More than four months have passed since February 1st, when Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, committed a coup d’état and overthrew the government of the National League of Democracy (NLD). The move sparked widespread protests across the country, which were met with a relentless show of force by the military. Since then, the country has been spiraling downwards and the military has killed more than 800 civilians as it seeks to oppress the population refusing to acknowledge its legitimacy.
The Paris Globalist met with Alex Aung Khant, an independent candidate in the 2019 Yangon City Development Committee elections, grand-nephew of the detained state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Sciences Po alumnus. Alex escaped Myanmar about a month after the coup. He spoke to us about the protests, the military’s violent crackdowns, his escape from his home country, the insufficient efforts of the international community, and about keeping spirits up amidst a tragedy.
About a week before February 1st, signs that a coup was possibly underway began appearing. A military spokesperson refused to rule out the possibility of a coup, pressing its claims on fraud in the recent election. In November 2020, the NLD and Alex’s great-aunt, Aung San Suu Kyi, had won a landslide election victory and secured about two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. The military, most likely unable to accept the blowing defeat, alleged fraud. In the media, Alex and his colleagues saw the generals rail against the result with increasingly hostile rhetoric. A coup was unlikely at that point, but became a real possibility towards late-January.
“At that point, I started to prepare mentally. At the same time, we began to set up communication channels in case of a coup. We kept in touch to check up on safety and exchange information and rumors.”
At 3 a.m. on February 1st, the message Alex had feared came in on his phone. The coup had started. He quickly packed his most essential belongings and thirty minutes later, Alex stepped out of his front door with no certainty of when he would be able to return. However, despite leaving his home that night, it would still be six weeks before he left Myanmar altogether.
“At first you want to know the situation. You want to analyze it and understand it sufficiently well before deciding, which in this case was to leave.”
In those six weeks, Alex moved from safe house to safe house. He helped secure safety and escape routes for other activists and political actors. At the same time, he attended the demonstrations that emerged across Myanmar. These demonstrations, he describes, were different from the numerous other protests Myanmar has witnessed in its past.
“The last time Myanmar saw protests of this scale was the Saffron Revolution in 2007. But the Saffron Revolution was led by an older generation. This one is led by the youth. The majority of protestors are still in their late-teens, people who are first-time voters.”
The emergence of the youth as the resistance’s primary driver finds its source in Myanmar’s history. Myanmar was under military rule from 1962, after the Tatmadaw’s coup, until 2015, and the country has been the scene of countless conflicts and revolutions. The violent incidents of the past constitute a generational trauma still present in the mind of the youth.
“We know our history. We have seen the difficulty of our parents and we have seen multiple waves of generations losing their lives.”
This generational trauma, coupled with the increased freedom acquired during Myanmar’s democratic progress, infused the protesters with a united and undeterrable aim to fight back the regime. A unity so strongly felt that Alex thought it was impossible that the military would ever succeed.
“Our generation refuses to go back to a military dictatorship. We know what we will suffer if we don’t resist, and we know that our futures are at risk . So it became an unstoppable force. A return to military rule is simply unacceptable, and that is what pushed us out in the streets..”
Faced against a battle-hardened army, the young protesters relied on a range of creative strategies, both digitally and physically. On social media, public shaming campaigns arose, targeting members of the military and their families. Drawing on protest experiences in Hong Kong and Thailand, the youth of Myanmar learned how to fight back in the streets.
“We had learned tactics through the Internet from the protests in Hong Kong and Thailand. For instance, we knew how to neutralize tear gas. And at the same time, we were so determined. So when they tried to disperse us through water cannons and gas, in the beginning, it did not work.”
Seeing the protesters undeterred and determined to resist the military coup, the Tatmadaw turned to increasingly violent methods of oppression. During the second week, Alex recounts an episode serving as an omen of what was to come.
“On February 9th, after four days of anti-coup demonstrations across the country, they shot a 19-year old girl in the head in Naypyidaw. It broke our hearts. Yet, at that point, we were still trying to assess whether it was an ordered shooting or an isolated event.”
The following weeks made it evident that the shooting was far from an isolated event. By the end of February and going into March, Alex and the protesters witnessed the military become ruthless.
“They were shooting in plain sight, in broad daylight. We were recording it, and the whole world was watching. They did not care.”
