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Money over democracy or the other way around?

Myanmar soldiers

By Estelle Sanchez

Nay Myo Steven Han is a Myanmar man who moved to Australia ten years ago. Jacques Maudy is a French-born photojournalist who has become an Australian citizen. 

They didn’t know each other until one critical event brought them together: the fall of Myanmar and the passion for saving the country from authoritarian hands.

Previously known as Burma, Myanmar is a South-East Asian country going through a defining moment in its history. Its armed forces, the Tatmadaw, staged a coup at the beginning of February this year. The military seized power from the democratic government party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).

As the communication officer for QUT Myanmar society, Mr Han is part of the Myanmar Student Association Australia coalition, created by students to raise money to the protests for freedom in the country.

“The way that we move the funds, I would like to keep it confidential. I don’t want it to give away how we are doing it because they could become targets in Myanmar and here. We have our people on the ground, who are doing a lot of work there to get the funds out,” Mr Han explained.

One of the association’s fundraiser, displaced on GoFundMe, obtained over $50,000 in donations, which Mr Han qualifies as getting “momentum”. They have managed to distribute some of the funds already raised to several organisations in Myanmar.

Following the same steps, Jacques Maudy has based his reporting work on Myanmar for nearly ten years, and he supports the Civil Disobedience Movement against the military.

“The CDM is a Civil Disobedience Movement of people who are refusing to work for the junta [coup], which means that they have no income at the moment,” Mr Maudy says.

“And the challenge is to channel the money to these people so [that] they can pursue their resistance on the ground.”

The traditional solidarity of the Burmese people drove the photojournalist to develop strong feelings about Myanmar. 

“The first time I went there in 2012, I felt such widespread heroic solidarity among the people and hope and desire of change at any cost, that I’ve never seen anywhere in the world and I’ve travelled a lot.

“I was coming back from the Mergui islands, which was an area forbidden for foreigners since 1947. 

“I did reports denouncing the [Myanmar] navy and the collusion with the fishermen from Thailand who were fishing with dynamite. 

“The army was chasing me for two weeks, trying to get me, and I was protected by my team [that] was getting information from Islanders. 

“For two weeks, we played hide and seek with them, and they couldn’t get me.

“On my last leg flying, going from the Islands back to the mainland, [a] seven hours trip.

“I was on the public tar where there were 100 Burmese who didn’t know me, but they could see that I was a Westerner with a camera and I wasn’t allowed to be there. 

“I was a sitting duck. 

“Suddenly, I was with my partner – they put us on the ground, they [bend us], they put [something on] top of us, and they sit on us. 

“And the army comes, the navy joins the boat. They search the boat. They leave the boat. And ten minutes later, they leave the tar; 100 people clapping around us. 

“No one dobbed us. They were risking their freedom. No one dobbed us.

“It wouldn’t happen in Australia. There would be a dickhead saying, ‘Hey, the guy you’re looking for is here. All right?” 

Jacques finished his account on that note: “This is the spirit of resistance of Myanmar. And I can tell you something, they’re not going to lose that one”. 

Steven and Jacques are both optimists in saying that, while the situation is extremely tense and hard on the people, this time around, a lot of things are in their favour to get them a victory against the army.

They explained that the primary goal of the army is to gain wealth through the coup, to protect their financial interests. “But when people stop working, when they stop this mechanism, [the Tatmadaw] cannot create money and wealth out of the whole country. So they are losing money. They cannot make more investments. They can only have power,” Mr Han said.

Gerhard Hoffstaedter, a University of Queensland (UQ) researcher specialising in South-East Asian politics, analysed the army’s behaviour during the coup. He explained that it didn’t seem to be a united front but rather a disorganised movement that would stay at the limit of what is accepted by the international community. 

“Often, you see one or two people shooting and other people just standing by. It’s not an all-out war where the police and army [would be] strategically deployed,” he said.

And that’s why they’re not going as hard as they could, Mr Maudy added to the researcher’s comment.

“700 dead in 70 days, that’s 10 per day. Compared to what Pinochet did in Chile in one week when he killed 10,000 people, it’s a joke.

