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Three years of Myanmar Spring: Progress and blind spots

Guest contributor

Dr. Sai Latt

The Myanmar Spring Revolution will mark its third anniversary next month. Three years ago, on February 1, 2021, military generals staged a coup against the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government. 

After this erratic coup d’etat, the military violently cracked down against the peaceful protests – predominantly held by students and youth – for opposing its attempted seizure of power. The military’s violence drove thousands of these young people to embrace armed resistance. 

Progress on the frontline 

During the last three years of the anti-coup movement, these energetic, dynamic, and committed young people learned to organize themselves better.

Alongside ethnic revolutionary organizations, who have provided essential training, leadership, and coordination of armed resistance to the coup, Myanmar’s young people openly challenged and fought the military. 

Within a short period, they transformed themselves from students, artists, farmers, doctors, engineers, technicians, lawyers, laborers, and so on (most of them without prior experience in armed conflict) to revolutionary organizers and leaders, snipers, drone builders, weapons producers and energetic fighters who took over not only military outputs but also towns and cities. 

By the end of 2023, the once almighty military was shaken to its roots by Operation 1027 in northern Shan State.

The operation was conducted by the Brotherhood Alliance (a coalition of three ethnic armed groups, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance, the Arakan Army, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army), and its alliance of predominantly ethnic Bamar armed groups which have emerged since the coup.

By the end of 2023, the resistance forces had captured over 300 military outputs and 20 towns nationwide.  

Progress in politics

On the political front, there have been achievements which were unimaginable before. 

They included coordination platforms among diverse resistance groups at both the national and sub-national levels (despite differences in approach), a shared value to eradicate military and all forms of dictatorship, an agreement to establish a federal democratic union, the need to change the system instead of merely changing the government, and a progressing adherence to military codes of conduct. 

The progress also includes a recognition of gender equality as essential for the movement and an intersectionality approach to justice that attends to multiple axes of identity, such as ethnicity, religion, gender, class, physical ability, etc.   

Amid these remarkable successes, there are blind spots that the movement must address if the revolution is about changing the system successfully and not just replacing one authoritarian regime with another. 

Relationships with neighbors

Regionally, the revolutionary groups have had limited relations with their Asian neighbors, especially China, India, and Thailand. 

Partly because of the military-indoctrinated nationalistic psyche and these countries’ coziness with military juntas past and present, the current generation of revolutionary actors seems uninterested in their neighbors.

Since these countries’ behavior impacts Myanmar, the revolutionary groups cannot overlook them. The neighbors will deal with whoever controls state power in Myanmar. 

Still, a better understanding of their domestic politics, foreign policy traditions, and challenges in the 21st Century global context will strengthen Myanmar resistance groups’ ability in dealing with them more effectively.  

It is also essential to rebuild people-to-people relations. In the post-COVID pandemic, people in the region are overwhelmed with rebuilding their communities and dealing with the myriad issues that have emerged from respective domestic conflicts and crises.

Not reaching out to them means that Myanmar will continue to miss the support and sympathy of many millions of people in the region who otherwise would pressure their governments to support the people of Myanmar. 

New civil-military relations within the movement

There is an increasingly widespread view among revolutionary combatants that civilian groups “talk too much,” rarely get things done, or move too slowly.

Many talk of “politicians” (in some combatants’ simplistic view) trying to assert influence, raise funds in their names, and claim credit for the success paid with the blood and sweat of the combatants. 

Armed officers have become more assertive and militarily disciplined in less than three years of military experience. Civilian actors do not seem to have matched this pace. Either way, the military officers’ views on their civilian counterparts will definitely impact civil-military relations within the movement.

Perhaps their views are not all invalid. However, whether such a perception is right or wrong is less important than clarifying the different functions of civilian actors. At the same time, civilians must reflect on their modus operandi against the allegation of talking too much without getting the work done. 

Likewise, since armed resistance is becoming predominant in the revolution, it is natural that those with guns started wielding power. However, it is vital to keep the armed resistance movement in check and avoid “accidental” militarism, even if one considers armed resistance inevitable.   

Keeping the goals focused

The Myanmar Spring aims to establish a “prosperous” federal democratic union. There is a general commitment that the future federal democratic state should provide free health care and basic education for all. 

The Union should also ensure fundamental socioeconomic rights for laborers, farmers, youth, women, LGBTQ groups, and so on. The revolutionary groups deserve due credit for this progressive commitment. 

However, observing the discussions about strategies and action plans, the attention is often on the structure and process. Equal rights, socioeconomic welfare, and public safety are “assumed” to result from the successful setup of the structure and processes (i.e., a trickle-down effect). 

Discussions on structures and processes are indeed crucial. Without them, effective coordination and collective actions among diverse resistance groups are impossible. 

Nevertheless, when structure and process become the leaders’ primary concern, the supposed end goal of public benefits becomes secondary or ideals but, in practice, divorced from the reality on the ground. 

Such an approach runs the risk of rupturing the expected end goals of public benefits from the principles and values of the movement and the very process the Myanmar Spring aims to establish. 

In other words, it will perpetually miss the original aim of public benefits but keep orbiting around the structure and process. 

At best, the structure and process will become the “actually existing” objective (i.e., the real, primary goal in its own right), and the public benefits will still fade in the shadows.    

