Khin Mai Aung writes about domestic and international civil rights issues from her perspective as an American civil rights lawyer and advocate. She is on the advisory board of Asia Centre, a Bangkok-based think tank, and is the U.S. coordinator for the Free Rohingya Coalition, an international grassroots activist network. She was born in Yangon, Myanmar, and immigrated to the United States as a child.
Hope at the End of the Tunnel: Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement and Moving Toward a More Inclusive Myanmar
By: Khin Mai Aung
March 8, 2021
Myanmar (also referred to as Burma, its previous name) erupted in defiant nationwide protest after its military—which ruled the country for decades before transitioning to a semi-democracy less than a decade ago—executed a coup on February 1, 2021. Scores of protestors took to the streets to demand the reinstatement of de facto head of state Aung San Suu Kyi, who was resoundingly re-elected in November 2020. As Myanmar’s “Civil Disobedience Movement” (CDM) gained momentum, a diverse cross section of Myanmar society, including ethnic and religious minorities, joined in support. In refugee camps across the Naf River in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees, who fled the country after a horrific genocidal purge fueled by extremist Buddhist nationalism, showed solidarity by posting pictures flashing the distinctive three-fingered salute of CDM.
Despite severe danger faced by CDM protestors—mounting deaths and countless arrests have already taken place—this is a moment of hope for a new future in Myanmar. For the past three-and-a-half years, I’ve worked in coalition with immigrants, refugees, expatriates, and others within the Burmese diaspora to advocate for justice for the Rohingya and other ethnic or religious minorities persecuted by the Myanmar military. Part of this effort has included working with allies within Myanmar itself to advocate for the recognition of civil rights and to build a broader, more inclusive and tolerant Burmese national identity. While today may be dark, for the first time I see the possibility of this dream coming to fruition. It won’t be easy, nor will it be overnight. I’m safely abroad in the United States, while countless others risk their lives on a daily basis in Myanmar. It’s wrenching to watch from afar.
But as all this unfolds, I find hope in how different segments of the Burmese people and diaspora—including progressives within the country who bravely supported the International Court of Justice’s prosecution of the country for genocide and crimes against humanity, stalwart supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), and still others who were previously quiet and apolitical—speak out in concert against the February 1 coup. This moment of solidarity can bring the people of Myanmar and its diaspora together to build that new Burmese national identity, one in which all the people of Myanmar belong as equal, invested partners.
This moment of solidarity can bring the people of Myanmar and its diaspora together to build that new Burmese national identity, one in which all the people of Myanmar belong as equal, invested partners.
When Burma (as Myanmar was then called) gained independence from the British Empire in 1948, it was founded on a broad, secular vision in which all ethnic minorities like the Karen, Chin, Shan, Karenni, Mon, Rakhine, Rohingya, and others (some of whom are also predominantly religious minorities) were equal stakeholders. After the first military takeover in 1962, which led to over a half century of authoritarian rule, Chinese and South Asians were violently purged because they were seen as non-native, although many had lived there for generations. Gradually, Burmese nationalism transformed from an inclusive, federal vision where diverse ethnic groups had meaningful seats at the table to one that revolved around the identity of the Bamar ethnic majority and Theravada Buddhism, the majority religion.
In the long military era of my childhood, during which my family left Burma, many who opposed the military and its tactics—including majority Bamar, ethnic and religious minorities, and other dissidents of all stripes—banded together to support the country’s pro-democracy movement. The military was an obvious common enemy, an easy target to galvanize against.
The military was an obvious common enemy, an easy target to galvanize against.
Since Myanmar’s 2015 election, this broad coalition has fractured. Buddhist nationalism, fueled by extremist monks who spew hatred at the Rohingya and other Muslims, has cast a dark shadow over the country’s transition to semi-democracy. The military and its associated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) have weaponized this distorted and intolerant strain of Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhism. To whip up support, they unleashed fake social media accounts on Facebook, which posted misinformation about Muslims and the Rohingya to inflame religious and ethnic tensions, and egged on radical monks like the incendiary Ashin Wirathu, who routinely stoked Islamophobia with statements like “If we are weak, our land will become Muslim.”
The military and USDP portrayed the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi as weak on terrorism, and sought to associate the NLD with Muslim interests. But the NLD did not fight back with a sweeping message of tolerance. They did not invoke the vision of an inclusive Myanmar that Aung San Suu Kyi’s own father promoted at the country’s independence from British rule. Rather, the NLD capitulated to Buddhist nationalists’ Islamophobic rhetoric and failed to put up any Muslim candidates whatsoever for election in 2015, despite established and able Burmese Muslims within its ranks.
The NLD capitulated to Buddhist nationalists’ Islamophobic rhetoric and failed to put up any Muslim candidates whatsoever for election in 2015.
Before Aung San Suu Kyi’s election, she had broad support in Myanmar, as well as in its diaspora abroad. Religious and ethnic minorities—pummeled by years of military persecution—overwhelmingly backed the NLD, including the Rohingya. While it is unlikely that Aung San Suu Kyi and her party affirmatively green lighted the military’s persecution against the Rohingya, she and the NLD offered no help or even acknowledged their plight after their horrifying mass exodus from Myanmar in 2017. Even worse, she went so far as to act as the lead representative defending Myanmar in its trial for genocide and other crimes of humanity against the Rohingya before the International Court of Justice in 2020.
The NLD’s failure to challenge the military’s atrocities and its extremist monks’ toxic rhetoric only to be ultimately overthrown is a cautionary tale regarding the bargains that politicians may feel compelled to make, despite their better judgement. I give Aung San Suu Kyi the benefit of the doubt that she would not have wanted scores of Rohingya raped, slaughtered, and driven out of Myanmar, even if her vision of Myanmar did not include them as equal citizens. But she made a deal with the devil by capitulating to and failing to offer an inclusive counternarrative to the Buddhist nationalists’ intolerance and toxicity. She and the NLD were brutally used and then ousted by the military, despite enjoying the clear and overwhelming support of Myanmar’s voters in multiple free elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi made a deal with the devil by capitulating to and failing to offer an inclusive counternarrative to the Buddhist nationalists’ intolerance and toxicity.
It’s not too late for Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD to seek redemption by pursuing a more inclusive narrative for Myanmar, including pursuing justice for the Rohingya and other minorities, should the brave protesters of CDM who currently risk their lives prevail. With the right pressure—both international and domestic—hope remains alive that the NLD’s resounding victory in last year’s election could be reinstated. With some incredible luck, maybe this might even happen without a significant number of additional fatalities.
Whatever the narrow path to return to an elected, civilian government in Myanmar, the country must abandon its lurch toward right-wing nationalism revolving around the Bamar and Buddhist identities. Be it from the NLD—or a fresh new political party, perhaps one rising out of the CDM movement itself—we need the rightful elected political leaders of Myanmar to envision and present an alternative narrative of inclusion, diversity, and tolerance. CDM can be a catalyst for this vision, and so can the NLD and various ethnic political parties across Myanmar, all of whom resoundingly oppose the military coup. If they only learn how to work together, we can collectively grasp at that hope gleaming at the end of the tunnel.