“So they’re going on the fine line here. They want to do business with the West, so they cannot kill ten thousand people,” Mr Maudy said.

Min Hnaing, 34, who everyone calls Nana, is from Myanmar, lives in Yangon and has been involved in the protests for the past few weeks. 

She said she has never experienced anything similar.

“My mom and my brother, they didn’t allow me to go out to do the protests because they’ve been worried that, you know, maybe some sniper will be there shooting”. 

But she replied to them: “It’s okay, I have to go. If I don’t go, and people like me are scared then, who is going in my place to get this democracy?”

When COVID-19 cases were rising in Myanmar, she wanted to go volunteer in the hospitals, but her mom and brother didn’t allow her to go, and at the time, she agreed to listen to them. But now, the decision was too important, and she joined the protests no matter what they said. 

The CDM has seen many young people leading the movement. Professor Hoffstaedter explains this phenomenon as a consequence of the past few years in a country where people have tasted what democracy can look like.

The Myanmar people have rebellion in their blood, as they have been through the first coup in 1988, and are now determined to resist this invasion of freedom.

Mr Han described these young people as more passionate, with a completely different mindset because they grew up in the information age. 

“It’s not just the school books that they’re reading. They have social media. They can talk to other people or see what’s happening in these free countries like Australia; it’s ingrained in them,” he said.

But even if youth are leading the movement, it doesn’t mean the older generations are not involved in it. Older generations have lived through a coup, know what is to be subjugated by an invading force and want to avoid that for their children. 

“This is a transgenerational resistance,” Mr Maudy affirmed.

While people are ready to suffer or even die for this cause, one of the critical aspects that need to be resolved is unifying Myanmar as a large number of different ethnic groups are living together in the country.

There is so much conflictual history between the different ethnicities in Myanmar and so many other interests that there’s still a long way to go to show a unified front against the “junta”.

Mr Han and  Mr Maudy are confident the current attack of the army against all the ethnic groups, even on the majority Bamar – the primary ethnicity -, is the perfect opportunity for the country to come together as they now recognise a common enemy and goal to achieve.

“There is a big bully in the schoolyard, and the big bully in the schoolyard has made people who weren’t friends become friends,” Mr Maudy said.

And in fact, some of the ethnic groups/armies have already said publicly they were in favour of the CDM. 

“It’s a defining moment. It’s like the end of the second world war in Europe. If there is a common victory against the dictatorship, it’s going to create solidarity”, Mr Maudy said. “If the outcome of the struggle is a federal constitution, there is no way anything’s going to break it. Now the challenge is to get there”, he concluded.

But to get there, the people of Myanmar need the international community’s support that has for now been reluctant. Myanmar has been calling for the United Nations to come in with a military force, which is not likely to happen as long as Russia and China are on the army’s side. But Mr Maudy explains that the advantage could turn in the people’s favour if they can show that the countries aren’t going to get any financial benefits from supporting the army.

“Countries are competing for financial power everywhere. So, that means that, at one stage, they’re pragmatic. ‘Is the game we are playing, serving us or not serving us?

“And what the CDM is doing is demonstrating that whoever is betting on [the army], they’ll lose the bet. 

“This is our job here,” Mr Maudy said.

According to Mr Maudy’s words, Australia would be complicit in the Tatmadaw’s actions if it decided not to do targeted sanctions to the Tatmadaw like freezing bank accounts or seizing their real estate on the Gold Coast.

“It’s obvious, right? People are dying[there],” Mr Han added.

“Why wouldn’t a country like Australia be forefront, [have a] leading role in condemning this?.”

The Myanmar struggle seems to be a fight about something much more universal than what it appears to be. Deciding whether to put financial interests before human rights or democracy is at the centre of the question. For Mr Maudy, there is nothing else than a mafia using the methods of terror.

 “And we’re not going to let it happen, because when you see someone in the schoolyard, who’s beating up a guy who’s half his size if you do nothing, it’s like you beat him up yourself,” Mr Maudy said.

Mr Han added: “You would think because I’m Burmese, that I would say these kinds of things but, you can hear it from Jacques,” who concluded: “It’s nothing to do with being Burmese, you know, it’s about being a human being”.

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