In Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma, on February 1, the Tatmadaw, the national Army, regained power with a coup, declaring a state of emergency for a year and arresting civilian leaders, whose government it had been ratified again with an overwhelming victory for the National League for Democracy in the November 2020 elections. From the first day, a massive and transversal popular mobilization has been rebelling against the return of the military Junta at the head of the State, parading in the streets with the gesture of the three fingers raised. The repression of the protest has been fierce and bloody, leaving hundreds of deaths among the protesters, who despite everything continue to fight firmly against the new dictatorship. To learn a little more about the current reality in Myanmar, in the Four Elements radio program on April 22, 2021 we connected with Claus Kiaer, Danish humanist activist for peace and nonviolence and promoter of a campaign for the cessation of violence. violence in Myanmar, and Zakaria Abdul Rahim, an ethnic Rohingya, active in integrating Burmese in Denmark and in solidarity and international cooperation with the Rohingya.
[The interview was conducted in English and you can listen to the recording translated and dubbed into Spanish below]
A democratically elected government had been in power since 2015, but the Army, which had ruled the country for decades, had not disappeared from either the state or Burmese political life. It was left with a lot of power, but somehow accepting the government of the National League for Democracy. What happened at the end of 2020, when the NLD won the elections again but this time the Armed Forces did not accept the results? For what reason did they carry out a coup d’état on the day of the inauguration of the new Parliament?
ZAKARIA ABDUL RAHIM: First of all, let me tell you that the military never really accepted the democratic government. Never. What they did was try to use Aung San Suu Kyi as a puppet so that she would do whatever they wanted. This is what happened. They used it to continue acting as they wanted, but being free from all the difficulties they had previously. They somehow tried to make things easier for themselves through Aung San Suu Kyi. Regarding your questions: what happened in the last elections in 2020? And why now a coup has been reached? It happened that the military wanted the democratically elected government (let’s not call it 100% democratic, but they did the best they could) to be led by the military and they wanted to keep the most important positions, but the members of the democratically elected government did not accept that. The military wanted to continue to hold the reins of government and always wanted to preserve its central role. Although the front was a democratically elected government, the military always maintained the key ministries. Externally, the “democratic” government acted, like a puppet, but in reality, behind it, it was the Army that was really ruling. An example of all this is what happened in the case of the Rohingya in 2017. When many Rohingya villages were burned and many people fled to Bangladesh, it was the Army that burned the houses, not the “democratic” government. The “democratic” government somehow endorsed and accepted that to try to survive, thinking that this would have given them more openness and more room for maneuver from then on, but the coup finally arrived anyway.
Claus, you know Myanmar well because you lived there and are in contact with many local people. What has been the reaction of the people to the coup? I know that there have been protests and the repression against the protesters has been very violent. In fact, you are one of the promoters of a campaign to stop the violence against the people of Myanmar. What can you tell us about that?
CLAUS KIAER: Well, I read the news of the coup almost at the exact moment it happened, in the capital Naipyidó. I immediately sent a message to my friends there and they confirmed what was happening. They told me that at first they had been concerned, but later they affirmed that “we are already prepared for this, we are already living it.” And in fact very quickly, in the first two days only in the big cities like Rangoon, Mandalay and a few others, and then all over the country, the protest against the military coup spread. And according to my interpretation and also based on what I have been told and what I have seen at other times in Myanmar, the demonstrations have great national support. The first time I was in the country, in 2009, during the process against “the Lady”, Aung San Suu Kyi, in the streets there was more silence, the protest was more silent. But nevertheless it was perceived that the people were united in resisting, in the temples, in the streets, in the mountains, in the lakes, in all the parts of the country where I went. But this time it is different because it is also a new generation that is fighting, which in the last 10 years has learned a lot from what has happened internationally, in the rest of the world. A generation connected through social networks and who have already lost their fear. From what I have been able to know through my friends and the networks, people are reacting in different ways, there is a bit of everything. The most varied emotions: from fright, terror, to a kind of feeling of unity, of feeling all together. They know, or at least I am convinced that they know, that they are not alone. But at the same time, they also know that they need international support to get rid of this military regime. The Army at this moment has the power alone and solely by having the weapons, but it does not have the support of the population. In this regard, the humanist campaign that we have launched is very simple. It is a very clear letter, addressed to the Myanmar Embassies in the world, that is, directly to the regime, to the military Junta. We are already spreading it among our friends, in the network of humanists around the world, among families and to different organizations. Each person can personally send the letter to the Embassy of their choice or it can also be sent by organizations, parties, groups …Of course, the aim is to raise awareness, to make people aware of what is happening in Myanmar.
Zakaria, you were talking about the Rohingya. Many times in the program we have talked about the genocide and the violence that this ethnic component of Myanmar with a Muslim religion is suffering. At this minute, and with a coup in the offing, what is going on with them?
A. R .: The situation now is the same as before the military coup and those responsible for the entire crisis are the military. Probably many people do not know it, but the situation is that the Rohingya villages are being burned and this is the result of an agreement of the military junta with China, so that it can install its factories and production plants in that part of Myanmar. Every time they have to hand over land to Chinese industries, the military sets villages on fire. This is what they really do. However, they cover everything with propaganda of a religious nature and try to generate hatred among the Burmese themselves. The military even uses Buddhist monks, obviously false monks, to carry out acts of violence against the Rohingya. Most of the country is Buddhist, it follows Buddhism, and the military takes advantage of this to try to install the idea that in a “democracy” in which there is a plurality of religions, the one with the largest part of the population is the one that wins and has to command and make decisions, while everyone else has to keep quiet. This is what the military Junta tries to do, which was behind this violence while the democratically elected government was formally in power, generating difficulties for the government itself. All ethnic minorities lived and are experiencing problems similar to those of the Rohingya, with fires and other types of violations of their rights. Likewise, all minorities blame the “democratic” government for not having done anything to improve their condition. This government effectively acted by doing what was best for it and what allowed it to stay in power, so the situation of the Rohingya and other minorities remained exactly the same. Not that they could do much either, but the main problem occurred when the Rohingya genocide case reached the International Court of Justice and Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of the democratically elected government, denied the existence of that genocide. Undoubtedly the military somehow forced her to say this, they were behind her, like putting a gun to her back. But I think that on the other hand, it was a serious mistake to say that. Also, pleasing the military with that didn’t help her that much either. The military carried out the coup d’état, and immediately arrested Suu Kyi. Now she is in jail on six charges, all fabricated, and she cannot do anything.
