This photo taken on March 8, 2021, by the Myitkyina News Journal shows a nun pleading with police not to harm protesters in Myitkyina in Myanmar's Kachin state, amid a crackdown on demonstrations against the military coup. Photo: AFP / Myitkyina News Journal

The people of Myanmar began living under military rule on March 2, 1962, when General Ne Win staged a coup and assumed absolute power. Under his reign, Myanmar became a closed country to the world and declined from one of the most promising nations in Southeast Asia to Least Developed Country status by 1987.

People rose up against Ne Win’s rule in 1988, which spread across the whole nation. But the military, which was the backbone of the government, stepped in to rule the country. 

The military promised to hold an election in one year and allowed the formation of political parties. But when opposition party the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in 1990, the military refused to hand over power and arrested many elected members of parliament and NLD leaders.

In 2021 the same formula came back: After the NLD won a landslide victory for the third time last November, the military refused to recognize the election results and staged a coup on February 1. 

The coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, said he was taking power according to the 2008 Constitution because democracy was at stake, but in reality, there is no clause in the charter stipulating that the vice-president, who was nominated by the army, can transfer power to the army chief of staff. Only the president can do that when there is a threat to national security. People were angry and determined to fight back.

Min Aung Hlaing never thought that if there were demonstrations against his coup it would be very difficult to handle them. He thought the resistance would disperse if he used brutal force quickly. As well, along with the two superpowers China and Russia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would recognize him, making the usual excuse of not interfering with the internal affairs of member countries.

But anti-coup demonstrations emerged everywhere around the country led by Generation Z. Unlike older generations who grew up under suppression and intimidation, this young generation had tasted freedom of expression and modern technology, and connection with the world through the Internet. 

The coup suddenly woke up not only the young generation but also the older generations that their rights had been stolen again by the generals and if they did not fight back they would be put under the military’s boots again for another 20 years. They all are so determined that even though they have no weapons, they will not surrender to the bullies who are holding the guns. 

Nationwide demonstrations started on February 6, led at first by student unions, and then the protests spread across the nation. Min Ko Naing, leader of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group, urged the public not to accept the military coup and to fight for the rights of their sons and daughters and for future generations.

Newly elected NLD MPs formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and rejected the coup even though President Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi were in detention. Sithu Maung, one of the two Muslim NLD members elected to parliament, also gave a speech that people have rights to protect their own lives.

The Military Council was shocked to learn that this time their intimidation tactics were not working well at all. Even though the army was using real and rubber bullets and smoke bombs, the young generation never backed down: Even after some of their comrades were shot dead, they dispersed for a moment but then came back.

February 28 was called “Bloody Sunday” because more than eight people had been shot dead, mostly in the head. Yet the demonstrations kept gaining momentum. People seemed ready to die for their future generations and their dreams for freedom and equality.

Doctors were among the first to protest the coup and refuse to work for the military’s governing council, then they were followed by engineers and civil servants, bank clerks, and schoolteachers. 

In the November general elections, teachers had assumed duties in the ballot booths to make sure the election was free and fair. After the polls closed they were the ones who counted the votes. So when Senior General Min Aung Hlaing claimed that the election was a fraud, teachers felt it was a big insult as they knew it was not true, and they eagerly joined the demonstrations. 

In 1988 a demonstration was suddenly crushed on September 18 with brutal force that killed more than 3,000 in Yangon alone, and for the whole nation the toll was not less than 10,000. In the current situation, the demonstration started on February 6 and spread to the whole nation and now is gaining momentum. Also ethnic nationalities from seven states joined the movements.

After a week demonstrations spread throughout the whole nation. People were joyful in the streets and no violent actions occurred, movie stars joined the movement, as did lawyers, firefighters, office clerks and even street workers.

There were peaceful marches in the streets of Yangon and Mandalay by doctors wearing white coats, engineers wearing yellow hats, and teachers wearing green skirts. Members of the young generation picked up garbage after the demonstrations, so the streets were cleaner than in the past and showed that they were well aware of the environmental impact of their activities. 

But the situation started to become ugly. Journalists were rounded up. So far, more than 15 journalists have been detained and some charged and facing a possible three years of imprisonment. 

Desperate regime cracks down

When people openly rejected their rule, the military had no way to hide its brutality. On March 3, police and army light infantry troops stormed the Yangon suburbs and shot at unarmed demonstrators without mercy, killing more than 22 people that evening. More than 40 people were injured, and some are in serious condition.

The international community including the United Nations and Western governments have issued statement after statement and held meeting after meeting about how they are gravely concerned about the situation in Myanmar. Yet the generals seem determined to kill more people to maintain control.

Death tolls are rising and young lives are in danger. But people are still pouring on to the streets and shouting for democracy and freedom. Currently more than 60 are dead and 1,500 in custody. On Monday night, more than 50 young people were rounded up in San Chaung Township.

The Military Council is desperate and cracking down on the movement in unthinkable ways. Soldiers raided the NLD party headquarters, the 88 Generation open society office, and the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, which was founded by Aung San Suu Kyi under her mother’s name.

The soldiers took computers, files and funds from all of the places they raided, including the Free Funeral Service (FFS) office. Many people in Myanmar are poor and when a family member dies they cannot afford the funeral costs. Kyaw Thu, who was a famous movie actor, became a legend for helping such people arrange funerals for free. He was a strong critic of military rule and was targeted as a public enemy of the state. 

His FFS headquarters building and all the funeral cars, including ambulances, fire engines and all the money donated by the public, were nationalized on Monday according to the Military Council statement. 

Also on Monday, several broadcasters and print and online media were banned for discrediting the council. Journalists are now hiding their identities and have removed the word “Press” from their clothing. 

Will the UN take some concrete action to stop the killing? The people of Myanmar are hoping that the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) principle will be applied in their case soon, but in reality, it is far from becoming reality.

In the meantime, they are innocently waiting for international actions before more of their sons and daughters are dead.

Htun Aung Gyaw

Htun Aung Gyaw is a former president of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) who later studied at Cornell University in the US, earning a master’s degree in Asian studies.