It is now a little more than a month since the military coup in Myanmar led by General Min Aung Hlaing, and the creation of the State Administration Council. Initially caught largely unawares, the people of Myanmar have since reacted with massive protests – the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) – which the military had not foreseen.
The first protesters, a few days after the coup, were doctors. They have since been joined by bankers, civil servants and business people as well as by lots of other representatives of civil society (teachers, traders, artisans etc) in bringing the country to a standstill. Despite pressure from the authorities many people have simply downed tools and refused to return to work in order to protest and to take part in demonstrations. They are thus without income, meaning that the CDM is making life even harder for families already badly hit by the restrictions imposed to counter Covid-19. Between January and October 2020 there was an increase from 16% to 63% in the percentage of the population living off less than $1.90 per day. With many bank employees now on strike a lack of access to cash is making their financial difficulties even worse.
Rival factions have put aside their usual differences to unite in a refusal to accept the return of military rule. The protesters come from all social classes and many different religious groups (Buddhist monks, members of Catholic communities etc). The Burmese people lived for forty years (from 1962 to 2010) under the yoke of the military, and saw their country, which had in the 1950s been one of the most developed in Southeast Asia, get poorer and poorer before “opening up” to the outside world in a quite unexpected fashion between 2010 and 2020. Having enjoyed a measure of freedom of speech and action in this period (democracy in Myanmar was a work in progress rather than the finished article) they simply cannot contemplate going into reverse. As a result, some desperate protesters are happy to risk all; they have nothing to lose.
Massive demonstrations in all the major cities of both south and north, and in Yangon, culminating in about a million protesters taking to the streets nationwide on 22 February 2021, passed off peacefully. But since the weekend of 27/28 February, when 23 people died, the military and the police have joined forces in a violent clampdown. There were more shootings on 3 March, in several areas of Yangon, as well as in other parts of the country (Sagaing Division, Kachin State, the south of the country).
Our representatives report violence nationwide. “We can’t even go out. It’s worse than Covid-19. There’s gunfire all around. They don’t hesitate to fire at children who are demonstrating in the streets. We don’t know how it’s all going to end. For security reasons, we’re staying at home. The Internet is unreliable. No pain, no gain.”
In all 50 people have died and more than 1,500 have been injured. In addition to open repression, there are targeted campaigns: summary arrests of activists in taxis or on the buses, day and night. Around 1,500 people have been arrested (notably activists and former ministers). A few days after the coup 23,000 prisoners were released in order to stoke panic amongst the population at large, but this tactic of intimidation has been less successful than it was in 1988.
GEOPOLITICAL ISSUES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Communications have been badly disrupted. Access to the Internet and to social media is blocked every night between midnight and 9 am. But despite these attempts to muzzle the Burmese people plenty of news is still reaching the outside world.
On the international stage, the ASEAN member states have not yet properly condemned the coup, and have opened a dialogue with the military. Unless they condemn it forcefully, as they are being asked to do by the Burmese people, it is unlikely that the military will relinquish control. The United Nations has condemned the coup and has imposed sanctions on Myanmar military interests in the USA. YouTube has announced that it has blocked five channels run by the military. There is also a battle on the diplomatic front: Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN, who on 26 February made a public declaration of opposition to the coup and demanded that strong measures be taken against the new regime, was sacked by the military but kept in a post by the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CPRH) or government in exile. China, via its permanent representative to the UN, has continued to demand that the sovereignty of Myanmar should be respected (and thus, by implication, is supporting the military regime).
PREVENTING PUPILS FROM DROPPING OUT
Since schools closed at the start of last year’s long February vacation there has been no official indication of when they will reopen. Pupils were due back in school in June, but the start of term was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Arrangements were made for teaching to resume in August but the resumption was short-lived; schools closed again in September following a renewed increase in the rate of infection. In the academic year which began in June 2020 and ended in February 2021 pupils have thus had just one month of schooling.
Before the coup, consideration was being given to bringing forward the start of next term, but the significant involvement of teachers in the CDM means that this will no longer be possible.
Nor has it been possible to go ahead with Matriculation (the Myanmar equivalent of UK A-levels for school leavers). There had been plans for this to take place online at the end of February but the coup has put paid to that idea too.
Some professional training has continued to be provided online during the pandemic. Most of it has now been suspended until 15 March. In some cases, in the sectors worst affected by the pandemic like hospitality (hotels, restaurants etc), no resumption date has yet been announced.
In an attempt to prevent dropouts, and to combat the difficulties that sponsored children may encounter in the field, a number of our programme managers plan to run catch-up courses in the school holidays or to organise activities in our boarding houses for young people who have been unable to return home. This will only be possible, however, if a degree of calm returns.
WE ARE STILL OPERATING NOTWITHSTANDING
We remain in constant contact with our local managers despite the nightly Internet blackouts and get news every day. They are doing all they can to fight the injustices caused by the pandemic and by the political crisis. Faced with a political situation that seems to want to get worse, they have been sharing with us their anger and their fatigue and asking us for support to help them keep going, in the form, initially, of moral support. We have nothing but admiration for their motivation, courage and resilience.
One of our managers, who we will not identify for security reasons, reports: “In Myanmar, people are killed by the police and by the army every day. There are large numbers of soldiers in the villages around XXXX. Every day there’s fighting somewhere. I can’t send money into the field because all the banks are shut. I’ll take it with me when I next visit. The situation is getting more and more difficult. There’s no other way of putting it. But I’m glad to say that our network is still up and running despite the crisis.”
Sponsorship monies sent to Myanmar in January and February have been received safely. But distribution has of course been disrupted and sometimes delayed because of the unrest.
Our programme managers remain keen to receive letters from sponsors, which we forward to them by email. They are continuing to encourage the children you sponsor to write back to you, doing what they can to get the letters out; this usually involves putting them into collective taxis or onto local buses, which are still operating.
A number of our programme managers have also requested financial support in order to provide emergency food aid to families with absolutely no reserves upon which to draw, who are the worst affected by the various crises which are plaguing the country. You can make a difference by donating here.
Finally, we have nothing but admiration for the resilience that our programme managers are showing in the face of the unrest that is shaking their country, and for their willingness to do even more for the children in their care, despite the trials that they are enduring, and the dangers that they sometimes face. We are delighted to emphasise once again how privileged we are to have them and to support them in their endeavours.