More than a year after Myanmar fell to a military coup, Ali Fowle investigates the growing resistance movement. Is there hope of a different future?
18 April 2022
15 August 2022
Why this story?
For years, Myanmar made headlines across the Western press. Under the previous military regime, there was a beacon of hope in Aung San Suu Kyi. But after a decade of democratic rule marked by brutal violence and massacres of the Rohingya population, her stock fell and the West turned away. Now, with a new military regime in place, backed by China and Russia and committing atrocities, the West continues to look away. Through investigating the story on the ground, the lives of normal Burmese people and the growing resistance movement, Ali Fowle looks to answer the hardest question of all: what responsibility do we in the West have towards Myanmar? Matt Russell, Producer
Ali Fowle, narrating: It’s the moment that went viral.
In the cool of the early morning in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s bizarre, purpose-built capital, a fitness instructor is filming her usual lesson. Wearing a high-vis workout kit she dances out her aerobic routine, seemingly oblivious as behind her, a convoy of black armoured vehicles stream down the vast 20-lane highway towards the country’s parliament complex.
The beginnings of a coup.
It says a lot that it is perhaps this moment above all others that caught the world’s attention as history repeated itself and Myanmar became subject – once again – to military rule.
After 50 years of living under an oppressive military government, Myanmar was supposed to be on the path to democracy.
The world had cheered on as Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power. A beacon to the world of progressive change.
But slowly, the world’s attention drifted away.
Then in February 2021, ten years exactly after they had handed over power, the military seized control again.
The coup led to country wide protests, followed by a violent crackdown. The brutality of the army was out in full force but now under the scrutiny of a connected population armed with mobile phones.
And as evidence of the brutality grew, so did a resistance movement.
The protesters – students, teachers, doctors, artists – fled to the jungles to train as soldiers; military and police began abandoning their posts.
Now, as civil war spreads throughout the country, the military rules without consequence.
Politicians and activists have been executed and there are accusations of war crimes and massacres.
I’m Ali Fowle and this week on the Slow Newscast from Tortoise: Myanmar, the country the world’s turned its back on. As the military government – backed by China and Russia – committed atrocities, what price are we paying for Western silence?
I first moved to Myanmar in 2012 in the early days of the transition.
I decided to move to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city to document the transition and take part in the newly emerging media scene.
When I arrived I found a city frozen in time after decades of isolation, left behind by the rest of the rapidly developing world. Crumbling colonial buildings lined unpaved roads, the few cars on the street looked like they were from another era. With no debit payments or ATMs, it was a cash economy. Suitcases filled with thousands of grimy well-thumbed notes were exchanged for house payments and salaries. Mobile phones were essentially banned for ordinary people, with SIM cards costing hundreds of dollars.
But within a few months of my arrival foreign businesses had begun to invest. Global payment and telecoms companies rushed in to fill the gap in the market, ATMs and telephone masts appeared around the cities.
World leaders began to visit, giving the transition to democracy a global stamp of approval, and in 2015, the National League for Democracy – led by Aung San Suu Kyi – the darling of the West and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – won the elections.
Five and a half years on, and I was still living in Yangon when I first heard rumours of a coup.
The military were accusing Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, who had won another landslide victory in 2020’s elections, of voter fraud. In a press conference the military spokesperson had refused to rule out a coup when asked, and rumours started flying.
“We’re not saying the military will take power, but we’re not saying it won’t either.”Military spokesperson
Ali, narrating: But I found it difficult to believe. The military had little to gain and a lot to lose. So I was doubtful, and I was far from the only one. Even within the military, officers were caught by surprise.
Linn Htet Aung: I did not know about the coup in advance. I was so busy at the time as a staff officer that I did not know what was going on. I heard that some military men had been involved in checking the voters’ list and I thought that was not the responsibility of the military men.
Ali, narrating: This is Linn Htet Aung, who was a Captain in Myanmar’s army when the coup happened in February 2021.
Linn: I was born in Thakayta Township, Yangon.
Ali, narrating: He’s voiced up by an actor…
Linn: I went to school as normal young people do… and enjoyed my time there with my friends… My teenage years were really ordinary.
Ali, narrating: Linn is 30 years old and remembers growing up under the previous military regime…
Linn: Our youth under military rule was not free. Those who have money or ties to the officers holding high positions were free. Those from ordinary families, and those who came from families having political background (opposing the military) were worse off. We were not free at all. We were governed with fear.
Ali, narrating: He grew up on a diet of war films which glorified the military. When he was 16 he decided to join the army. It meant a steady job, a reliable income, and, he thought, a chance to progress in life.
