clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Masked protestors marching and waving flags in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, on May 6.
Protesters make the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in downtown Yangon on May 6.
STR/AFP via Getty Images

Filed under:

Myanmar’s coup is uniting a country riven by ethnic divisions. Will it last?

Protesters and activists faced a reckoning about Myanmar’s past decade of civilian rule. Now they say they are fighting for a real federal democracy.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Su Thit has a table in a corner by the window in her home. She no longer sits there at night. “You never know when the bullets will fly,” she says.

She fears the Myanmar military might shoot at random. At 8 pm, when people still bang pots and pans in protest, security forces will sometimes fire at the sounds — with slingshots, stones, bullets.

Su Thit, a pseudonym she is using for her safety, lives in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. She began protesting in early February, when demonstrators swarmed the streets in defiance of a military coup that toppled the country’s quasi-democratic government and detained its civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Su Thit, 30, lived abroad but returned to Myanmar in the past decade when the country, with a new constitution, began to ease into civilian rule. She wanted to be a small part of that future. She supported Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and, like the rest of her family, she voted for the party in the elections last November.

When the military claimed voter fraud in that election to justify its takeover of the civilian government, she knew it was a lie. When the military began massacring protesters, she knew her purpose — to be a small part of Myanmar’s future — would now require something different. Out on the streets, among the mass of protesters, she felt motivated.

“We began to understand that it will be a long road,” Su Thit says. “It would not be finished in one week or one month.”

Just a little more than three months since the coup, Su Thit’s belief in a long road is bearing out. The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) — professionals and civil servants who refused to work — and street protests have turned into something much more sustained.

Security forces walk past shops searching for protesters in downtown Yangon on May 6.
STR/AFP via Getty Images

“Everyone is against the military,” Wathone, a 27-year-old protester in Yangon, said, using a pseudonym that he says means “rain”; it used to be his pen name when he wrote poetry as a teen.

“If there was no coup,” Wathone added, “we wouldn’t have this kind of unity.”

This unrelenting opposition to Myanmar’s military has brought together people of different classes, ages, and most importantly, ethnic and religious groups — many of whom have been marginalized and brutalized by Myanmar’s military, some for the entire life of the country.

“We have our own common enemy,” said Moon Nay Lin, a spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, an advocacy and human rights organization to help those in Kachin state, where an insurgent movement has been at war with the state on and off for decades.

“All of the people from Burma, including the ethnic people, are the same feeling on military,” Moon Nay Lin added, referring to Myanmar by its former name.

The coalition that has formed against the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is called, has also forced the country to reckon with what should, or could, replace it. At first, the protesters called for the release of political detainees and the restoration of democracy. Now they want something radically different.

“The call is much bigger now,” said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, an activist with Burma Campaign UK. They want to see the military dictatorship fall; they want to see the 2008 constitution — which ushered in Myanmar’s civilian government but kept ultimate authority in the military’s hands — abolished for good. They want to establish a federal democratic union with equal rights and equal treatment for all.

“That’s why people are very determined to get rid of this military, once and for all, because we don’t want to go back to this situation in another 10 years' time,” Wai Hnin added.

This determination has, against dangerous and unfathomably difficult odds, lent the movement a kind of desperate optimism. Protesters, advocates, and ethnic civil society groups inside and outside Myanmar believe the struggle is winnable, although they realize it’s unlikely to happen with nonviolent protests alone.

For now, Su Thit avoids the table by the window and makes sure her phone is clear of any social media if she goes outside. She still helps organize protests, small ones, where people converge quickly in one location, and just as quickly disappear.

This is daily life in Myanmar, a country convulsing toward revolution. “I think we can still win,” Su Thit said. “It’s just that I’m not too sure how — and how long will it take.”

The great awakening that gave the protests life

Ashley Wai, a 20-year-old former medical student in Yangon, used to believe Aung San Suu Kyi would take care of everything. She trusted her, as did most people she knew. “We thought everything she did was right,” she said.

Suu Kyi is an almost mythical figure in Myanmar. She is the daughter of the man who helped win the country’s independence, and the country’s pro-democracy champion, put under house arrest by the military from 1989 until 2010.

So when Suu Kyi defended the military’s brutal operations in Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims there — operations a United Nations report found were carried out with “genocidal intent” — Wai supported them. She thought the military was defending her from invaders. She called the Rohingya “Bengalis” — a conspiracy theory that suggests the Rohingya are foreigners and unauthorized immigrants.

