Myanmar Politics: the Coup, the Defiance and the Wind of Change

Kyaw Si Thu
Hands raised up, flag of Myanmar

Photo: Hong Sar

On 1st of February, the Myanmar military seized control, detained State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and members of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and declared a year-long state of emergency. The coup was fuelled by the military’s allegations of potential voter fraud in the 8th November election and it instantly sparked social media outcry. The hashtag CivilDisobedienceMovement is trending. Western leaders condemned the coup while the UN Security Council failed to do so as China and Russia blocked the statement.

Amid the political turmoil, Kyaw Si Thu, our second year MPP student from Myanmar, interviewed Karen Simbulan, a Brandt School alumna, and the Rakhine Program Director of RAFT Myanmar.

Could you share your experiences as an MPP candidate at the Willy Brandt School and briefly talk about the master’s thesis?

When I was in the Brandt School from 2012 to 2014, I took the Conflict Studies and Management Programme (CSMP) as my specialization. When I was writing my thesis, I used to go through the news about peace and conflict in the country and the communal violence in Rakhine state in 2012. I was struck by the way the violence was described and was very curious to find out more about this. In the course researching for the thesis, you cannot just focus on Rakhine. One needs to have a larger understanding of the country. I did some background research on Kachin State to get an understanding of what is happening in Rakhine. Essentially, I have been studying Rakhine since 2013. I wrote my thesis on the violence. I wanted to scratch the surface and look at the other root causes and move away from the way it has been described as Buddhist-Muslim violence.

Could you share your experience of working with RAFT Myanmar, particularly in the Rakhine State?

Ever since I graduated from the Brandt School, all of my jobs have been related to Myanmar. I have worked with different organizations that are engaged in Myanmar. I started with a human rights organization that was working in Bangkok, helping young activists go through leadership courses. Subsequently, I worked for a regional peace-building organization that was connected to the peace process. In 2017, I moved to Myanmar. At first, I was working with a human rights organization which was providing support to the supreme court and the attorney general’s office. I was working with the Independent Lawyers’ Association of Myanmar (ILAM). I also worked on the issue of civil society engagement in Kyaukphyu and then in the SEZ (Special Economic Zone). Eventually, I moved to RAFT.

Based on your experience working in Myanmar, how do you understand the country as an expatriate?

I think the best way to approach Myanmar is to try to ground yourself as much as possible in the history of the county and understand where a lot of people are coming from. Until 2011-2012, the government institutions used to have a top-down approach and we see some remnants of it – government officials are still not used to being questioned by the people. The way community members perceive the government is quite paternalistic. They see the government as the parent and consider themselves as the children. When you think about that relationship, you realize that there is still a lot to unpack in terms of how people understand the nature of governments. I think people who come to Myanmar with the best intentions to work on development programmes need to understand that. The negative aspect that I have seen in the country is that people in Myanmar are still trying to catch up with access to information. On the positive side, there is so much eagerness to learn and absorb, particularly from young people whom I work with. They have the energy to do innovative things. Most of the people I have met realize the enormity of the problem they see in Myanmar and yet they do not want to turn away from it. I know people who went abroad with scholarships, but they are eager to come back to Myanmar. They want to go back to their states, share the knowledge as much as they can and want to volunteer. My colleagues work from 9 am to 6 pm, five days a week and they still find time to do certificate courses at night after work. They also do volunteering at different organizations during the weekends. I do not know where they are getting their energy.

What is the nature of the work that you do with RAFT Myanmar?

We help different organizations mainstream conflict sensitivity, mostly the do-no-harm methodology. This requires having a sound understanding of the local context, particularly the power dynamics. You also need to pay attention to issues such as sources of tension and collaboration and map them out before you go ahead. When you are running on a shoestring budget, you will have to choose who you target. If not done properly, this might create an imbalance. In some instances, this might lead to community members indulging in violence or contributing to existing tensions.

