Myanmar’s Real Struggle

By Min Min Thar
25 May 2023
Myanmar’s Real Struggle
Members of the KNDF watching a demonstration on how to operate weapons during a training session for female special forces members and women battalions at their base camp in the forest near Demoso in Myanmar's eastern Kayah state. Photo: KNDF/AFP

Myanmar is engulfed in war. Each day the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) of the National Unity Government (NUG) and the armies of the Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations (ERO) attack the Myanmar military. They destroy military columns, attack Sit-Tat (Myanmar military) posts, capture weapons, and kill dozens of Sit-Tat soldiers each week.

This fight must continue until the Myanmar military is willing to come to the table and negotiate an end to its own role in the political and economic life of the country. But the real struggle today in Myanmar is not against the military. The Myanmar military as an institution has already defeated itself. The real struggle is for what comes after. This is not a military struggle. It is a struggle of ideas, norms, beliefs, and, above all, values. It is a struggle to determine what kind of country Myanmar will be without military domination.

The institution once respectfully known as the Tatmadaw is done. The military has ruled Myanmar for most of the last 75 years. It was a hated, but still somehow a legitimate national institution. Those days are over. The military irreversibly discredited itself with the coup of February 2021. Its horrifying brutality over the last two years has only cemented public hatred. As a practical matter, no one, not even the military itself, argues that it is in control of the country. It is fighting for survival. It is no longer a national institution, but an armed group at war with its own people. In an effort to crush resistance, it bombs, burns, loots, and kills its way through villages, like medieval bandits with an air force. The military itself admits it has control over only a portion of Myanmar’s townships. It has political credibility nowhere. There are people who understandably act out of fear. But there are very few who genuinely back a return to military rule. A future Myanmar may have a national military, but not this one.

The question therefore is, after the military what next? Since 1948, the Sit-Tat tried to make itself Myanmar’s defining institution. Its model was an absolute monarchy, not nation-building. It sought to integrate the country and its diverse people, control the population, and impose its version of Bamar culture by force. Like monarchs, the Sit-Tat equated the country with themselves. They styled themselves “mother and father” to the people, without whom there would be no Myanmar. Paranoid and inward-looking, like most monarchs, they isolated the country internationally and invented foreign threats where none existed.

The Sit-Tat understands power only as control and violence. It forced itself into almost all aspects of political, economic, and civic life. It tried to dictate where people could live, who had economic opportunity, the role of religion, neighborhood activity, who could say what, even who could legally marry whom. The education system the military imposed created fierce competition and obedience to authority. It was designed to crush the skills and instincts necessary to organize against it. They expected everyone to know their place. Army officers appropriated livestock, land, people for forced labour at will. Their wives took what they wanted from shops. Their offspring raced cars in Yangon’s streets. Government officials and army officers could slap ‘disobedient ’farmers. Civil servants in local offices had to provide gifts for visiting ministers. Successive juntas rewarded loyalists with land and import licenses. This was feudalism disguised as bureaucracy.

In fact, the would-be kings in green succeeded primarily in creating the world’s longest running civil wars. These in turn became an excuse for everything else. They squandered the country’s human and natural resources. Millions of Myanmar’s citizens live in exile, unable to make a living at home. Able to destroy but not create, the military had no vision beyond “non-disintegration of the union” and perpetuation of sovereignty. In other words, their only vision was for the country not to fall apart. They apparently never stopped to consider that it was they themselves who drove the ‘disintegration ’they feared. Now the military is at last facing the consequences of its own actions. It has no political credibility and is beginning to lose in the terms it understands - militarily. It will never rule the country again. A return to the absolute dictatorship of 1962 to 2011 or the military-civilian co-governance of 2011 to 2021 is physically impossible and politically inconceivable.

