burma ethnic protest

by Andy Heintz, CounterVortex

With its February coup d’etat, Burma’s military—known as the Tatmadaw—has unwittingly created a nonviolent resistance that is more diverse and inclusive than any movement in the country’s history. The threat of death, torture or prison has not deterred protesters from continuing to participate in acts of civil disobedience against the military and its allies. These demonstrators have shown an amazing amount of bravery and discipline by continuing to practice nonviolent resistance against a military that has once again shown it has no qualms about doing whatever it needs to do to hold onto power. This includes using live ammunition to kill peaceful protesters, arson to destroy entire villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence as a weapon of war.

“We are seeing millions of people in the street not just in Yangon but across the country as well,” Thinzar Shunlei Yi said in an interview with the Public Radio International’s program The World. “People are not afraid anymore. We have nothing to lose.”

Shunlei Yi, a prominent pro-democracy and human rights activist in Burma, also cited civil disobedience as the most effective way to undermine the ruling military junta.

“We have learned from history,” she said. “The military is the most violent armed group in the country. Our biggest weapon is nonviolent resistance. The most effective attack against the military is a civil disobedience movement.”

One promising sign that this may be possible is—unlike past protest movements in Burma—this movement features an alliance between the Burman Buddhist majority and the country’s ethnic minority groups. The importance of this alliance can’t be overstated because the Burman (or Bamar)—who make up about 70 percent of the country’s population—have not traditionally supported the struggles of Burma’s ethnic minorities.

Historical roots of divide-and-rule
The reason for this can be traced back to when Burma was under the control of colonial Britain. During this time, Burma was considered a province of India. The British treated Burma as part of India for pragmatic reasons. It was a market they wanted to capture and they thought it could lead to lucrative trade with China. This decision led to bitter feelings between the Burmans and the Indians who were brought into the country to work civil-service jobs. In the 1930s, Indians in Burma remained extremely prosperous despite representing only seven percent of the population. At one point they paid 55 percent of the municipal taxes in Rangoon—the capital of British Burma–while the local Burmese paid only 11 percent.

This led to widespread resentment among the Burmese which turned into rebellion. The British military put down a rebellion in 1890 by destroying entire villages. It wasn’t until 1920 that a new resistance movement emerged, in in the form of student protests, worker strikes and tax refusal. However, the independence from India wasn’t universal. Some nationalist supporters of Burmese independence used anti-immigrant rhetoric to promote their cause. This alarmed ethnic minorities like the Kachin, Karen and Shan as well as the Indians and Chinese migrants who lived in Burma. Uncomfortable about being a part of a country that might be hostile to minorities these groups started an anti-separatist movement that favored Burma remaining a province of India.

The British agreed to make Burma a separate entity in 1937. Unfortunately, the separatist movement’s inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric created an atmosphere of ethno-nationalism that has been at the heart of some of the worst atrocities in the country’s history.

United by a common enemy
There are signs, however, that the animosity between the Burman majority and other ethnic groups is decreasing. The Tatmadaw overestimated its ability use divide-and-rule tactics to keep ethnic people from aligning with their former adversaries. The military’s attempts to curry favor with ethnic groups by offering them concessions if they switched to their side was resoundingly rejected by minorities who still view the military as their greatest enemy. This is not to say there are not vast difference between the goals of the minorities and the pro-democracy resistance. Most of the Burman protesters still support Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League of Democracy, while the ethnic minorities view them in a much less favorable light. The early Burman-dominated protests featured demonstrators holding pictures of Suu Kyi and placards and banners calling for the release of “Mother Suu.” These early protests alienated ethnic groups who criticized her human rights record.

“I felt abandoned when she remained silent as the military committed alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Kachin, Shan, and my own Rakhine people,” Kyaw Hsan Hlaing wrote in article published in Frontier Myanmar.

But the direction of the protests has since taken a welcome turn, fueled by a Civil Disobedience Movement that has compelled civil servants, doctors, nurses, railway workers, copper miners, and engineers to refuse to work for the military-backed government. The CDM has not only made it difficult for the current administration to function—it also has gained the support of minority ethnic groups as well as the nation’s youth. Ten ethnic groups involved in a nationwide ceasefire agreement that had been worked out with the government have issued a statement saying they would no longer negotiate with the military regime, but would instead support the CDM. The longtime demand of ethnic minorities for scrapping the 2008 constitution to instate a federal system also has begun to receive support from protesters in Mandalay and Rangoon.