Of course, those statements by the “Lady” were a great disappointment and somehow determined the downfall of her myth, of her figure as a fighter for human rights, denying this genocide she denied her history …
ZAR: Yes, indeed many leading human rights defenders, from all over the world, suggested to her to do something in favor of the Rohingya people and minorities But she ignored these pressures, she ignored even the Dalai Lama and other great figures of the same wingspan that tried to push her and “wake her up.” But there was no case and precisely the international community was very upset with her behavior.
Returning to the protests against the coup, I wanted to ask what has been the role of social movements in these mobilizations. I have read that for example health professionals, students, teachers, are playing a very important role in the rebellion against the coup.
K .: According to the information I have, which reached me a few weeks ago, in the first demonstrations all of those you mention have been active in the streets for weeks. Then there have been days when no one else was outside, in the streets, and there protests began in other places, such as in hospitals, in schools. As far as I know, they are in fact in a very particular situation: they are employees of the system, of the regime, but at the same time they are in favor of the people. They are among the families and this violent regime, I imagine that it is being very hard for them to demonstrate: the risk of ending up killed is very high. In fact, many teachers have been murdered for protesting. But I think Zakaria can better explain all this.
A. R .: Speaking of demonstrations, I think it is important to talk about the difference between the current and old demonstrations, the protests against previous coups and those of today. We have experienced this many times in Burma, and I believe that the military imagined that this time it would have been the same as the others, that they would have been able, through violence, to repress and dominate the people who were demonstrating without major difficulties. People before have always been very conscientious and brave, and I have also been part of them, of the generation of those who protested in 1988 and on many other occasions afterward… However, I salute with great respect and take my hat off to the young people who are demonstrating today. They are much more organized, they plan the demonstrations very well and try to put them together in many different ways, even without people, in the lakes, using different types of materials … These days, for example, they have called for a boycott of our famous and traditional Water Festival, in protest against the coup d’etat and to demonstrate wearing our famous yellow flower of padauk. Different strata of the Burmese population are participating in the protests. There are several generations participating, the X, the Y and the Z together, perhaps it is the Z (those under 20 years of age) that participate the most, but parents and entire families support them. We have a lot of experience of coups and protests, which as a people we have always carried out unarmed. We have always been unprotected and the military has always done what they wanted with us, they have killed us inside our homes, on the streets, in schools. People know, for example, that there are soldiers in civilian clothes who are in schools, hospitals and report on what is happening to repress and arrest or kill those who protest. Despite all that, they are no longer afraid. People know that it is very risky to protest and that they can lose their lives. But they are determined and they want democracy. And they want this time to be the final one, to be the final fight to get it. This time the military junta has to be overthrown, the people will not surrender until they achieve that. Never before have I seen the Burmese population so determined and organized as it is now, that is the reason why the protests today are so powerful. In addition, the military has always maintained power by trying to divide the people, also taking advantage of the different ethnic groups: “divide and conquer”. But this time, while they are trying in different ways, they are not succeeding. It is not working for them to break the unity and organization of the people. The people are fighting hard, this younger generation, the so-called generation Z, is very very strong and is managing to unite the people. This same generation in 2017, when the whole country was united against the Rohingya minority, also endorsed the massacre perpetrated against them. But today, for example, several student unions are apologizing to the Rohingya and other minorities. And this is not minor, since the educational system in Myanmar is highly conditioned by the military, who manipulate the Bamar, the largest ethnic group, pushing them to unite against all other minorities. This time it is very different: all the different ethnic groups are united against a common enemy: the military junta led by General Min Aung Hlaing. Since February I have been closely following what is happening in my country, I am constantly aware of what is happening, I cannot sleep well but I try to keep my spirits high because I need to support my people, and our future leaders, from here, in every possible way. At this moment I am dedicating myself a lot to the educational issue, so that young people can discover their talents, strengthen themselves as individuals and fight for their rights. And this time I am sure that we will win, we have to win because we are on the right side.
Claus, how can we support the campaign that you are carrying out in favor of the Burmese people, from Ecuador or anywhere else?
K .: Actually, there are many ways to do it. I think people in general have a lot of creativity, no matter how old they are. We have written this letter, we have translated it into different languages and invite you to send it to the Myanmar Embassies around the world. Based on it, we are making a press release that we will disseminate to different media. In Myanmar, there is a particular way of expressing solidarity: picking up some flowers, putting them around the feet and then taking a photo and posting it on social media as a sign of support for the Burmese people. You can also organize workshops or virtual meetings, organize protests outside municipalities or parliaments, although now this is more difficult due to the pandemic … It is very important to highlight the concept of civil disobedience against violence. Everyone can find their own way to support the people of Myanmar and also various peoples who are currently victims of a violent system, I am thinking for example of Yemen, Syria and others.
Original interview in English and translation into Spanish: Domenico Musella
Dubbing: Stephania Aldana Cabas, Domenico Musella, Mariano Quiroga
Translation by Lulith V., from the voluntary Pressenza translation team. We are looking for volunteers!