Therefore, Myanmar’s future is in the hands of its people and their representatives, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), the National Unity Government (NUG), the Ethnic Revolutionary Organizations (EROs), the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other political parties. Millions of people have staked their own and their fellows ’lives on a future free of military rule. It is they who must define what kind of country and society replaces the wreckage left by the military. This is no easy task. The military may be on its way out, but its legacies will live on without conscious, deliberate change. ‘Uprooting the military ’will not be enough. Articulating a new vision and people, at every level, leading by example will be essential. This is the essence of revolution. Revolution means the overturning not just the rulers, but also the beliefs, norms, and conceptions of power that kept them there. Revolution creates new order and meaning. It changes how people understand themselves and others, how they understand the meaning of power.

It also means starting now. “After the revolution will not work.” Many nations are, in one way or another, forged in civil war. The society that goes to war is not the same one that emerges at the end. Revolution is a university. It is when new values and norms are learned and practiced.

It is the habits built during the revolution that determines the future, not visions of a post-war utopia. The quality of peace and democracy after a revolution depends on how democracy is practiced during the revolution itself.

Myanmar’s future starts now. The PDFs and EROs of Myanmar’s revolution do not burn villages and massacre civilians. This is not because they are angels or because of international norms. It is because they depend on these villages and are fighting for society in which men with guns can’t kill with impunity. The NUCC does not hold long discussions because they love each other. They talk because they are people joined by geography and a commitment to a new Myanmar. If debate is to be part of political life of the future, tolerance of constructive criticism starts now. If children are to be taught to think, allowing questions starts now. If there is to be press freedom, it must not be threatened now. If the army of the future is to respect civilians, PDF soldiers who abuse civilians must face penalties now.

Fortunately, this revolution of ideas is already well underway in Myanmar. The coup generated a tidal wave of social solidarity and agency. Ordinary people in neighborhoods took control of administration, gathered and distributed food, and kept the streets safe, the water running. The night San Chaung township in Yangon was attacked by the military, people from across the city went out onto the streets to draw the military away from the embattled neighborhood. With breath-taking creativity, demonstrators took aim at the rigid hierarchies, divisions, and ‘know your place ’norms that had underpinned military rule. Pregnant women wrote slogans on bare stomachs. Women hung htamein across roadways. Priests, imams, and monks marched together. Use of the name ‘Rohingya ’went from anathema to accepted. The demonstrators pivoted the conversation from restoring the results of the 2020 election to federal democracy, a new constitution, and an end to authoritarianism in all forms. This shift moved the action on the streets from uprising against military rule to the Spring Revolution.

What the norm-shattering of the demonstrators pointed to is that military rule in Myanmar rested not just on violence but on norms, beliefs, worldviews that dictate the relationships between people. Rigid,

irrational, brutally enforced hierarchies benefit dictators. The Myanmar military fostered hierarchies of gender, age, ethnicity, education, and socio-economic status, with themselves at the top. They used these to regulate speech and action. There’s no need to put people in jail if you can silence them by saying ‘you are too young, too female, too uneducated, too ethnic, too poor, blah, blah, blah … to speak ’or simply ‘you are not on my level. ’

The Spring Revolution shattered the silence the military sought to re-impose as housewives banged pots and pans, drivers parked their buses between police and demonstrators, and most of the country went to the streets or supported those who did. These were acts of conscience. Dictators are unable to conceive of people as autonomous political agents acting on conscience. Instead, they search for leaders to arrest, believing none will arise to take their place, see ‘foreign agents ’where none exist, and make it a criminal offense to ‘insult ’authority. Unable to see acts of conscience for what they are, they are eventually brought down.

The question of the moment is not what we are fighting against, but what are we fighting for. It is not just a question of constitutions, of federation, confederation. Constitutions and administrative arrangements are important. But they will not change geography. Myanmar’s true struggle is to create a new order and meaning to replace the dark world of the military. It means answering difficult questions. How will power be exercised? How will people relate to each other? Will society ladies still be allowed to beat their maids? Will critics be mocked and shamed? Will assistance to those in need be held hostage to stupid rules? Will people be allowed to kill because they have a gun? Will hierarchy and formal education trump ideas and innovation? These are the questions at the heart of Myanmar’s struggle. That struggle is for the freedom to treat each other better than the military has.

Min Min Thar is a pseudonym for a reporter and writer closely following the Myanmar crisis.