An overview of a Rohingya refugee camp after a fire broke out on March 22, destroying thousands of shelters and killing 15 people.
K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images

When the coup happened, Wai joined protests calling for Suu Kyi to be freed. But something felt wrong. She started to see the military’s shocking violence at these protests, the so-called defenders of the nation turning their weapons on their own people. She started learning about the military’s history, her country’s history. A mentor in the movement told her to read a book about the Rohingya genocide.

“Why didn’t I know? Why was I silent when they did the same in Rakhine? Why didn’t I know? Why was I so stupid?” she said she asks herself, over and over.

In early February, Wai publicly apologized for the treatment of the Rohingya people, and for her ignorance. It was scary, she said, and a few friends turned against her. But she is also ashamed and angry for having done nothing before. For her, this fight to build a new country is part awakening, part atonement.

Wai’s experience is an extreme example of the kind of revelation that has happened among many young protesters, especially among the majority Bamar ethnic group. “Some of us were brainwashed,” Wathone, the protester in Yangon, said. “But now everyone understands what the Rohingya feel, what the ethnic groups feel.”

Myanmar’s military has had some degree of control since the country gained independence in 1948. In the late 1980s, protests kicked off by students built a pro-democracy movement where Suu Kyi rose to prominence, and which tried to challenge the military’s grip.

In the decade that followed, Myanmar remained cut off from the world. The repressive regime became a political and economic pariah in the West, and the US placed hefty sanctions on the country for years. In 2008, the Tatmadaw adopted a new constitution with some small democratic openings. In 2015, Suu Kyi won the elections and became the de facto civilian leader. In response, the US lifted those sanctions.

The military retained significant power under the new arrangement. Suu Kyi, too, also deferred to the Tatmadaw, most notably in its campaign against the Rohingya. She referred to evidence of atrocities as “fake news” and framed the crackdown as operations against terrorism. And in 2019, she defended Myanmar against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands.

And many of her biggest supporters, especially those in the Bamar majority like Ashley Wai, deferred to her.

Myanmar is an ethnically diverse state, but minority ethnic groups have been long marginalized and, like the Rohingya, face discrimination, structural racism, and often violence. The military, throughout its history, used this to its advantage, framing these groups as a threat to the country that necessitated a strong military response.

“The military has based its profits and power on perpetuating eternal ethnic conflict in the country, because that was its very rationale for its existence,” said David Brenner, a lecturer in conflict and security at the University of Sussex and author of Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands.

Many supporters of Suu Kyi and the NLD who believed in democracy and distrusted military rule didn’t necessarily reject a role for the military. A thread of chauvinism ran through it all, and tightly controlled information — or outright misinformation — meant people didn’t fully understand the scale and relentless of the military’s violence against some groups.

Mourners make three-fingered salutes while carrying the coffin of Aung Kaung Htet, 15, who was killed when military junta forces opened fire on anti-coup protesters in Yangon, on March 21.
Stringer/Getty Images
Aung Kaung Htet’s sister cries while holding a portrait of him during his funeral.
Stringer/Getty Images

Nickey Diamond, a human rights advocate with Fortify Rights, said that, especially when it came to the Rohingya, they were framed as “an external threat like Islamic terrorism.”

The coup has dramatically shaken that faith. “Many of them have changed their opinion after what they have seen, the true color of military,” Su Thit said. “They were like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know that. This could actually happen in other areas as well. And it happened to us.’”

That has led to public apologies like Wai’s, regrets and admonitions flooding Facebook and other social media networks of young protesters and activists. “We did apologize to Rohingya people, to ethnic people,” Wathone said. “Now we understand what you have suffered. We will no longer discriminate; we will no longer ignore your identity.”

Feelings about Aung San Suu Kyi are much more complicated, and some protesters I spoke to still see her as doing her best against the military. She’s a figure they still admire and honor, even if, perhaps, a new generation is rising up. Ashley Wai told me, “I hate her because I loved her so much.”

But on the military, the feelings are clear: “People are very united,” said Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya and founder of the Women’s Peace Network, which advocates for human rights and democracy in Myanmar. “They started to realize the suffering of the Rohingya, the Kachin, Karen, Rakhine, all of these things were true. In the past, they did not believe they were true, but now they started to realize that if this could happen to us, for this community, it could be worse.”

The civil wars and ethnic conflicts they had ignored or disbelieved had come to Yangon and Mandalay, their own cities. And when that happened, protesters turned to the ethnic armed organizations themselves for protection.

