praxis

Indrė Balčaitė and Yuzana Khine Zaw, The Parallels of Two Crises: Stifled Revolutions in Myanmar and Belarus

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Presenting the crisis in Myanmar (formerly Burma) following the military coup of February 1, 2021, as unique feeds the media’s hunger for sensational stories. Yet focusing on individual cases blinds us to global, regional, and transnational patterns. The global background of the Myanmar coup d’état is democratic decline. Regionally, the online democratic solidarity movement called the Milk Tea Alliance uniting the netizens of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar points to the common struggles to exercise democratic rights in China’s neighbourhood.[1] However, the national contexts with which the situation in Myanmar is compared usually do not stretch beyond Asia.[2]

Few Burmese people are familiar with Eastern Europe, yet some fascinating parallels can be drawn between the Spring Revolution ongoing in Myanmar and the continuing pro-democracy protests in Belarus[3]. The latter captured the global media’s attention in 2020, after Alyaksandr Lukashenka[4], the country’s long-serving president, was declared once again winner of the August election. Vilnius – the capital of neighbouring Lithuania – has sheltered Belarusian opposition members for years. In a parallel use of neighbouring countries as refuge for opposition, Mae Sot and Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand had been hubs of Burmese exile activity over decades of Burmese military regimes after 1962. Neighbours of both countries were resigned to the lack of political change – until the nominally civilian government started reforms in Myanmar in 2011 and Belarusians poured out on the streets in 2020.

To help bridge the analytical gap between these two regions facing a common challenge, we talked to participants of recent protests in Myanmar and Belarus. In late March, Yuzana Khine Zaw, a Bamar Buddhist who witnessed the Spring Revolution in Yangon, interviewed Nhkum Nan Nan (pseudonym), a young Kachin Christian protest participant. Around the same time, Indrė Balčaitė, a Lithuanian originally from Vilnius, obtained interviews with Belarusian political activists Jauhien Hladki, still based in Minsk, and Volha Pavuk from the Homel region, who fled to Lithuania late last year. Below we discuss the Burmese and Belarusian uprisings according to the themes emerging from those interviews and from Yuzana’s own experience: an allegedly or certainly rigged election, a (no longer) “pure” leader, a leaderless resistance movement followed by a ruthless crackdown, and what to expect from outside actors.

 

Protests in Yangon (credit Yuzana Khine Zaw)

An (allegedly) rigged election

Even in this small little district [Uzda, 20-25,000 voters], Lukashenka did not win in the first round. […] it was completely falsified.
Jauhien, activist who observed the elections in Uzda, Belarus and collected evidence of electoral fraud

The first parallel between Belarus and Myanmar is the theme of a stolen important election, yet its respective role differs immensely in the two political contexts. While it is a focal point of the popular protests demanding change in authoritarian Belarus, in Myanmar the notion of a stolen election represents a reactionary narrative that hardly anyone but the military takes seriously. In Belarus, the rigged 9th August 2020 presidential election led to a three-month uprising across the country. In Myanmar, the alleged irregularities in the November 2020 general election provided the pretext for the military takeover before the newly elected Parliament convened.

The decade of relative political openness under nominally civilian governments in Myanmar (2011-2021) became possible only at the mercy of the army. The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in the 2015 election. Given the power sharing with the military, however, her government failed to end ethnic conflict and discrimination or to prevent the military’s genocidal campaign against the Rohingya in 2017 in an ethnically and religiously diverse country dominated by Bamar Buddhists. Last year’s elections delivered a decisive NLD win again, but the Rohingya were disenfranchised and voting was arbitrarily cancelled in multiple constituenciesThe military and its proxy, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, unsuccessfully demanded a recount, although it would not have changed the overall outcome.

More homogenous Belarus[5] has been known as the “last dictatorship in Europe.” Regular elections since 1994 – most neither free nor fair – legitimised Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s long presidency. He started as a young popular leader but stayed on, thanks to a (purposefully) fragmented opposition, rigged results, and subsidies from Russia. Occasional protests were dispersed. In 2020, however, an economic downturn exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the candidacy of a single opposition contender, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya,[6] mobilised even previously apathetic voters. When the official results claimed she had won only 10% of the votes, people poured out onto the streets. According to a survey of Belarusian Internet users conducted in January 2021, 61% of respondents believed the official election results were fraudulent.

