YANGON, Myanmar — Since the military seized power on Feb. 1, I have felt overwhelmed watching both the empowerment of a new generation of young protesters and a continuing failure of political leadership. I am torn between nostalgia and the urgent need for a concrete strategy.
Thirty-three years have passed since the 8-8-88 Movement, a nationwide uprising in 1988 that called for the end of military dictatorship and the restoration of democratic governance; I was 14 years old, a student, and I discovered political activism then. Today, I find myself in the streets again, marching alongside a new generation that is waging the same battle.
The junta detained Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, and key members of her party, the National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), on the morning they were preparing to begin their second term in office after a landslide re-election victory in November. The army chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, has declared a state of emergency for a year. He has cited election fraud as the justification for the takeover and has promised a new election. Public outrage is growing by the day.
The new junta has imposed a nightly curfew and banned gatherings of more than five people in Yangon and elsewhere. A young woman was left brain dead after being shot in the head at a protest in Naypyidaw, the capital, last week. Some 400 people had been arrested as of Friday. On Sunday evening, armored vehicles rolled through several cities.
Walking alongside thousands of demonstrators in Yangon in recent days, I have seen many three-fingered salutes inspired by the “The Hunger Games” and many posters that read, “Respect Our Votes,” “Down with the Military Dictatorship,” and “We Want Democracy.” People are chanting, “Release Mother Suu and the President” and “Long Live Mother Suu.”
Trucks, private cars, taxis, motorbike riders and cyclists roam the city, honking in support. More and more civil servants, especially in the public health and education sectors — and now, too, among the police — are staging civil disobedience campaigns, refusing to work.
All of them are demonstrating against the coup staged by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, but also with different hopes.
In the aftermath of the military takeover in 1988, I spent eight years in hiding to evade arrest and then 16 years in exile. I wasn’t allowed to return to Myanmar until 2013, after a previous military government announced a move toward democratization. I hope the protesters today soon realize what we learned then: Public pressure alone cannot lead to a genuine political transition. Without a sound strategy for achieving concrete goals, we will always end up, sooner or later, on the receiving end of repression and under some form of military rule.
On the streets, I have been running into dozens of 1988 activists — we look into one another’s eyes with sadness. Many of them have said to me things like, “We are back at square one” or, “We all have failed this new generation.” They also said they were protesting against our new dictators rather than for Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi.
Some N.L.D. leaders are trying to tap the public’s indignation for their own ends, it seems, and have urged demonstrators to fly N.L.D. flags at the front lines of the marches. But the protests are largely organic and leaderless; the demonstrators are running on outrage, for the most part with no clear political agenda — not about democratization or the country’s main problems, like decades-old ethnic conflicts.
Many young protesters I have talked to say the military takeover will lead the country into “a dark age” and destroy their future, much as the 1988 coup did to my generation. The Tatmadaw, they say, didn’t only stage a coup; it also declared war against the youth of Myanmar. They see the current face-off as the final battle between democracy and dictatorship.
Last Monday, outside the central fire station in downtown Yangon, I also saw several young protesters from various ethnic minorities — Rakhine, Karen, Kachin — dressed in ethnic outfits and holding ethnic flags. I was struck by some of their slogans: “To achieve federal democracy union is our cause, our cause!”; “To achieve ethnic equality is our cause, our cause!”; “Civil War — No, No. We Don’t Want Civil War!” Those demands were more precise and pointed than most.
But that only seemed to confuse a group of young people from the ethnic-Bamar majority next to me. One girl asked the others, “They are rebels, aren’t they?”
The coup makers’ immediate objective seems to be to prove voting fraud, or improprieties on the part of the N.L.D. government, in order to invalidate the results of the November election, as well as to crack down only modestly on protesters. The idea is to simultaneously quiet and quell political unrest, and to ride it out. That may be difficult to achieve given public sentiment, but the Tatmadaw knows that a widespread crackdown, especially if it brought bloodshed, would be costly for it, too.
The military’s plan longer term is a classic divide-and-conquer approach that preys on the N.L.D.’s shortcomings. Instead of trying to build a pro-military coalition, as it did after the 1988 coup and again after the beginning of political liberalization in 2010, it seems intent today on creating a kind of anti-Aung San Suu Kyi coalition.
The pro-democracy camp is divided, partly of the N.L.D.’s own doing. Many ethnic political parties and ethnic armed groups, and even some Bamar political groups, have felt marginalized and alienated by what they see as Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s insensitive majoritarianism. Some leading figures of the democracy movement set up alternative parties ahead of the November election.
The junta has already begun co-opting some of these players. The new cabinet comprises not only members of the military but also, for example, Thet Thet Khine, once a member of Parliament for the N.L.D., and Padoh Mahn Nyein Maung, a former political prisoner and the ex-leader of the Karen National Union.
Sources close to the military leadership have told me that leaders of some major ethnic armed groups who have publicly denounced the coup have also privately reached out to the generals to say that they stand ready to resume negotiations over the various conflicts throughout the country.
The junta, even as it holds on to the numerous prerogatives and expansive veto powers it has under the 2008 Constitution, is likely to look for ways to lure smaller political players away from the N.L.D. It may well begin electoral reforms ahead of the next election, abandoning the first-past-the-post (or winner-take-all) system, which typically favors major parties, to endorse some version of proportional representation.
In the face of that, what can the pro-democracy camp do?
Several foreign diplomats I have spoken to in recent days who are willing to act as mediators said they weren’t sure what to say on the N.L.D.’s behalf because the party’s leaders didn’t seem to have a plan.
Yet democracy advocates must quickly rally to develop a strategy to foil the Tatmadaw’s. Rather than making rhetorical demands (like, “restore power to the people”) or demands that the military simply won’t accede to at this point (like endorsing the results from the November election), they must use the current protests as leverage to obtain, via international negotiators, that the Tatmadaw won’t disband or otherwise sideline the N.L.D.
The all-out exclusion of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, no matter its failings, would strip future elections of any semblance of legitimacy, disenfranchise large swaths of the population and set back even further civilian-military relations. It would be a dead-end. And a major crackdown would only bring more international sanctions, in turn encouraging a siege mentality among the generals.
Short of some mediated compromise soon between the Tatmadaw and the N.L.D. — or defections among the military top brass or, the least likely option, a counter-coup to restore the party to power — I fear a dangerous escalation.
Min Zin is a political scientist and the executive director of the Institute for Strategy and Policy-Myanmar, a think tank in Yangon.
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