Unity, but with wariness attached

Nickey Diamond fled from Yangon in mid-March. His work on human rights had always made him a target, but the danger only intensified after the coup. He sought haven from the Karen National Union, a political organization representing the Karen people, which operates in eastern Myanmar, in the jungle borderlands with Thailand. The conflict there, which has existed in some form since 1948, is sometimes called the world’s longest-running civil war.

Diamond, who asked to use his English name, is not alone; as the military escalated its crackdown in cities like Yangon, protesters, activists, and members of the Civil Disobedience Movement fled to areas held or defended by armed ethnic organizations. These groups are now sheltering them and providing them food. They are also, in some cases, providing military training, to prepare them to fight the junta. These groups are providing this aid as the Myanmar military is continuing to target these areas with air strikes and other attacks, displacing civilians and forcing some to flee, such as ethnic Karen trying to escape into Thailand.

This is not a new role for these groups. “There is a history of ethnic armed groups looking after these young Bamar activists,” said Jenny Hedström, associate senior lecturer in war studies at the Swedish Defense University. During the student uprising in late 1980s and ’90s, protesters also escaped to territories controlled by ethnic armed organizations. There, they sought refuge, food, and training.

But the refuge and support they provided to pro-democracy activists did not necessarily translate to a change in status for the ethnic minority groups, including during the transition to democracy under the leadership of the NLD. That has made those groups a bit wary this time around.

“The sense that I get the most is of excitement and potential new mindset — but also huge mistrust and fear that are they going to be used once again,” said Mabrur Ahmed, founder and director of Restless Beings, a UK-based human rights group that works closely with Rohingya communities.

He said there is genuine hope for reform and a belief in a new Myanmar and in reconciliation. “But 60 years of division and 60 years of racial and ethnic vitriol don’t go away overnight,” Ahmed added.

It’s a complicated calculus: On the one hand, there is a long history of distrust to overcome. On the other, all share the common enemy of the Tatmadaw.

Naw Wah Ku Shee, director of the Karen Peace Support Network, an organization that works with ethnic Karen civil society groups in Myanmar and Thailand, told me that they really do see a change, especially among the younger generations. “They apologize about what’s happened in the past and that they have been silent,” she said. “They have ignored what’s happening to the suffering of other ethnic people, and they’re sorry for what’s happened.”

But wariness and skepticism still exist. The big question is how deep this push for accountability and reconciliation will go — and whether it’s a lasting shift or one driven by necessity against that common enemy.

Naw Wah Ku Shee said ethnic minorities have felt betrayed before, but she also believes this moment is different. “The brutality of the Burma military is even worse,” she said. “Our first priority is to end this military dictatorship, which is why we need to work together.”

Anti-coup demonstrators block a road in Yangon on March 20.
Stringer/Getty Images
The movement has been clear that its goal is the creation of a federal democracy.
Stringer/Getty Images

It has not been a perfect relationship so far. Myanmar has many ethnic groups and armed ethnic organizations, and some have been much more openly supportive of the protest movement than others. Early on, some protesters criticized the armed ethnic groups for failing to come to the defense of the movement sooner, which had echoes of both chauvinism and hypocrisy.

That has changed as ethnic groups have sheltered and fed and offered assistance to protesters — and that support is shared and celebrated among the social networks of protesters, something that didn’t happen during the pro-democracy movement in the late ’80s and ’90s. That visibility has created a shift, Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher who studies security and human rights in Myanmar, said, “both in terms of realizing quite how bad the military is, but also that the armed groups are genuinely doing something for political change — and are actually trying to fight against dictatorship.”

Still, as Ahmed said, there’s a lot going on — confronting a complicated ethnic history while waging a revolt against the perpetrators of it. But the armed ethnic groups are also in a position of relative strength. They are the ones with the weapons and the experience fighting the Tatmadaw. And what they have been fighting for, a federal democracy, is finally a demand of the protesters themselves.

“There has never been this kind of chance before,” Naw Wah Ku Shee said.

The movement is united against the military. But what comes next?

The movement has been clear that its goal is the creation of a federal democracy. But how to get there, how inclusive it would actually be, and what victory over the Tatmadaw would even look like — no one has the answers yet.

Ousted NLD lawmakers have reconstituted as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH — Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is the name of Myanmar’s legislature) and have since formed a parallel National Unity Government (NUG) that includes some members of the protest movement and ethnic organizations. The NUG has promised to create a new constitution built on the idea of Myanmar as a federal democracy, which may hold the promise of giving a stake to ethnic minority and religious groups.

