A culture of protest and repression
Since I last wrote to you, protests by students, workers and other groups continue to be a facet of everyday life in Myanmar. These events are in addition to fighting in the north of the country between government troops and Kokangrebels in and around the Laukkai area bordering China. It is always sad to hear of deaths and injuries from the battlefield.
Having myself come from a background in student activism during my time at Rangoon University, I find myself closely monitoring both the protests and the government reactions in recent weeks. I personally think that nobody in our country wishes to put an end to the current drive of reform in Myanmar. But, if we are to successfully navigate our way to a strong, vibrant and pluralistic democracy, then the current protests must be appropriately understood and responded to.
While I want to be careful not to give you the impression that the current atmosphere is anything like 1988 and the nationwide uprising leading to August of that year, it is true that the current spate of protests is also emblematic of opposition to the government. I can feel the frustration of the people with the results and slow pace of reforms spilling over into the streets. But, unlike 1988, people are more aware – via technology and social media – of conditions both inside and outside the country.
Protesting and freedom of expression, as I am sure you agree, are fundamental rights. In fact, the act of dissent strengthens the democratic process and helps to formulate better social and economic policies. Myanmar cannot and should not avoid this. The question thus becomes how protests are managed, used, answeredand responded to by the government in particular and by society in general.
Let me give you some examples to better illustrate what is happening and what needs to happen. Recently in Yangon, authorities resorted to employing a civilian force to crackdown on student protesters. This is an extremely concerning development, as it leaves further questions in the minds of Myanmar citizens as to just how far the current government has actually moved away from the same mentality and tactics employed by the previous military administration.
This action was in turn followed by the crackdown of a student protest by police in Letpadan.It was an ugly affair that again made many wonder if the government of the day has not learned from lessons of the past.
But, let us look even deeper into the origins of the current atmosphere of confrontation. Prior to Letpadan, what precipitated the students’ strong stance with respect to the National Education Law? In my opinion, students saw the government’s use of state-controlled media to present its own story and views – as well as those of some segments of civil society supportive of the government’s position – regarding the National Education Law. This fomented even greater distrust of authorities in the students and calcified their oppositionist stance.
And this use of state media raises the additional issue of what is the role of the Ministry of Information in our democratic process? It is a crucial, but far from straightforward, query. Some countries have no such ministry, others do. Moreover, some countries have combined an information ministry with technology or another related department. For me, the question of what the Ministry of Information currently does and what role it plays in the nation building process is the determining factor as to whether we in Myanmar should have such a ministry or not.
How then, you ask, should the government respond to students and other protesters? Quite simply, the government has to accept the fact that it helps society for citizen’s to be aware of different opinions and views. And the release of all detained protesters could serve as a first step toward this recognition. It hurts the country and the transition to democracy if the government poorly manages protests, as is happening now. In the long run, if such behavior does not change, this kind of situation will definitely hurt the country’s continued drive for social and economic reform, meaning all the people of Myanmar will lose.
Furthermore, if protests are not dealt with in a more democratic manner, we could witness an unstable and potentially chaotic scene surrounding the anticipated November general election. This will come about as the government loses more and more support and political parties latch on to protests and protester demands to pursue short-term electoral interests. This is yet another reason why it is so important for the government to manage protests in such a way that the transition and reform process can continue in a stable political environment. Otherwise, the prospects of the 2015 general election being free and fair grow dimmer and dimmer.
Nonetheless, we should not forget that the transformation or resolution of conflict seldom lies with a single party. To this end and before I put my pen down, I must also comment on what I see as the shortcomings of current protests.
Let me again refer to the standoff over the National Education Law that led us down the road to Letpadan. Students alone cannot change the present education system or associated legislation. Such a cause demands wider support from all walks of life. Instead, students should have attempted to garner widespread public support for their position, to counter the government-sponsored position. This includes sitting and discussing with members of parliament, in an effort to build trust and support among parliamentarians so that effective legislation can be passed.
The resulting greater public debate and discussion on the subject could have negated an overreliance on street protests, and ensuing physical standoffs with authorities could possibly have been avoided. Not to mention, this alternative scenario also highlights the important and fundamental role a vibrant, independent media can play in the democratic process.
Finally, while we here are busy with preparations ahead of the 2015 International Press Institute World Congress, a gathering that Myanmar is hosting for the first time, allow me to leave you with these closing thoughts.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right for everyone. There can be no debate on this point. And democracy, by definition, has a space for different views and opinions as well as the means and ways to implement change. The government needs to recognize this and respect individuals and groups that hold different views and approaches. However, we must also remember that every struggle, including forthe right to freedom of expression, cannot and should not be linked to or solely directed at dislodging the government in power.
I look forward to seeing those of you traveling to Myanmar for the IPI World Congress at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon from March 27 to 29.
This is the second“Letter from Pazungtaung”. Future letters will follow roughly every two weeks. The letters are meant to reflect the personal observations and thoughts of Mizzima co-founder and Editor-in-Chief U Soe Myint.