NEW YORK (NEWS10) — Nearly two years have passed since the military coup in Myanmar. Burmese civilian forces continue to fight against the rule of Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his junta. While foreign governments are starting to take a stronger stance, including imposing sanctions on military personnel, Burmese nationals are calling for more support and using their voices to educate the international community about the ongoing fighting in their homeland.
On Wednesday, Better Burma and One Light Global co-hosted a panel discussion between five Burmese nationals resisting the Myanmar military regime. Each of the panelists has appeared on the Insight Myanmar podcast.
Topics discussed include crimes against humanity committed by the military throughout Myanmar’s history such as the 2017 Rohingya crisis, life during the coup, and visions for the future. The panelists are:
- Linn Thant: Representative of the National Unity Government (NUG) to the Czech Republic.
- Ma Thida: A Burmese surgeon, writer, and human rights activist. Ma Thida was recently elected chair of the Writer in Prison Committee of PEN International, has been a visiting research associate at Yale University and is currently a Fellow at the Martin-Roth Initiative in Berlin.
- Thiri: A researcher for human rights who documented human rights abuses in the conflict areas since before the coup. Thiri worked as a freelance consultant for international human rights organizations and media outlets.
- Kyaw Moe Khine, an artist known as Bart Was Not Here: Grew up as a Muslim in Myanmar. Bart was frustrated by a school system corrupted by propaganda and the discrimination of the Bamar Buddhists against ethnic minorities.
- Pyae Phyo Kyaw: A medical doctor from Magway Region who came out as gay in 2017 and has become a prominent LGBT+ voice in Myanmar. Shortly after the coup, he and his partner, Dr. Aung Soe Tun, set up a mobile medical clinic in Karenni State.
Due to the length of the panel discussion and the many topics that were discussed, coverage of the panel will be separated into two stories. This article will cover discussions about Myanmar’s past and its impacts on the present, and part two will be released separately and dive more into the present and visions for the future.
Zoe Wild, Panel Mediator of One Light Global: Could you explain what is happening in Myanmar for people who do not know?
Linn Thant: There was an attempted coup on February 1, 2021. I use the word ‘attempted’ because the people of Myanmar do not accept military rule. The military still cannot rule the country.
When the coup began, the people protested very peacefully but were brutally attacked. The military is responsible for protecting the people of Myanmar, but instead, they are killing, looting, and torturing them. That is why people think of the military as more of a terrorist group. That is why the feeling in Burma is this is our revolution. Our lives matter. We have the right to defend ourselves and live peacefully and securely.
The people have decided to fight back. We have groups such as the People’s Defense Force fighting the military. We do not want war, brutality, or to fight with guns. We had to choose this way. Our teachers, lawyers, doctors, and nurses became freedom fighters. It is very sad for our community. The terrorist group pushed them to be fighters.
The military has burnt thousands of houses across the country. We have reports and documentation that over 6,000 people have been killed since the start of the coup. We cannot learn who many victims are because the regime secretly kills them. Across the country, they have detained and arrested over 13,000 people, most of them activists, civilians, and those we call ‘Generation Z’. Last year on Christmas Eve, over 30 people, including infants and children, were killed in the Karenni State.
Wild: Why do you think the international community does not respond the same way to other crises around the world?
Linn Thant: I think some in the international community know about the situation in Burma but they did not want to take the responsibility to support the people of Myanmar in need. If they respect human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, they should support the people of Myanmar. The military and junta are very close to the Russians right now.
People should know about these situations and be made aware of them. Why are they sleeping? I do not know.
Bart: I think part of the reason could be that our leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended a genocide on TV, and things went downhill.
*The genocide to which Bart is referring is known as the Rohingya Genocide. The Myanmar military persecuted the Rohingya, an ethnic and religious minority who were deprived of citizenship due to Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law.
