Myanmar between pandemic and coup

After our last clients left Myanmar in a hurry on March 27, 2020, we closed the office, packed everything up and went straight to our farm. Shwe Yee had bought land in September 2019, 2 ½-hour drive outside Yangon, sowed maize and sunflowers and slowly started to form a farm. As if she had foreseen what was to come for us in 2020.

Here we were, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, looking over the garden to the river and enjoying life. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon we plough the fields and in between we sat on our terrace, lazing, reading, and answering emails. We did not receive many emails, and we knew it would stay that way for some time.

At the end of 2020, Shwe Yee was becoming more and more the perfect host, entertaining everyone and cooking for 60 to 70 people every day. I did some garden work, kept the house clean, and was available as a guide for our guests in the afternoon. There was a short half-hour walk to the reservoir, a boat trip to the different islands and then back again. The tour lasted about two hours. After the last guests had waved goodbye and peace had returned, we relaxed on our wooden bench, drank a glass of wine, and watched the view overlooking the garden. A nice life! Actually, we did quite well without a travel agency, until the news about the military coup reached us at 06:45 on February 1, 2021.

Just 10 years after initiating a transition to civilian rule, the Tatmadaw was back in control in Myanmar. With top civilian leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint detained, there were soldiers out on the streets and phone and internet services cut in large parts of the country.

Hours after the coup, the military declared a one-year state of emergency, using the NLD governments’ alleged failure to act on its claims of “terrible election fraud” as a pretext. It also pledged new “free and fair” elections, in a year’s time, and announced that they handed the power to Min Aung Hlaing.

In the coming days and weeks, it became clear that the military coup had nothing to do with election fraud. In our opinion, the NLD had won too many seats and had thus had come a little closer to its goal of changing the constitution. Short after the coup the military pressed charges against President Win Myint of violating the ban on assembly during the curfew, and they searched Aung San Suu Kyi's house, where they found walkie-talkie radios, which supposedly violated the import law. Later they added more charges, just to delay the first hearing. If charged, both will face a minimum of two years for each crime. They also searched the offices of the NLD and surely, they will find something there that will be enough to ban the party. This would create the conditions for the USDP to win the next elections and for Min Aung Hlaing to become official the president of Myanmar.

Nonetheless, the people are resisting this military coup with all their strength and desperation, and we took important measures immediately after Min Aung Hlaing seized power. A very important step was the campaign of civil disobedience movement (CDM) that more and more people joined. Doctors and nurses were the first to refuse to work under the military. Other sectors quickly joined in, including the private sector. Since then, trucks, buses, and trains have altogether come to a stop, banks have closed, and the flow of money has virtually come to a standstill. In recent days, a number of police officers and soldiers have also quit their jobs and joined the campaign. Until March 7, people could decide for or against the campaign, now we also know who is on our side and who is not. The campaign estimates that about 700,000 out of 1 million public workers have joined the movement.
Just five days after the military coup, Dr Sasa formed the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a committee representing both houses of parliament. It has 17 members, two of whom represent ethnic minorities. It was "elected" after the coup by an estimated of more than half of the 664 deputies in an informal vote via social networks. Dr. Sasa (who belongs to the Chin ethnic group), is a physician, philanthropist, and civil society activist who currently serves as the special envoy of the Committee to Represent the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) to the United Nations.

Twenty-nine ethnic groups had joined hands on Feb. 11 to form the General Strike Committee of Nationalities (GSCN). At its formation, they agreed on the following goals: Rewrite or amend the 2008 Constitution. To build a federal union based on democracy, equality, and self-determination.

However, for the movement to continue, it will be important for the people of Myanmar to come together as one. For too long we have been ignorant, not standing up for the problems of other ethnic groups who have witnessed and continuously been victims of horrific atrocities such as massacres, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture, forced labor and displacement by the armed forces, and state-sanctioned discrimination. This must stop! We must begin to overcome our differences, respect each other, and be there for each other. Only then, we can overcome tyranny and oppression together.

At the end of March, peaceful protest marches came to an abrupt end. Since then, the police and military had used brutal force against the demonstrators. Even small gatherings have been rigorously bludgeoned, they dispersed larger groups using tear gas and rubber bullets, and then chased through the alleys of Yangon where they surrounded and arrested protesters. They spared no one. Aid workers were beaten, kicked, and taken into custody. They prevented medical personnel from doing their jobs, and ordered snipers to shoot directly at the heads of peaceful protesters and bystanders. More than 700 people have died since then, more than 3000 people have been detained, and countless have been tortured and raped.

There are still politicians who believe that it is still possible to negotiate and find a peaceful solution, but the course was already set on February 1. There is no turning back. Either we are defeated and live for the rest of our lives under a military dictatorship, or we resist the military with all our strength, set the course for a constitutional amendment that deprives the military of power and financial independence and puts the military under government control. The outcome is completely uncertain, and the road, wherever it may lead, is a long road that is full of hardships and suffering.

For the coming weeks, it will be important for us to strengthen and continue our CDM campaign. We have to set the framework for a united Myanmar and to isolate the military diplomatically and economically.

We have to hit the military where it hurts the most, i.e. cut off the money lines:

- No diplomatic relations, New Zealand has made a start.
- No business relations with the military, Kirin Brewery has set a first example.
- No purchase of products that financially support the military, including the Myanmar Brewery and Mandalay Brewery.

We have been never a fan of sanctions - We had always rejected them because they primarily affect the poor - but if they help to force the generals to change direction, we too are prepared to support sanctions in any shape and form. This would also include tourism in Myanmar.

Sincerely

Shwe Yee & Klaus-Dieter Mueller

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