Demonstrators gather

In Myanmar’s uprising, some fight for more than just 'democracy'

The generals, most of whom are ethnically Burmese, have immense power but little public support. Their coup has enraged much of the population, from the mountains to the sea.

The World

Demonstrators gather in an intersection close to Sule Pagoda to protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 17, 2021. Demonstrators in Myanmar gathered Wednesday in their largest numbers so far to protest the military’s seizure of power, even after a UN human rights expert warned that troops being brought to Yangon and elsewhere could signal the prospect of major violence. 


When Stella Naw was a schoolgirl in Myanmar’s hilly upcountry, her textbooks had plenty to say about the Burmese — the country’s predominant ethnicity.

The Burmese, she learned, were heirs to a grand civilization, builders of golden domelike structures, or stupas, and authors of ornate poems. That was all fine and good. But when it came to her own people — the Kachin, a minority group based in the mountains — her government-issued schoolbooks had little to say.

Related: Relent or resist the coup? Myanmar’s citizens plot their next move. 

“It was as if we were learning about some people who were extinct already,” Stella Naw said.

There are more than a million Kachin, a civilization with its own language and traditions. Yet, they were depicted as peasants who’d come up with a neat dance and not much else.

“We were nothing more than a cute people without much history. They made it seem like we didn’t have anything to be proud of.”

Stella Naw, political writer and activist

“We were nothing more than a cute people without much history,” said Stella Naw, now a political writer and activist. “They made it seem like we didn’t have anything to be proud of.”

Stella Naw grew up in an era of totalitarian military rule. As of this month, she is living under one again. A Feb. 1 army coup voided a five-year experiment in which generals shared power with elected officials, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, the most famous person from Myanmar.

The generals — practically all are ethnically Burmese — have immense power but little public support. Their coup has enraged much of the population, from the mountains to the sea.

Related: Myanmar prepares for a remarkable but messy election 

More than one-third of Myanmar’s people are minorities — from groups such as the Karen, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Mon, Wa, Ta’ang, Rohingya and others. Anger is widespread and crosses racial lines. Burmese, too, have suffered greatly under military kleptocracy and misrule — and the population’s combined outrage is powering an anti-coup resistance.

Students, doctors and factory workers are striking; monks are waving picket signs; armored vehicles and phalanxes of riot cops stalk the streets. In the Burmese heartland, most protesters demand a return to democracy. But Stella Naw and other minorities believe the country cannot simply go back to the status quo. Elections, she says, did not stop the army from treating Indigenous peoples as targets to be colonized, looted and assimilated.

“Someone asked me, ‘How do you feel to lose your freedom all of a sudden?’ I’m like, I never felt like we had freedom to begin with. Our struggle never stops.”

Stella Naw, political writer and activist

“Someone asked me, ‘How do you feel to lose your freedom all of a sudden?’” she said. “I’m like, I never felt like we had freedom to begin with. Our struggle never stops.”

Myanmar has had its share of coups but none quite like this one, simply because the last 10 years have brought so much transformative change to the country. That’s when the military — in part to end an economic siege imposed by Western sanctions — began dismantling parts of its totalitarian apparatus.

Related: Can Asia’s largest armed group fend off coronavirus?

This led to a flourishing of mobile phones, semifree media and a partial lifting of fear, at least in major cities. Not to mention elections, which gave Suu Kyi’s party control over much of the government (minus military battalions and police).

Now, basic freedoms are vanishing fast. The army orders journalists not to call it a “coup” and imposes internet blackouts, all while armed men snatch up dissidents in nighttime raids.

Accustomed to Facebook, and the morsel of dignity conveyed by voting, the people of Myanmar are loath to go back. The coup-plotting generals have succeeded in unifying the country — because people from so many walks of life despise the takeover. But the flavor of outrage differs across ethnicity.

Burmese protesters in Yangon, the largest city, cry for the release of Suu Kyi. Crowds in Myitkyina, Stella Naw’s northern hometown, push to go much further: Scrap the constitution and overhaul the whole system.

So far, in Myitkyina, security forces have responded to these demands with a barrage of ammunition — mostly rubber bullets, according to reports — that scatter crowds. But the protesters keep coming back.

There is reason to hope that this pivotal moment might unite the populous lowlands and the borderland minorities into a formidable force.

But that outcome is far from certain.

Related: Myanmar: Invest here, please. Don’t mind the insurgents.

“Racism is deeply rooted in this country,” said Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition.

The Rohingya, native to Myanmar’s western coast near Bangladesh, have suffered one of the most vicious purges this century — and the worst of it happened as Suu Kyi shared power with the army, which carried out the ethnic cleansing.

“For us, civilian government, military government, it’s been almost the same.” 

Nay San Lwin, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition

“For us, civilian government, military government, it’s been almost the same,” Nay San Lwin said.

The Rohingya were appalled when Suu Kyi herself, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, flew to The Hague in 2019 to defend the army against genocide charges.

There was even some schadenfreude in Rohingya refugee camps when the very same army ousted Suu Kyi in the coup; as one man told the AFP news agency, “Why shouldn’t we celebrate?”

But such rejoicing was brief, according to Nay San Lwin. Most Rohingya, he says, take the long view: Elected officials may one day reverse course and support the Rohingya rights. But the military will never change.

“We absolutely do not support this military coup,” he said. “We will contribute [to this anti-coup resistance] however we can. Many people in [Burmese] civil society now accept reality … and wipe the old propaganda from their minds.”

This is especially true of Generation Z and millennial Burmese, perhaps the most fertile ground for ethnic solidarity. Those 25 and under have spent much of their lives with unfettered internet access — something their parents and grandparents, whispering rumors in tea shops, could never have imagined growing up. In the old days, news of borderland battles was effectively censored.

But Stella Naw said, “Facebook can give people a glimpse at civil war.”

The country’s best hope, Stella Naw says, is “federal democracy”: a system in which ethnic minorities have more autonomy over their native lands, all while operating under a union with the Burmese-majority heartland.

“Then we could finally feel that we belong,” she said.

For now, the peoples of Myanmar have no other choice but to stick together — for challenging military supremacy will be incredibly difficult, something the country’s minority groups know quite well.

“We should all come together so this country can work,” she said. “And not become a failed nation, which is already on the way.”

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