Politics more than economics

Even then, revolutionary groups’ talk of process is about “politics” (institutions, power distribution, representations). Foundational economic reform is largely missing — a kind that would ensure redistributive justice for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.

Myanmar’s people will not see a better future without foundational economic reforms.

For, a new government running on more or less the same economic tracks will have no choice but to rely on crony capitalists and old khaki-friendly elites who have more interest in greed and plunder for private wealth than redistributive justice.

In the fragile context of a post-war or conflict economy, the old crony capitalism under an unprepared government will cause more inequality and injustice while the rich get richer. 

That is to say, Myanmar revolutionary forces cannot ignore the structural violence and destructiveness of global capitalism that Myanmar is a part of as a provider of cheap labor and natural resources. 

The question of Inclusion

Another blind spot in the anti-coup movement is the question of inclusion. The Federal Democratic Charter (FDC) is a good example of this blind spot.

The clauses in the FDC about non-discrimination, diversity, and socioeconomic and cultural rights may seem progressive. However, its categorization of people in terms of Taing Yin Thar (officially recognized ethnic groups) and Union Citizens with differential rights must be thought through again to make the Charter’s stated aim of equality meaningful.  

The FDC also misses the inclusion and equal rights for religious minorities and cultural groups that are not recognized as Taing Yin Thar. These groups consist of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Rohingya, Chinese, Gurkar, Anglo-Burmans, etc., who constitute about 10-15 percent of Myanmar’s population (depending on which data one looks at). 

Subsumed under “Union Citizens,” they are implicitly referred to as “citizen groups marginalized due to some customs.” The Charter denies these groups’ collective rights and their rights for inclusion and representation. 

In a sense, the charter, perhaps unintentionally, makes the Myanmar Spring a practice of inclusive exclusion (a collective exclusion of some groups) or an exclusive inclusion (a struggle for political inclusion in which traditionally excluded groups continue to be overlooked, if not deliberately discriminated against).  

It is essential to protect ethnic minorities and safeguard the right to self-determination, especially after seven decades of internal colonization and humiliation committed by the Burmese military. 

But, there must be a new way of thinking that breaks fundamentally with the long-running exclusionary racial policy introduced by dictator General Ne Win in the 1960s. 

Framing Discrimination

Related to inclusion and exclusion, it is now the time to address the blind spot in the framing and narratives of discrimination. Usually, it is framed in two separate contexts. 

One of them is in terms of the Bamar against ethnic minority groups in the context of armed conflict, peace, and federalism. 

Another is in terms of Buddhist nationalists against religio-cultural minorities, especially Muslims and those considered of South Asian descent, in the context of citizenship and the protection of the race and religion (i.e. Bamar-Buddhist). 

All ethnic and religious minorities have been the victims of Bamar Buddhist chauvinism for almost eight decades. However, racism and exclusionary practices in Bamar, ethnic minorities, and religious communities need to be addressed. 

Significantly profound conservatism in all religious communities and nationalism in all ethnocultural groups boils down to racism and exclusion against any other groups. 

It is these racist exclusionary psychology, rules, traditions, and practices that perpetuate the circle of oppressing the oppressed based on ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, geographic and linguistic variations, and physical or mental ability. 

In short, the exclusion and racism within all ethnocultural and religious groups must be uncovered and addressed if the Myanmar Spring is to establish a Union that is truly just, equal, and harmonious.

Public Authoritarian Psychology and Behaviour

Last but not least, a critical blind spot in the Myanmar anti-coup movement relates to societal change.

According to activist scholars who write about revolutions in different countries, a successful transformation requires psychological and behavioral changes. In most contexts, they rarely change.

Myanmar is no exception. 

For instance, while many of us talk about and participate in the revolution to eradicate authoritarian systems, the same revolutionary talk to change how we live and socialize in our family and community is not happening. 

Such micro-units of the country as the family, education systems, and religious communities, as well as literature, and popular entertainment still perpetuate conformity, with strict rules, top-down decision-making, patriarchal values, and racist exclusionary attitudes. 

These are authoritarian societal fabric partly as a result of many decades of military rule. 

There are talks of addressing these authoritarian charters in family, community and schools but this matter still needs to become a center of attention in revolutionary visions and strategies. 

Myanmar risks sustaining authoritarian rule as long as the micro-units accept and reinforce such psychology and practices as above. The rulers will find the authoritarian societal fabric fertile for their rule. 

It is the first time in decades that the entire country has risen to oppose the military. It is also unique that fierce armed resistance has taken place in the central heartland of Myanmar, which used to be the recruiting ground of the military. 

Their fights proved the military to be a demoralized and decaying institution struggling for its existential survival. The territorial and battlefield loss of the military means the revolutionary forces are advancing.

Yet, winning the revolution will require not only the collapse of the military or installing a civilian government, but also transforming the societal fabric broadly.

A possible strategy is to pay attentions to such blind spots or contradictions in the movement as discussed above such as building relations with neighbors, focusing on the end goals of public welfare and safety, making inclusion a real inclusion, and addressing the authoritarian psychology of the communities. 

Dr. Sai Latt is a political analyst focusing on Myanmar’s revolution and regional responses especially by China, Thailand and India. 

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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