A (no longer) “pure” leader

I believe that despite her unexpected role, Svetlana [Tsikhanouskaya] does an excellent job [in] the role of a national leader and a symbol of life without dictatorship.
Volha, Belarusian activist now in exile in Lithuania

When you see a politician, you know they’re fighting for power, but she is fighting for something else, which is greatly admirable. And therefore I have no expectations of her. […] she is more like a symbolic leader, she is not like a real centre of the protests.
Jauhien, Belarusian activist, about Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya

She didn’t say arrogant words like “I’m the leader”
She didn’t say words like “I know everything. I can do everything. You only do what I say”
She didn’t say she will be the only one who will rule the country
Part of an anonymous poem about Aung San Suu Kyi shared in the aftermath of the coup, translated by Yuzana

We don’t want to work with Aung San Suu Kyi. We feel paralyzed, we don’t feel like we want to work with her anymore. The way she treated ethnic groups. The way she ignored us. We were quite badly hurt.
Nhkum Nan Nan, Kachin protester in Yangon, Myanmar

Another common theme is a female leader standing in for a male relative and appealing to national unity. This phenomenon has been studied in the case of the South and Southeast Asia’s elite political dynasties that produced Sri Lanka’s and Pakistan’s prime ministers Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Benazir Bhutto, amongst others. They came to power not because of women’s emancipation but because each was the daughter or the wife of a prominent male politician who had been assassinated (or imprisoned). Their gender and lack of previous experience in politics allowed them to position themselves as incorruptible in military- and male-dominated regimes[7]. Both Myanmar’s former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Belarusian president-elect in exile Tsikhanouskaya were raising families before entering politics in 1988 and 2020 respectively, which helped them to distance themselves from partisan interests associated with authoritarian regimes.

Killed before he could become the first prime minister of independent Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San turned into a symbol of a country that could have been. The student leaders thus asked his daughter to head their movement – the NLD. The 1988 uprising against military rule was brutally suppressed and Aung San Suu Kyi spent fifteen years under house arrest before finally ascending to power – and has been confined again since the February military coup. Now seventy-five years old, the NLD leader remains a popular symbol of defiance in the face of  dictatorship but her time in office alienated ethnic minorities. As they are not content to simply return to the pre-coup “Bamar democracy,” the National Unity Government of Myanmar is promising federalism but no specific reforms.

Tsikhanouskaya stood in for more prominent male opposition contenders – Viktar Babaryka, Valery Tsapkala, and Siarhei Tsikhanouski – who were not allowed to register. With video blogger Tsikhanouski imprisoned on politically motivated charges already in May 2020, his wife Sviatlana registered instead and led huge opposition rallies where she would state: “I don’t need power, but my husband is behind bars.” Similarly to her counterpart in Myanmar, Tsikhanouskaya’s political agenda has been vague, promising to organise free and democratic presidential elections. The fact that she was able to register shows that the regime did not initially consider her a threat. Soon after the election, however, she had to flee to Lithuania.

A leaderless protest movement and a ruthless crackdown

[…] there is no centre, there is no so-to-speak conventional leader. The field is open to anyone who is willing to take initiative and take a charge and offer it to other people, so it’s [a] really really interesting grassroots, bottom-up kind of initiative.
Jauhien

We are all self-governing […]
Within 24 hours my neighbourhood set up leaders and patrols […]
We also stopped paying taxes 
So grocery stores like the convenience stores and restaurants no longer charge you for tax
Yuzana’s messages to Indrė from Yangon, 14-15th February 2021

Both protest movements have been formidable, yet leaderless. In August-October 2020, when mass rallies and strike actions even at government-owned factories gripped the country, Belarus seemed to be on the verge of turning the tide. Jauhien, who joined the protests in Minsk, described the time as “really fantastic and I’d never felt so good in my life,” comparing the atmosphere to that of a rock festival. With Tsikhanouskaya providing the symbolic leadership, it was an open grassroots movement. Jauhien talked “of taking back your house, your street, your block,” refusing to pay taxes and utility bills or buying from government-aligned businesses. The role of social media, especially Telegram, was crucial for self-organising. In Volha’s words, the protests in her native town of Akciabrski “were supported by entrepreneurs, businessmen, young parents, workers of the local ambulance station, representatives of religious denominations, high school students and [university] students, drivers and retirees.” The survey of Internet users suggests that 45% of urban Belarusians remained more passive “observers” nevertheless.

In February 2021, the protests in Myanmar were also colourful and cheerful, even cheeky. Burmese people flooded the streets across the country in costumes, with posters and ever-changing performance initiatives.[8] Like in Belarus, there were day-time mass demonstrations, noisemaking from homes in the evenings, and an extremely vibrant social media scene, with Facebook still ruling supreme. Protesters demanded that China stop all cooperation with the junta. Shoppers boycotted military-owned businesses. A notable civil disobedience movement developed, with employees refusing to work under the military government. However, multiple defections from the army and police have not been  sufficient to flip the balance of power. Most soldiers still see the military as the only institution able to bring order and consider the protestors criminals.

With movements unable to sway the mainstays of power in their respective countries, brutal crackdowns followed in both countries[9]. The authorities first tried to identify and arrest the ‘leaders’ of protests and social media activists and used Internet shutdowns to prevent mass demonstrations. Later they would mete out indiscriminate violence to intimidate the population: not just with water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets but also sound grenades, street shootings, arbitrary raids and arrests, prosecutions, and physical torture and sexual violence in detention. 

