Myanmar’s civil disobedience does more than foreign engagement can

Myanmar's civil disobedience movement in action in Hladen. Photo: သူထွန်း, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement is powerful because it does away with the illusion that anyone but the people of Myanmar will be able to bring the country lasting peace or democracy.

Editorial

As the Myanmar military escalates its violent crackdown on peaceful protestors and the death toll rises, the country’s civil disobedience movement is a rare source of hope. For many in Myanmar, sustaining this movement has become key to keeping that hope and pushing back against the junta.

Just days after the coup, public employees from hospitals, banks and other sectors announced that they would not work for the generals. The move was both a gesture of resistance to the military and a practical tactic to show the country would not function under the junta.

Frontier Myanmar estimates that tens of thousands of public employees have now joined the strike but many in the civil disobedience movement have lost their income as a result of joining. The military says it will pay the salaries of many striking state employees only if they sign a written pledge to return to work. The strikers also face enormous personal risk as the military threatens them and shows it is willing, once again, to shoot and kill.

In response, grassroots support groups have come together across the country and online to collect donations and funnel them to those in the civil disobedience movement who are going without pay. Networks inside the country, Myanmar nationals abroad, their supporters, celebrities and politicians have all organized groups.

Numerous Myanmar civil disobedience groups have been set up on Facebook

Like the mutual aid groups that formed around the world in response to the pandemic, the civil disobedience support groups ask people to give what they can to support those who are struggling to get by. Inside Myanmar, much of the organizing happens through Facebook groups. A group called “Civil Disobedience Campaign – Myanmar Engineers” had raised over 50 million kyats (US$35,483) by early March, according to Frontier. The group’s leader said it was enough to help around 300 people, just a fraction of those who need it.

The civil disobedience movement is powerful because it does away with the illusion that anyone but the people of Myanmar will be able to bring the country lasting peace or democracy. The international community cannot “save” the country, nor would they provide a lasting solution. 

Since the waning years of its last dictatorship, Myanmar has received a river of well-meaning and often very helpful international support. But too much of this foreign involvement sought to engage with the military—to reason or bargain with them until they concede power. The current resistance in Myanmar realizes the flaws in this and leaves behind, as Bertil Lintner puts it in The Irrawaddy, the “white messiahs” and the “white monkeys”.

As evidenced by the coup on February 1, the country will remain in precarious, tentative transition unless the people strip the military of its power. This is not entirely the task of the striking public servants—the movement serves as a catalyst to keep people coming into the streets for protests and organizing boycotts. In this sense, the civil disobedience movement is profoundly and radically empowering.

Many in Myanmar were already engaged in resistance to the military. Throughout the democratic transition that began in 2010, ethnic minority communities placed their faith—or didn’t—in opaque internationally-endorsed peace processes that left the guns, the government, the country and its land and resources in the hands of the military. Activists have pushed for civil and political rights, environmental protection, press freedom and other reforms. As the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya unfolded, people around the world began to question Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and its ability to check the power of the military. 

The civil disobedience movement is the next step in taking power from the military, by showing, quite literally, that it is not the generals who provide care in hospitals, run the banks, teach in schools or keep Myanmar’s infrastructure functioning.

Protestors in Kayin State. Photo: Ninjastrikers, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Myanmar’s growing strike presents a problem for the junta

The support groups that have coalesced to help striking public employees have done so in part because the strikers are already having a clear impact.

As Aye Min Thant and Yan Aung wrote in early March, “The strikes by public servants have slowed international trade to a crawl, government hospitals are having to turn away patients and the banking system is unable to function, creating a cash crunch. What happens next will determine whether Myanmar is able to rid itself of the military junta or if millions will suffer pointlessly.”

Striking healthcare workers have forced over a quarter of the 1,200 government hospitals to shut down. In the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, over half of the workers are reportedly on strike. 

In the financial sector, employees at both public and private banks have joined the strike. As Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U points out, this may turn out to be the movement’s most profound impact.

“Shutdowns in the banking system—by making payments to thousands of businesses and payrolls to more than a million people nearly impossible—are more likely than anything else to bring the political stand-off to a head,” he told the Financial Times.

Photo: Kantabon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Support groups work to get relief to those in the civil disobedience movement

The junta’s State Administration Council has called for a crackdown on foreign funding for the protest movement—the “money behind riots and protests”, according to the military, though it appears the mutual aid-style fundraising is focused on helping striking civil servants, rather than funding protests.

But the support groups are struggling to find ways to get money to those in the civil disobedience movement who need it.

The groups have faced government interference and some organizers have expressed concern about surveillance and that their bank accounts might be shut down. Many of the groups, especially those outside Myanmar, are finding it difficult to transfer donations because the country’s banking system has been crippled by striking workers. 

The groups use a variety of methods to transfer funds. One Facebook group, PiTi, collects donations through KBZ Pay, a mobile wallet run by KBZ Bank. One source who spoke with Frontier Myanmar said foreign companies outside the banking sector were acting as conduits for donations.

But efforts to collect donations and disburse funds also have to grapple with the issue of trust. There is a history of military infiltration and surveillance in Myanmar. Everyone involved in supporting civil disobedience—strikers, donors or organizers of the support groups—has had to assess risk and do what they can to build secure networks.

Though sustaining the civil disobedience is key and likely to bring results in the long-term, it’s unlikely the movement will expand. While striking public servants can have a major impact and make a clear statement against the junta, the movement has shied away from a long-term general strike for good reason. Many in the country would simply be unable to get by if they don’t work and the movement also has to ensure it doesn’t push people away from the resistance by making life too difficult.

“The goal should be to inflict maximum harm on the military regime’s ability to function while ensuring the public can still access basic necessities,” write Aye Min Thant and Yan Aung. “If the people begin to lose not only income but also electricity, water and household waste collection, living under a military dictatorship may start to look more appealing.”

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