When I taught a workshop on designing peace and social justice for Myanmar in 2012, I heard horror stories I’ve never forgotten. My work exposes me to cruelty I wish I could forget, and I understand why collectively we have strong desires to look away and ignore atrocities while “minding our own business.” No training will ever prepare a person for questions like, “how do I forgive the soldier who assaulted me and killed my sister?”
What the promise of democracy brought to Myanmar in 2012, the military junta is now attempting to take away in 2021. The violence is escalating as the coup d’état crashes against massive nonviolent protests in defense of a democratic peace. The contrasts could not be more stark; the strategic superiority and creative energy of nonviolence has undermined the violent force of military efforts, but now the body count is growing and there are many reasons to fear the worst.
I imagine those students I trained then are now amongst the activist leadership responsible for flooding the streets to resist efforts at overturning the election. I am proud of their great work, but I’m also deeply worried. The reports of violence, both indiscriminate and targeted killings, are a testament to the sacrifices people are making to hold onto their rights and liberties, but the suppression is real. Several people I know have gone silent and every day I hope to see a post “they turned off our internet, but I’m back on…” I know in my gut that bad things are happening to good people and I feel powerless to help them.
I have fond memories of the place and time. I do not know if I was naïve in believing things were getting better; my head sits somewhere between unsurprised and disappointed.
On April 1st 2012 the spectacle of democracy in Myanmar was tangible—you could feel it in the air. Like the chants at a protest: “this is what democracy looks like!” Mr. Wintin was a favorite taxi driver, he worked hard on his English so that he could take care of expatriates, and his charm radiated. I was in the country as an English teacher and had hired him to drive me to different poll sites to soak in the celebration.
It was a marvelous contrast, the day of pranks and silliness in the US was a day of seriousness, pride, and hope. The first stop on the adventure was Wintin’s polling place; his grey hair was a sign he could have voted many times, but he never trusted that the elections had mattered and this was his first time.
While Wintin disappeared for a few minutes to cast his vote, an international news team started conducting an interview with me. I made it clear that I thought the real story was with Wintin, who’d brought me. His smile extended from ear to ear, and he beamed with delight in telling his story of voting for “The Lady,” the affectionate nickname the people of Myanmar had for Aung San Suu Kyi.
On most days, the politics in Myanmar were not so palpable. Complaints about traffic, taxes, and gas prices seem universal, but there really was not much to say, people generally went about their business. I enjoyed asking Wintin questions and getting explanations. There were stories about the time when the country switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right—overnight. He didn’t remember it being a big deal. I asked if it was an effort to abandon the former colonial ways, or the advice of an astrologer, and he said: probably the astrologer, because people take the advice from their gurus very seriously. He would ask me why tourists were always fascinated with the strange stories they heard? We would go back and forth. The idea of ‘paid vacation’ was as foreign to him as taking advice from an oracle was to me. The friends of mine who introduced me to Wintin gave him a paid vacation a few years later. It worked well because the country had opened up to more tourism and it also had more facilities for residents.
Flash-forward to the present. The freedom of movement is something easily taken for granted and it is one of the freedoms currently being taken away from the people of Myanmar.
Friday, April 9th, 2021 the regime massacred 82 people in the town of Bago, about 50 miles north of the capital Yangon; it was the bloodiest day yet (according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, as of April 18th 737 protestors have been killed). Pictures in the news brought back acute memories of visiting Bago with Wintin. Famous for its large reclining Buddha, about 180 feet long, it is hard to imagine Bago as the location of anti-democratic violence. The military junta has reportedly used heavy weapons including rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to silence protesters. The Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) the anti-coup/parallel civilian government warns that more attacks are imminent if the international community does not intervene. So far the United Nations has issued a statement including demands (like freeing political prisoners) but has not implemented an intervention.
One of the fundamental truths of conflict is that there is no guarantee, no universal answers, and no one-size-fits-all approaches. In Myanmar the junta has been disrupted by simple acts of civil disobedience; blocking traffic has literally jammed up their plans. People have abandoned cars in roadways claiming “it broke down” or stopped in crosswalks to take their time in tying shoelaces. The people reclaim their power when they refuse illegitimate orders. But it is a sacrifice at the same time: drivers do not make money when they are not working and people have to make complicated arrangements.
The failure to honor the promise “Never again” is a guilt shared by many. There are too many excuses to even review. The playbook of disputing election results has been used around the world in recent months. We all can stand strong in the protections of democratic norms at home and abroad. Be it the United States, Uganda, or Myanmar the vote is fundamental to the peaceful transfer of power. Unfortunately, while Trump and the GOP were leading the Big Lie in the US others saw a green-light for their own efforts to undermine people-power. I really wonder about the success and viability of early warning systems when responses are so easily delayed by other disruptions.
Support for organizations that provide election assistance and election monitoring is always needed. Perceptions are as important as accuracy when evaluating the quality and legitimacy of the electoral process. These are some of the high return on investment activities that are first to be cut during budget cuts on foreign aid. The bigger picture almost always showcases that investment in the protection of human rights saves money in comparison with the price tag of the eventual fallout.
The anemic reaction to human rights violations in Myanmar is delivering predictable outcomes, and they will only get worse. There has already been a crisis of refugees and displaced people; the Rohingya literally have no place to go and the displacement is only getting worse. Organizations like the International Rescue Committee are already engaged in such struggles; ten years of aiding people in Syria, six years of dealing with the crisis in Yemen, and 40 more countries of crisis-affected people needing help with survival are just part of their humanitarian portfolio. The scale and persistence of global suffering is alarming, but I remember highlighting success and opportunities for progress with the young leaders. It seemed so simple, everyone wanted peace and a chance to heal.
The greatest hope for the return of democracy in Myanmar comes from the creativity and resourcefulness of the people. I know they can use help, but our (outsiders) ability to effect help on the ground will be limited. Absolutely essential is both international condemnation and a broad coalition promoting accountability in order to restore the democratically elected government. Decades of sanctions which crippled the country were being eased, and it is important to note that young people—with experiences of freedom—are not willing to give those freedoms up. Independent reporting is again one of the first freedoms to be taken away and protests have continued despite the efforts of violent suppression. We must double down on our efforts to get their story of resistance out to the world.
Part of me wants to write my typical message. I normally remind folks that the easiest steps we can take are the actions we can impact in our own homes and communities. Responding to the racism and xenophobia where we live are the best ways to help address these persistent vulnerabilities. Myopic policies are commonly rooted in bigoted thinking and politics. The 1/6 attacks in the US were inflamed by ‘fake news,’ propaganda, and misinformation; education and awareness can stifle the promulgation of prejudice. I want to encourage students and readers to travel when it is safe to go back out into the world. We need to have conversations with people from different cultures and political backgrounds. Real life experiences help us to avoid the problems with misinformation and action is where the magic happens, but…
Part of me is paralyzed with fear. I know the problems are huge and increasing dialogue at home is hardly an answer to the carnage taking place. It feels like we are watching and doing nothing—again. Even worse, our governments are not innocent bystanders. I wish I could tell those young leaders I met how proud of them I am. To let them know that I believe in them. That their good deeds will be recorded in history, for the difference they are making would set me at ease, but I’m afraid. They are smart and the people are resisting—they have no choice—but I wish there were not so much sacrifice and suffering along the way. I know the lesson too well: there is nothing worse than watching someone you love die, and no injustice greater than knowing that loss is unnecessary.