Expectations from the international community

The non-recognition of the elections in Belarus as fair and transparent, the non-recognition of Lukashenko as the President of Belarus helped a lot. The sanctions make Belarus an inconvenient and expensive ally for Russia. 
Volha

I don’t expect anything. I mean apart from basic decency, let’s say police were using Polish bullets, like Polish rubber bullets – stop selling them, they’ve been using Czech flash grenades – stop selling them, they’re using Canadian water cannons – stop selling them. They are using the French and German light armour for riot police… 
Jauhien

If the UN needs more bodies to take action, shoot me!
A poster held by a Myanmar protester urging a humanitarian intervention in Myanmar

Some people expect so much. For me, I don’t want them to expect so much. Why? Because receiving help from the international community is a far-fetched goal. I think we need to focus internally. We have to work ourselves.
Nhkum Nan Nan

Pro-democracy movements in both countries have appealed for international support, but expectations differ wildly. Myanmar’s deep ethnic fault lines come into play. The Rohingya, Kachin, Karen and other ethnic minorities who have previous experience of the brutality of the Myanmar military are more realistic, as the above quote shows. Meanwhile, many protesters and even the spokesperson for the ousted civilian government Dr. Sasa have demanded “R2P” (responsibility to protect) – a humanitarian intervention by the United Nations. It is an unrealistic (and risky) demand under any circumstances, let alone in a divided Security Council amidst a pandemic. Such wishful thinking suggests that, as with the situation under the earlier spell of military rule, Burmese people and the National Unity Government do not see a clear way out of  this crisis that has turned into a bloodbath[10].

In contrast, Belarusian activists hardened by decades under Lukashenka’s rule were articulate in their demands rather than expecting a foreign saviour. They spoke of non-recognition of the election results, sanctions that make doing business with the Belarusian regime and individuals involved difficult, and embargoes on the imports of gear used to commit human rights violations. They were appreciative of the governments of neighbouring countries championing their cause in the European Union and offering asylum to people fleeing persecution.

***

Citizens worldwide fight for democratic rights with little awareness of similar struggles beyond their region. Seeing protest movements and crackdowns as part of a broader global trend removes the impression that they are isolated and inconsequential flashes of human agency. Instead of being sensationalised or normalised, these stories need to be placed in a historical and transnational perspective and used for learning and building connections.

A superficial comparison revealed important differences: the role of the rigged election narrative, of the arrested/exiled leader, the societal cleavages that contributed to both revolutions being stifled, the proportions of the crackdown as well as the specificity of demands made of foreign actors. Yet both countries were electoral regimes with limited freedoms before the current crises mobilised previously divided populations. The similarities of symbolic leadership, a powerful grassroots movement against dictatorship, and the willingness to build a new kind of society are striking. Despite the meddling of more powerful neighbours and deep economic turmoil resulting from the political crisis and the pandemic, there is no going back to “Bamar democracy”  or Lukashenka’s “electoral democracy.”

Yuzana Khine Zaw is PhD candidate at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine conducting research in public health and policy. She is now based in London.
Indrė Balčaitė is an independent researcher based in London. Her PhD at SOAS University of London focused on ethnicity and labour migration from Myanmar to Thailand.

The authors thank Jauhien Hladki, Volha Pavuk and Nhkum Nan Nan for sharing their experiences, Vadzim Vileita for help in sourcing Belarusian interviewees and Daw Sandar Lwin for help with transcribing.

Notes

[1] Parallels between the praetorian regimes and challenges for democratic consolidation in Thailand and Myanmar are particularly poignant.

[2] E.g. Syria or Afghanistan are mentioned in discussions of dangers of an international intervention that Burmese protesters have been demanding.

[3] Also compared to those in Russia and Ukraine but not beyond.

[4] Also spelt Alexander Lukashenko.

[5] The main cleavage in Belarus has been the linguistic division between speakers of Russian (the majority) and Belarusian, both official languages.

[6] Alternative spelling Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

[7] We thank Gustaaf Houtman for this point. See also Ben Anderson interviewed by Ben Abel on apakabar@clark.net, 12 July 1996. Cited in Angus McIntyre, 2000, “Megawati Sukarnoputri: From president’s daughter to vice president”, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, 32:1-2, p. 105.

[8] Notably women were very active protesters in both countries, spotlighting the misogyny of the army in Myanmar and of Lukashenka’s regime in Belarus

[9] As of 4th May 2021, the death toll in Belarus was 8 and 769 in Myanmar.

[10] For a description of fantasies of a US invasion in the aftermath of Nargis, see Emma Larkin, 2010. Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma. New York: Penguin Press, p. 46.

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