and uniforms for co-op style plots of land to share.
“Either the private sector is going to hire [CDMers], or they will collectively try to utilize their free time,” Dr. Tun Myint said. “That will continue with the CDM—this “freeing of labor,” if we can use that term—because CDM participation will increase participation in both self-organized business activities and the private sector.”
Some civil servants have noted that the Burmese state’s notoriously low pay for teachers, doctors, and transportation workers offered too little incentive to continue working with the junta; with public school teachers making around K200,000 a month (USD$111), and doctors averaging anywhere from K88,000 (USD$48) in remote areas to USD$250- $300 per month for mid-level professionals.
Like teacher Aye Lin Aung, many CDMers have already chosen agriculture as a means of survival, a necessity after household savings evaporated.
“We’re picking cauliflower, cabbages, and other vegetables from the farm owners, and hew off grass to clear the farms,” he said. “It’s not a permanent job, but we earn K3,000 or K4,000 (USD$1.66 – 2.22) a morning, if someone offers. If there is no one, we won’t earn anything.”
* * *
“When the military heard about the group, they raided the monastery—but we managed to escape there and move on in September… We faced hard situations, we didn’t eat anything for two days as we had no money.”—Aye Lin Aung, CDM teacher
Although abstaining from work lies at the heart of the movement, CDMers are being forced into new roles as donations, which continue to pour in from around the globe, fail to account for the sheer number of those partaking in CDM.
Burma’s parallel National Unity Government has pledged to prop up the CDM by any means, and has so far developed a number of ways to sustain tens, if not hundreds of thousands of striking civil servants from the shadows. The NUG’s Planning and Finance Minister, Tin Tun Naing, has stated that he was “fully responsible” for supporting those partaking. With the NUG’s launch this month of its Spring Lottery, the minister says he believes the parallel government can provide a living salary to 200,000 workers.
For those who fall through the NUG’s tentatively erected safety net, private donations go some way to fill the gap.
One foundation in Thailand, which wished to remain nameless, says it has donated over THB100,000 (USD$3,006) to the CDM by pairing with international donors who have helped spread the word.
While they have managed to donate to over 40 individuals seeking support, the overwhelming and urgent need that CDMer are encountering is obvious in the messages Ma Ah Kaw and her colleague, Donah, receives. When requests reached upwards of 70, the small fund knew that not everyone would be accommodated.
“There are thousands of civil servants striking, they [NUG] can’t support them,” Ma Ah Kaw said. “They are still struggling. They have to come up with something, we can’t support them fully. They have to come up with something they can do.”
Of all the requests posed to the group, family members in desperate need of food hit the hardest. Ma Ah Kaw is by no means the only person with a family in need of supplies; members of her own foundation have needed to return to some form of casual labor in order to survive—easier said than done as job creation in Burma’s zero-growth post-coup economy goes into reverse.
“It’s hard to get a job in Burma right now—it’s almost impossible,” Ma Ah Kaw said. “My sister recently told me she had no choice but to buy some chickens to eat the eggs and also to sell.”
Teacher Aye Lin Aung admits that concerns for food security loom large over him and his family, including their two-year-old son. When work is scarce, he says, they have been forced to serve food at the monastery for seven days straight in exchange for a full stomach—for a family of civil servants in hiding from the junta, the position is dangerously exposed.
When war refugees showed up at their monastery from conflict-hit Moe Bye on the Shan-Kayah border, weapons in tow, they brought with them the CDMer’s ultimate threat. The family were on the move again.
“When the military heard about the group, they raided the monastery—but we managed to escape there and move on in September… We faced hard situations; we didn’t eat anything for two days as we had no money.”
* * *
“We don’t want that for our children, do we? So of course, there will be support groups for CDM, and with that continuous support for our people, I believe we will be able to withstand it.”—Dr T Zin Saw, CDM doctor
As hunger pulls some in the movement back to part-time work, the junta has all but shoved entire professions into the CDM.
Teachers are an integral part of the movement, and Aye Lin Aung says he is joined by over 370 others in his township alone—all of whom participated in protests. In Aye Lin Aung’s case, this resulted in the junta issuing “a 505(a)”, forcing him into hiding, into the casual economy.
Dr T Zin Saw, a junior medical doctor at Yangon General Hospital, said the decision to stop working was also forced on many in Burma’s medical world after they were prohibited by the SAC from working part-time for private hospitals and clinics, putting them back on their original US$200 a month, which he said provided little incentive to continue working under the junta’s auspices.
The doctor has been able to survive with the support of both his family and the CDM donations made to staff participating from his hospital; 180 of 218 people—including janitors and basic workers—are receiving a regular stipend.
“For us in Yangon it felt a little easier, but for those in rural areas, things were getting stiffer and they had to sell what they own; sell the valuable assets from the farms and fields, and do laundry and part-time janitorial work for apartments,” he said.
“So that’s just how difficult and suffocating CDM has been during this time.”
Overseas families are also feeling the pressure. Ma Ah Kaw says she has needed to make life changes in order to accommodate the budgetary hole caused by CDM donations coming out of her salary, including staying on at her job in Thailand longer than anticipated and no longer going on vacations.
“I have to stop spending money on the things I want to have, or be very careful in using money,” she said. “I could no longer save money because I have to send money to my family members and/or people in need.”
But despite the physical and mental toll the movement has taken on professionals and laborers nationwide and the visceral discomfort that hunger and fear have put on protestors, whether or not to stay the course is still a question that is far from the minds of most; the days ahead might be arduous, but a future under the military would be unbearable, T Zin Saw says.
“We don’t want that for our children, do we? So of course, there will be support groups for CDM, and with that continuous support for our people, I believe we will be able to withstand it,” he said.
“When so many lives were sacrificed, that should not be wasted. How, and how long? We don’t know. We’re not sure. But we know that we’re going to ride to the very end.”