At the same time, political arrests were made at an increasing pace. Alex counts at least 100 people he personally knows detained in Tatmadaw prison cells under horrendous conditions.
“They have been beaten and tortured for extended periods. There are even young women whom I know, who have been beaten to a point where you can’t even recognize their faces anymore. The military actually releases photos of them afterwards on national TV. It’s a fear tactic and psychological propaganda tool.”
Seeing the escalating violence, Alex judged that Yangon, his hometown, was no longer safe. On the day of his departure, 56 people were shot and killed.
Alex soon came to realize that his presence in Myanmar no longer posed a threat solely to himself. Family members and friends suspected of helping could become targets of arrests and torture as well. The military had proven that it would stop short of nothing. It was evident that escaping Myanmar altogether was his only option.
“The military had opened Pandora’s box. I knew that after they had done that, they had to follow it through all the way to the end. When I realized that, I decided that it was time to leave.”
Potential To Become Worse Than Syria
Recent reports from Myanmar paint a grim picture of the conflict in escalation. Some of Myanmar’s many armed ethnic groups are getting involved either by providing shelter and training for protesters or by actively taking up arms against the military. The military has responded with artillery bombings, forcing civilians to flee their homes. To Alex, the development has moved the current situation beyond a mere coup.
“The country is already in a civil war, and we are looking at the possibility of a failed state.”
The protestors are facing a terrifying enemy. As one of the largest standing armies in the world, the Tatmadaw has enrolled around 1% of the entire country’s 55-million population as its soldiers, and is in possession of modern and sophisticated weaponry bought mainly from China, Russia and Israel.
Moreover, several domestic factors add to the immense destructive potential of the situation in Myanmar. The country is home to the longest civil war in the world and has various armed ethnic forces. Furthermore, Myanmar has been plagued with corruption, as well as drug production and consumption which, Alex explains, has in parallel brought weapons and violence to the country. These factors combine into the grim prediction Alex has on the future in Myanmar:
“If you consider all these factors, we are looking at a very dangerous future for Myanmar. In recent times, Syria is considered as the worst-case scenario. But who is to say that the situation in Myanmar could not get worse than Syria?.”
At the same time, the steps taken to alleviate the situation by the international community are far from sufficient, according to Alex. The efforts have been unambitious, filled with too much talk and too little action following words.
“The responses from the international community have just become diplomatic words. Companies like France’s Total are still operating in Myanmar and not enough has been done to challenge China’s veto in the UN Security Council.”
In his eyes, the international community is stuck in rigid procedures of international diplomacy, bound by their own bureaucracy. He encourages the international community to take notice of the creativity shown by the protesters in Myanmar.
“If you really want to help defeat the military, there are many actions you can take. The sky is really the limit if you are united. Many have asked the UN for interventions using ‘The Responsibility To Protect’ clause and employing an armed intervention to stop the violence. You can also create financial pressure by freezing bank accounts and ensuring that no international funds or assets can be accessed. That would make it difficult to supply the army with weapons from China and Russia. And if China or Russia keep supplying, you could sue them for supporting instability. Procedures and laws are made by people, and can be changed with enough intent. If Myanmar was on the West’s doorstep, it would certainly be felt differently.”
However, Alex fears that little attention will be paid to the crisis unfolding in his home country. Due to Covid-19, as well as to other conflicts demanding attention, such as the recent flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Alex is afraid that the atrocities in Myanmar will be reduced to yet another headline.
“Unfortunately, people are busy with their own problems and countries. And we have become so used to seeing bad news that we don’t react anymore. It is just another day, another week, another country, another problem. This news cycle never ends.”
Despite the lack of attention, Alex intends to inform the world about his country. While in Europe, he plans to schedule as many activities as possible, aiming to lobby and encourage European actors to apply more pressure on the military in Myanmar.
“I will stay here to try and move and encourage people, because the world needs to be protected, democracy needs to be protected.”
And though far from optimistic about the future of Myanmar, Alex refuses to fall into despair or apathy.
“Seeing lives and futures, hopes and dreams being destroyed in your home country is heartbreaking. And it is easy to feel that everything becomes useless. But it is not the case. If you do a good thing, it will always remain. If you work for democracy and freedom, people will remember and feel it. It is never worthless.”
“That is also how I feel about the demonstrations. They are not in vain. Whatever you do is not in vain. As long as you are doing good.”