According to the United States Agency for International Development, the military raped, tortured, and murdered thousands in their attempt to ethnically cleanse the Rohingya people. In 2017, 740,000 Rohingya – 400,000 of whom were children were forced out of the country. Instead of condemning the military and their crimes against the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi denied that this was a case of ethnic cleansing and claimed that they would prosecute soldiers who committed war crimes but very little was done. Her pronouncement on this matter resulted in her losing much of the luster she had gotten as an international icon of democratic values and human rights.
Thiri: We are a country with one of the largest civil wars. The fighting is between the Myanmar military and a bunch of ethnic minorities. After 2012, the most prevalent is the genocidal crime against the Rohingya and Muslim minorities in the Rakhine State (western Myanmar bordering Bangladesh). It is a very ugly and sad history that we have to carry on, which I am not proud of. One part of the state (the military) committed the crime, and the other (Aung San Suu Kyi) defended it for whatever reason. The general public was cut out from information, and many people in the country may not have been made aware of what happened. No matter what, the genocide occurred, and we have to acknowledge that.
The same perpetrator is there. If we keep them in place, the violations will move from one group to another. I understand if people are hesitant about supporting Myanmar, but this is the same military. If we do not push them out, we won’t be able to get justice for the Rohingya or anyone else. We should be supported, not because we are the little people from the conflict setting. We deserve to live with dignity, including the Rohingya.
Bart: To summarize what Thiri was saying, the first coup happened in the 60s, and since, the military has been in power. Who killed the students in the 1980s? Who killed the people in 1996? Who killed the monks in 2007? Who made the young people racist through religious propaganda? Who killed the Rohingya? Who took over the country in 2021? The military.
With the Rohingya genocide, the military had a scapegoat in the National League of Democracy, who took the blame for everything. The military is a cancer, and for me, 2015 to 2020 was a pain medication. We were not fighting the cancer, we were just using painkillers for five years to ease the pain. The cancer returned in 2021, and we went back to actively fighting. The head of the military can change, but the cancer never changed. It is the same institution.
Wild: Myanmar is not in the news here like Ukraine, Iran, or some other countries are every day, in the New York Times, in news outlets. It is one of the most striking aspects of the crisis that even the most compassionate and well-informed groups do not know what is happening.
Ma Thida: The challenge is related to the right to information. We have gone through five decades of censorship, which has made us intellectually blind. Serious propaganda has also hit us really badly. Wording like the term Rohingya had been totally abolished because of the 1962 Printing Act (a law that required all news materials to be reviewed and approved by a government panel prior to publication). Due to the censorship, many of the younger generation and the general public never heard of this word. A lot of us were not exposed to some of the bigger pictures inside the country, and at the same time, we did not have enough information.
The problem with the international community is they don’t have enough information about us and what is happening. In this era of the information pandemic, in terms of the right to information, it is not just the responsibility of the journalists but also the citizens of the globe. We need to use our rights and freedom to reach out to every single piece of information that we are supposed to know. Otherwise, our activism will be very specific and narrow.
That is why I encourage everyone, even if your local media cannot talk about Burma, why don’t you actively look at what is going on in the war? Every day after February 1, 2021, there is a protest and resistance inside my country.
Wild: I am curious if you can speak to the global connection of what is happening in Myanmar and how that relates to the larger movement around the world of people fighting against oppression.
Ma Thida: The game changer was the 1962 Printing Act. After that, the military took over the power and invented the one-party socialist system. They created serious propaganda and a very poor education system that undermined literature, the arts, and linguistic rights. That is the key problem because many non-Burma Myanmar ethnic groups lost the chance to voice themselves out. They have no proper way to voice out with their own ethnic languages.
When we talk about democracy, the basic need for democracy is the need for expression and linguistic rights. However, people prefer a better social life or economic satisfaction. The need is no longer culture or language, which automatically undermines their existence and identity.
In my country, the poor education system makes us prefer to earn a degree and not to learn knowledge or wisdom.
Bart: I want to build on Ma Thida’s point on education. I went to a well-known public school that was super corrupt. About 90% of the staff were tied to the military, so they ran the school like a military. They beat us and abused us. When I was in second grade, the teacher put three boys on me. She ordered a hit like a mafia boss. These guys beat me up every day after school in the playground. I did not know why that was. I just thought that was what school was. You are supposed to function on fear. Everything I learned in life, I did not learn from school. They just taught me how to fall in line. You either fall in line or start fighting back.
