As Aung San Suu Kyi and top leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar have disappeared from public view after the army coup on Monday, an angry nation sought to protest the military takeover in novel ways.
Ahead of her detention Suu Kyi had urged her supporters to "protest against the coup", but the streets of Myanmar remained quiet on Monday after she and several senior leaders including President Win Myint were taken under custody.
Instead of coming out onto the streets to face the tanks and guns, people resorted to civil disobedience to convey their unhappiness. On Tuesday night, households across major cities and towns created a din by banging loudly on pots and pans. This is the traditional Burmese way to ward off evil, the reference is unmistakable.
According to reports from Myanmar, doctors fighting the pandemic are wearing red ribbons to declare their opposition to the military move. Health workers issued a statement condemning the coup. In several state-run hospitals, doctors have stopped work, except on emergency cases. Many government doctors are instead working at charitable medical clinics, to ensure that the public do not suffer. Many are adopting the three-finger salute as a means of protest, taking cue from neighbouring Thailand’s anti-monarchy movement. A civil disobedience Facebook page had garnered 150,000 supporters in 24-hours.
Calls have also gone out to boycott products sold by military-owned enterprises. The Myanmar army, much like the Pakistani military have major business holdings. From food and beverages to supermarkets, telecom, and infrastructure, the military has a hold in all sectors. Mandalay Beer and Myanmar Beer are both labels owned by the army. Mytel telco is the popular telecom company the military has established. Many users are planning to drop their subscriptions. “Stop buying Junta Business” is the call going out from NLD supporters.
Army chief Min Aung Hlaing appointed himself head of a new 11-member military junta, which will take control initially for one year. In his first public comment, the General justified his coup as the "inevitable" result of civilian leaders' failure to heed the army's warnings on election fraud. According to reports from the pro-democracy media outlet Mizzima, Myanmar's police have filed charges against Aung San Suu Kyi for breaches of an import-export law and sought her detention until Feb 15. Mizzima said Suu Kyi faces as many as three years in prison if convicted, citing an unidentified source at the court. Former President Win Myint was separately charged for breaching the natural disaster management law and faces the same penalty, it said.
Many outsiders who do not follow Myanmar closely are shocked and surprised at Suu Kyi’s falling out with the military. This has been especially so after her refusal to condemn the army brutality against the Muslim Rohingyas who live in their traditional homeland in Rakhine state. The 2017 attacks on the stateless Rohingyas tarnished the reputation of the pro-democracy icon, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her peaceful resistance to the military junta. She represented her country at the ICJ hearing at The Haque and batted for the military.
Former Indian ambassador to Myanmar Gautam Mukhopadhaya does not agree that Suu Kyi played footsie with the army. She possibly had her compulsions in not criticizing army action against the Rohingyas, as her traditional Buddhist support base also supported the army action.
According to Mukhopadhaya the coup was inevitable: “The military were never reconciled to civilian rule and Daw Suu in particular. A second electoral rout risked their standing in Myanmar altogether.’’
In 2015, the NLD won a sweeping victory. In the 2020 elections the results were even better. Suu Kyi’s party won over 83 percent of seats that were up for elections. 25 percent of seats in Parliament are reserved for the military. The army backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in contrast obtained just 6.9 percent of seats. Across the country USDP candidates, many of them former military men got thrashed. “The elections upset the military’s plans to return to power through the USDP. The electoral complaints brought it all to a head,’’ the former ambassador said.
The complaints by the USDP gave the military the perfect opportunity to act. If the army chief had to do something it had to be before the convening of Parliament became a fait accompli.
The new Parliament session was to start on Monday morning, the day of the coup.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation may have been tarnished abroad, but for her people, the daughter of Aung San a hero of the Burma’s independence movement continues to be the shining light.