The constitution, which was written while the country was still under military rule, provides the military with 25 percent of parliamentary seats. This has made it nearly impossible to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, arson and genocide.

Aung San Suu Kyi: a tarnished hero
While many Burmans still strongly support Suu Kyi, some have expressed regret over remaining silent, skeptical or indifferent in the face of the military’s repression of the Rohingya, the Kachin, the Karen and other ethnic groups.

“People were overwhelmed by the propaganda of the military,” Shunlei Yi told The World. “Now people are seeing this reality and they are confessing to the general public that they regret that they didn’t stand up for the Rohingya or other minority groups being oppressed by the military. The Rohingya are not alone anymore.”

Shunlei Yi also has criticized Suu Kyi’s defense of the military—the same military that kept her under house arrest of for 15 years—against charges of genocide at UN International Court of Justice.

“She is not my hero anymore,” Shunlei Yi told the BBC. “Future generations will blame us. They will say, what were you doing when one million Rohingya people were fleeing our country?”

Many people have noted the streets that are now filled with dedicated protesters were empty when the Tatmadaw and extremist Buddhist monks were brutally murdering thousands of Rohingya civilians and burning down their villages in what a UN fact-finding mission called a textbook example of “ethnic cleansing” with “genocidal intent.” Other ethnic groups also have been the victim of horrendous military atrocities with little support from the government.

Moon Nay Li, a representative of Burma’s Kachin people and member of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, acknowledged that while Kachin and other groups were disappointed by the NLD’s unwillingness to listen their demands for federal autonomy, they still feel the military is the greater enemy.

“The people are united,” she told CounterVortex. “We have one common goal. We are all against the military dictatorship.”

The challenge of solidarity
If the NLD’s unwillingness to offer more than tepid criticism of the Tatmadaw was a strategy aimed at keeping the military satisfied, this now appears to have been a tragic error. Suu Kyi’s defense of the Tatmadaw didn’t stop the military from placing her and other NLD officials under arrest based on fraudulent claims that the NLD didn’t win the 2020 general election—when the evidence revealed they won by a landslide. Hopefully, this will lead the NLD and Burman protesters to understand that they need the support of ethnic minorities to put an end to Tatmadaw’s hegemony over the country.

Despite the contradictions of some in the nonviolent resistance, people in the United States and around the world shouldn’t hesitate to voice their support for this movement. The military is, has been, and will continue to be the country’s biggest oppressor until it is held accountable for its brutal and blood-stained history. Nay Li shared some ways to help the nonviolent movement, including an arms embargo and sanctions against the Tatmadaw. Another way to offer support is to boycott the web of foreign and domestic businesses that fund the military. Supporters of the resistance also can press their governments to strongly condemn the obstructionism of China and Russia. Both countries have prevented the UN Security Council from condemning the coup and criticizing the harsh repression of the Rohingya population.

The Burma conflict may seem like a distant concern to citizens of the United States. But the least one can do for people risking their lives against a murderous adversary is to loudly voice one’s support to show them they are not alone.


Andy Heintz is the author of Dissidents of the International Left (New Internationalist, 2019)

Photo: General Strike Committee of Nationalities, via New Mandala

From our Daily Report:

Burma: thousands displaced as junta bombs villages
CounterVortex, March 28, 2021

Burma: protesters demand ‘R2P’ as massacres mount
CounterVortex, March 18, 2021

Aung San Suu Kyi to face genocide charges
CounterVortex, Nov. 15, 2019

Burma: will ceasefire wind down opium war?
CounterVortex, Nov. 4, 2015

See also:

by Nava Thakuria, CounterVortex
CounterVortex, February 2021

Interview with Moon Nay Li
by Andy Heintz, CounterVortex
CounterVortex, May 2018

Also by Andy Heintz:

by Andy Heintz, CounterVortex
CounterVortex, April 2019


Special to CounterVortex, March 30, 2021
Reprinting permissible with attribution