The CRPH, and its NUG, is the body that’s advocating for Myanmar’s democracy movement with the international community. But members of the Civil Disobedience Movement and other younger activists expressed some skepticism about whether the NUG was really as committed to the idea of an inclusive, federal democracy. At the same time, in an otherwise leaderless and diverse movement, they have risen to the top.

Many see the CRPH and NUG as using the right rhetoric, but as failing to give real decision-making power to ethnic groups, or at least stakeholders in those communities that have a lot of clout. Others I spoke to criticized the body for failing to fully condemn the treatment of ethnic minorities in the past, including the Rohingya. One cabinet minister has issued a public apology to the Rohingya, but as Wai Wai Nu pointed out, government officials have not yet adopted an official policy on the Rohingya. (The CRPH did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)

Supporters of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) hold a demonstration in London on May 2.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Htuu Lou Rae, a UK-based member of of the Anti-Junta Mass Movement, said that he and other members are working to try to pressure the CRPH and NUG to be more inclusive, including of working-class people.

Many see the NUG as a reshuffled version of the NLD, just with people who didn’t have power during Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership of the party now in charge. “It’s difficult because, is the CPRH just a version of the NLD? And I think that’s where the doubt comes in. It’s not that the NLD is necessarily not wanted, it’s just — is that what the people want?” Ahmed said.

Some activists also fear this new government will strike some sort of deal with the military that would keep them in power. “We’re starting to worry that the federal democracy that the CRPH is describing will look like what was under the 2008 military coup, but with a civilian government in control of the military,” Htuu Lou Rea said.

Others told me that defeating the military remains the main goal — and next comes the difficult reckoning with what would replace it. “There needs to be a lot of work after the fall of the dictatorship, we’re not fooled by, ‘Oh, there’s unity now, and everything will be okay.’ It’s a start,” Wai Hnin, with Burma Campaign UK, said.

“Nonviolence is maybe not working”

Almost all the people I spoke to, especially those inside the country, are preparing for more bloodshed.

Many I spoke with are proud of the nonviolent origins of the movement, but they recognize that status is tenuous. The Civil Disobedience Movement has lasted for months, but there is real worry over how long people can continue to resist, especially civil servants and other workers who do not have money saved up. “They are barely surviving,” said Tin Tin Nyo of the Burmese Women’s Union.

Others see this uprising turning into something else. “Even though we understand that nonviolence is the answer, nonviolence is maybe not working,” Wathone, the protester in Yangon, said. “So we need some armed resistance.”

Wathone was in a safe house when we spoke via an encrypted app, with the phone connection going in and out. He didn’t think he could stay there long. He knows colleagues who have been arrested, others who have been interrogated, hands tied behind their backs, and stripped of their money and their phones. He always makes sure he has an escape route from his apartment. If security forces were to crash through his door, he would go out the window and down a ladder, though if it couldn’t hold him, or if he fell, he would be dead.

Other protesters I spoke with also said they believe an armed revolution is the only way out. But what role they see themselves playing in such a revolution is less clear. Su Thit told me that she would support a revolution with communications and logistics, but that she could not kill. Ashley Wai has asthma, and worries that might make it physically difficult to fight. But she also does not want to stay and hide.

“They realize they cannot win this fight with their bare hands,” Tin Tin Nyo said.

Anti-coup protesters run as soldiers arrive to disperse their demonstration in Yangon on May 11.

Others are more skeptical that the military can be defeated or excised from Myanmar altogether. “The problem is that whatever solution you come up with, you have to include the military, whether you like it or not,” said Harn Yawnghwe, executive director of Euro-Burma.Because they are the ones with all the guns and are in the strongest position right now.”

Experts and advocates I spoke to said the Myanmar military, especially if it had to fight widespread resistance, could be weakened and stretched thin through a war of attrition. But Harn Yawnghe said he feared such an outcome would lead to chaos and make Myanmar vulnerable to its powerful neighbors — like China — that might get drawn in.

Many are also looking to the international community for support. Experts and advocates I spoke to believe an arms embargo and more aggressive sanctions could weaken the Myanmar military. “They have a lot to lose: their power, their business, their everything. It’s the public who has nothing to lose, not them,” Wai Wai Nu said.

Yet they also understand the limits of international support.

Wathone said that many protesters talk about when the United States will come and intervene. He tells them it’s just a fantasy story. “We only have us. We can only save each other,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been telling them every day.”

Future Perfect

Should Big Pharma pay poor countries for finding new diseases?


Can Biden contain the fallout from his Gaza policy in Michigan?

World Politics

Why the Palestinian Authority’s government dissolved

View all stories in World Politics

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.