Around the 9th grade, I discovered graffiti and art, and this spark of creativity really helped me gain the confidence to go against authority. I have friends who were really into astrophysics, but they don’t teach that in Burma, so those friends ended up working in an advertising agency. I know people who wanted to direct movies but were unable to. All my life and in my immediate surroundings, everyone has had that dream that they could not pursue because of the country and the system.
One of the reasons why I participated in the protests was because I wanted education to improve. I had hope in 2015 when they started changing the curriculum in schools. During a visit to my old school, I met my old teacher, and she complained about how she could not hit kids anymore. Hurt people hurt others. It is a cycle of people hurting each other, and in turn, these kids grow up and hurt others. If you went to school, you learned to fear the higher-ups, which is the story of Burmese education. They condition you to fear them.
Insight Myanmar: I want to move the next question to Pyae Phyo Kyaw. You have a unique perspective as we talk about marginalized people and how propaganda has made people more divisive. On one hand, you came out as gay in a community that was homophobic and not accepting. On the other hand, you went to Karenni State in the middle of the conflict and set up a mobile medical tent in the jungle. During this, you realized you were privileged in ways the Karenni were not, and you felt guilty that you did not use your position to speak up for the Karenni society.
Pyae Phyo Kyaw: Before 2015, whenever someone mentions a person as gay or uses that word, the first thing that comes to mind is transgender people. People only know two gender roles, and they think they are meant to be attracted to the opposite sex, and that is the absolute truth. Society thinks that those who want to go against nature should be punished and discriminated against.
People used to think of an LGBT person as someone who has committed sins in the past life and believes that we are automatically infected with HIV. There is discrimination even when it comes to professions. They think we should not be allowed to be a doctor, teacher, or politician because these professions are honorable and have a lot of influence, and worry our homosexuality might be infectious to other people.
We have to start at absolutely nothing and implement it into the foundation. That is why I decided to join the anti-coup movement and resist the military. It is time to show people that we are not inferior to anyone else. We can do anything they can do. Everyone is suffering from injustice and oppression. We understand the feeling because we have been under this our whole lives.
Wild: You said you felt remorse for the conditions the Karenni lived under and wished you had done more.
Pyae Phyo Kyaw: When I was in the Karenni State (Eastern Myanmar bordering Thailand), I was really surprised. Some of them do not feel like they are from Myanmar. Whenever they mention us, they say we are someone from Myanmar. They do not feel like they are from Myanmar, but they have a lot of reasons. For example, there is a hydropower plant in the Karenni State, and some of the electricity that we use in the central part of Myanmar comes from there, but the Karenni people are not allowed to use it.
Along the way, we carry the electricity from the power plants to places like Mandalay. There are a lot of power lines, and the military makes the villagers guard the towers along those lines. If something happens to the power lines, it is their fault, and will be found responsible. But those villagers do not have electricity and are not allowed to use it.
The military even plants landmines at the base of the towers, so the villagers have to guard the towers. They are not allowed to the electricity or even go near the towers. They asked the military to put a fence around the towers so everyone can know there are landmines there so no one can get hurt, but the military does not allow it. Some of the villagers suffer from land mines. It was happening all the time, even between 2015-2020 and we have no knowledge about it as we did about the Rohingya crisis.
That is why I want to ask the whole world to give us support and fight against the terrorist military because we committed that mistake in the Rohingya crisis. After 2021, I talked to the head of the NGO here, and when I asked for help, he asked me, what were you doing during the Rohingya crisis? Why were you people silent? It was such a huge blow to me. I admit we are really ignorant and it is our fault. We should have spoken out, raised awareness, and done something for them, but that is a mistake that we committed. I don’t want the world to follow our steps and make the same mistakes again. If you keep silent and allow the military to grow and gain power, you will be doing what we did during the Rohingya crisis.