When Myanmar’s military regime started its crackdown on the civil disobedience movement (CDM), dissenters first sought refuge in urban communities. Defense teams and barricades were organized but the junta responded with a more brutal deployment of troops. Activists were forced to retreat before seeking sanctuary in ethnic communities in the provinces. It is in these peripheral territories where the pro-democracy movement encountered the long-running struggle for self-determination of Myanmar’s ethnic groups.
The junta is desperate to assert its legitimacy as it tightens its control of the state machinery. In just a span of several months, Myanmar became among the leading jailers of journalists and activists in the world. Yet it has failed to crush the resistance despite the massive arrests, violent attacks, and censorship of information. The CDM has preserved its strength, the National Unity Government (NUG) continues to be a viable force, independent media outlets have adopted guerrilla tactics in their operations. Activists and other persecuted individuals were quick to escape and continue the fight in the territories controlled by armed ethnic groups.
Ethnic parties offered not just shelter to young activists but military training as well. Soon, these activists would take up arms as part of the resistance against the junta. Armed struggle has intensified even as the security forces became more ruthless in suppressing the opposition. Protests in the cities are more familiar because they are regularly reported in the news but the clashes that continually deal a serious blow to the military rule are taking place in the ethnic-dominated regions.
It is more than defiance that has allowed the pro-democracy movement to survive the reimposition of a full-blown military dictatorship. The resilience is boosted by the wise decision to temporarily deploy cadres, activists, and other high-risk dissenters in the safe zones inhabited by armed ethnic groups. It allowed activists to continue challenging the military regime either by clandestinely organizing protests in communities or learning to take up arms in the provinces. Through the coup, the army grabbed power again but it also recalibrated the disposition of forces battling for supremacy in the decades-old civil war.
Myanmar’s CDM is distinct from the armed struggle waged by ethnic groups in the provinces, but they converged at one point and became an expression of the anti-junta resistance. CDM activists decided to end their persecution by taking up arms and raised the anti-coup struggle into an urgent political question of toppling the dictatorship before establishing a new system of government. The opposition and its key leaders have since then defended the use of arms as a legitimate means to end the junta rule. The NUG’s call for offensives directed against junta troops was widely reported around the world, and those sympathetic to the CDM have also argued in institutions like the UN about why it is necessary to use military force in order to defeat the junta.
Myanmar’s experience offers relevant lessons for those who are monitoring the pro-democracy movements in Thailand, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
Since last year, thousands of young Thais have marched in the streets calling for monarchy reforms and the ouster of the Prayut government, which came to power in the 2014 coup. In Hong Kong, more than two million have protested in 2019 against Beijing’s weaponization of laws that practically ended the city’s autonomy. There was initial enthusiasm that these popular movements would usher in a democratic tide in the region, but the pandemic halted the protest surge and authorities invoked the state of emergency to instigate a wave of persecution.
Thai authorities revived the arbitrary use of Lese Majeste charges against activists and critics. Backed by Beijing, the Hong Kong government has ordered the arrest of scores of pro-democracy leaders. The passage of a national security law forced several unions and popular citizen groups to disband. Some activists, artists, and even former officials sought asylum in other countries as the civic space continues to diminish.
But escaping to another country does not guarantee the safety of activists. At least eight Thai anti-junta activists have gone missing after fleeing to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Eleven Hong Kong activists were jailed after trying to reach Taiwan by riding on a speedboat.
Unlike in Myanmar, there’s no ‘battleground’ in Thailand and Hong Kong where dissident forces are in control and ready to shelter activists on the run. There are no belligerent organizations that can show activists how to build and consolidate political power through armed struggle.
Meanwhile, the situation today in Myanmar can help us better understand the dynamics of the people’s resistance in the Philippines. It resembled what unfolded in the Philippines after Martial Law was declared by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. Urban-based activists were able to elude the dragnet unleashed by the police and military by joining the underground movement before escaping to the countryside where the then newly established New People’s Army (NPA) was operating. Many of these young anti-Marcos activists would become guerrilla fighters and top communist leaders. Like in Myanmar today, the armed struggle became a symbol and pillar of the anti-dictatorship resistance in the Philippines.
There’s favorable media coverage of the CDM and anti-junta armed struggle in Myanmar. Can this be applied too in the Philippines where news reports about the NPA often reflect the terror tagging promoted by the state? This is difficult to ascertain but we can identify some crucial lessons that have benefited both the Philippines and Myanmar: In waging resistance, democratic forces should build strength across all communities. A reactionary backlash in the city is an opportunity to enhance the fighting capacity of the movement in remote regions. The people’s struggle is a superior political strategy that links urban uprisings and the pockets of community revolts in the provinces.
The future of the democracy movements in the Philippines and Myanmar will one day flash on our screens, but at the moment, we recognize the fact that the struggle is happening not just in the cities but also in the liberated rural frontiers of these two countries.