We work with several players – UN agencies, international organizations, local organizations, donors and embassies. Most of our work is different variations of what I just discussed. We have also been trying to provide technical advice to the international community coming to Rakhine. People who come to Rakhine think it’s only about Rohingya and the state. It is more complicated than that. You have to think about how structural violence has pitted different groups against each other. There are various ethnic and religious minorities – Hindu, Kamein, Thet, Maramagri, Dainet, Mro – who have been living in the state with their dynamic relationships. One cannot just focus on the Rohingya people and Rakhine. We also try to bridge the gap between the international community and local organizations. We try to get them to collaborate and communicate more with the locals and find opportunities to share information. Conflict sensitivity became a buzz word in Rakhine largely due to what happened in 2014 when the INGOs and UN offices were attacked by community members. It was a clear manifestation of what happens when you do not communicate properly with community members. In terms of vulnerability, Rohingya people are much lower on the ladder. However, you cannot ignore the fact that this is not well understood by the community. They will just think you are biased towards the Muslims. For a very long time, people in the international community did not try to address them. The year 2014 was a wake-up call for everyone who was working in Rakhine to take perceptions and rumours seriously. In a way, that made it easier for us to work in Rakhine.

Would you say there are differences between what you have learnt and understood from the media before you went to Myanmar, and the dynamics on the ground? What have you learned while working in Myanmar?

Definitely. It was a steep learning curve. I would be wary of a headline that strikes an emotive tone. If the headline is sensational, I would be careful about the contents of the article. Things are never as simple as they appear, especially when you are talking about conflict and violence. Don’t be taken in by simple, clear-cut binaries of victim and aggressor. I am not saying that Rohingyas have not suffered horribly. They have, but you also cannot refute the fact that the Rakhine people have also suffered. It’s always a better idea to talk to people who are on the ground and who are living in those areas.

Speaking of complexities of the dynamics, as someone who has worked in Rakhine state for quite a long time, what do you think are the implications of the military coup on the Rakhine state?

I think it is still early to say what is going to happen. On 30 January, Min Aung Hlaing (the commander-in-chief of the military) gave a statement saying they would respect the constitution. On 1 February, however, we all woke up to the news of the coup. The engagement and connection people in Myanmar have developed with the rest of the world in the last eight or nine years is going to make it much harder for the military to do what they are doing now. As we are seeing, people do not want to give up their freedom. In the last few years, Myanmar had the media that was asking tough questions and coming out with really hard-hitting stories to hold government officials accountable. People had access to a whole new world of information that ranged from access to CNN, BBC to other sources of information. What we are seeing from the civil disobedience movement is that it is not coming from civil society organizers or activists. People from all walks of life are saying that they do not accept the coup and are unwilling to go back to the military regime. In a way, the civil disobedience has given people so much hope and allowed them to say to the military that they are not scared.

In terms of implications for the future, the military has found ways to go around targeted sanctions imposed by different countries. I do not know if the targeted sanctions are going to be effective. The military knows how to keep their business interests intact.

Any final thoughts on how the civilians should react to oppose the military dictatorship?

I think Myanmar is going to show the rest of the world how to protest with non-violent means. So far, what we are seeing is extraordinary – the way people are adjusting, adapting and finding ways to express themselves is quite creative. It’s life-affirming and heartwarming. Honestly, I am inspired by what I am seeing in terms of how regular people are doing what they can to oppose the military coup. It is about trying to amplify those voices as much as possible. I do not want to be the spokesperson for the people. I know so many others who can talk about the situation themselves. The people who are part of the movement are not usually political one, they are not part of the civil society, they are not activists, but they are risking so much of their livelihoods, even identities. They are posting their faces online knowing how the Tatmadaw (military) operates and how this could put them and their families at risk. The more I learn about Myanmar, the more I am in awe. It is scary, but at the same time, it is inspiring.

A woman in a green dress

About the author & interviewee

Karen Simbulan is the Rakhine Program Director RAFT Myanmar (formerly CDA Myanmar), a local organization that specializes in mainstreaming conflict sensitivity and the Do No Harm methodology in the work of national and international humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding actors in Myanmar. She graduated from the Brandt School's CSMP in 2014. After obtaining her MPP, she worked in Thailand and Cambodia before moving to Myanmar in 2017. Before coming to Erfurt, Karen worked in the Philippines as a lawyer for six years. She obtained both her Bachelor's degree and her J.D. from the University of the Philippines.

A man in blue shirt wearing glasses

Kyaw Si Thu is a second-year MPP candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, specializing in International Affairs & Development, and Non-profit Management. He holds Postgraduate Diplomas in International Affairs and International Relations. Before coming to Germany to study at the Brandt School, he worked for three years in industrial policy research, heritage restoration and Placemaking.

Kyaw's academic and research interests lie in urban issues, citizen participation, Placemaking, international aid and social media. He is also currently working as a consultant at Protection Group International.

~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~