But he was never entirely committed to the military. Like his family, he never truly bought into the propaganda around it. And he thought one day, he would be able to leave…
Linn: Even during the time I served in the army, I was not happy. I attempted to leave but I was not successful. As a captain, I can be promoted to become a Major. But I never wished to be promoted. The country has also been progressing so I believed that one day I would be able to leave the army.
Ali, narrating: Leaving the army in Myanmar is challenging. Troops are conscripted with long contracts that are hard to break. Applications for transfer or early retirement are usually rejected. The grip the military has both on the country and the individual is ironclad. So Linn persevered. And he hoped that – eventually – he’d be able to leave.
But then in February last year, the coup happened.
Linn: In 2021, at around 10am, I received the news in the battalion I was serving in. I reported the news to the battalion commander. I was like a medium between others and the commander. The command said, get the troops ready but I did not know why we had to be ready; whether it was for security control measures or anything. After a few calls and messages from others, I learned that the military was going to stage a coup. Right at that moment, I felt like I lost my future.
Ali, narrating: The military arrested dozens of senior politicians from the ruling government, including the president U Win Myint, and State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi.
For Linn, this went too far.
Linn: Since the coup, I felt ashamed to wear the military uniform. I felt that I was involved in injustice; that the coup was unfair. I saw on social media the army had stoked violence and the army disgusted me entirely. Not only the higher-ups but also military men at each rank had been willingly committing violence. I felt bitter and disgusted at them.
Ali, narrating: I was still in Myanmar at that time. I’d seen the fear and anger grow as the military mobilised troops in an attempt to quell the peaceful protests.
As tanks and trucks rolled through the streets filled with soldiers, the military enforced a curfew and then used the cover of darkness to arrest activists and journalists.
People I knew personally – friends, acquaintances – were seized from their homes at night.
Others fled in fear. I watched troops beat people as they dragged them from the street into trucks.
Videos showed soldiers shooting teenagers in the head. In parts of Yangon dozens of protesters were killed in one day. And as the death toll rose, more and more people I knew were arrested or forced into hiding and rumours of a crackdown on foreign media grew. In March, just a few weeks after the coup, I made the difficult decision to leave Myanmar while I still had the choice. A privilege I knew many others didn’t share.
Defection from the army in Myanmar brings with it the highest penalties… and in the midst of a coup the military were inevitably not going to let people leave easily.
Linn: If you defected from the army during the time I was on the front-line, you would be imprisoned for at least 20 years. Or worse, you could be shot and killed.
Ali, narrating: The stakes were high for an escape, but Linn with each passing day felt he had no choice. But to leave required meticulous planning and a lot of daring.
Linn: On 14 March, I left the front-line. That day, I was no longer a soldier, but a revolutionary who is against the army.
There were many military bases around me. So it was not possible for me to walk. I needed a motorbike or car transportation. There is a town called Matman near the front-line base I was assigned at. I had to take a car ride from a military base in Matman to get to a different town. Before that, I had to deceive the fellow soldiers at the base. I went to Matman military base a day before I actually defected from the army. I deceived some fellow soldiers: one officer at Matman base and others at the base I was assigned in order to be able to leave. I was the highest ranking officer at the base so before I left, I just said I had to go somewhere; and I would be back. On the next day, I took the bus to a new town and then continued my journey to another place. The departments I reported to learned swiftly about my absence and started their search operations. I was on the run.
I knew that they were searching for me. There were some checkpoints I circumvented along the way. I was all alone. I had to disguise myself at times, and change my clothes. And of course, to change my military haircut. They called me multiple times so I had to turn off my mobile phone. And as soon as I turned it on, there were so many incoming calls. I did not have money. So I had to ask for car rides and begged people to help me. There were days I was starving, often when I was sleeping in the jungle.
It took me 19 days to travel from the military base. I fled to the safe place and reached eventually. Some learned about the routes I travelled and followed along them too. Sometimes, I hid in the villages.
It was only when I finally met a person, who I can’t name, that I finally got help. Because of them, I finally reached a liberated area. I was free.
Ali, narrating: Linn had done it, reached freedom. He had arrived at one of many areas controlled by ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar, free from the jurisdiction of the military and now home to a growing resistance movement.
One that he too, soon, would become part of.
Under military rule, life has got much harder for millions of ordinary Burmese.
Par Gyi: The dollar exchange has gone up about double. So …. we can only spend half of the amount, half of the value that we used to spend. That’s the difficulties for us. Also now all the price of the groceries, those kind of things has gone up …. it’s about three times more expensive than before the coup.
Ali, narrating: This is a friend of mine who has stayed in the country. For his security, he is voiced by an actor. We’ll call him Par Gyi.
He tells me that although life is challenging, he is one of the lucky ones. Many in Myanmar have lost their jobs as the economy has imploded.
Soon after the coup thousands of government workers went on strike. But slowly offices have reopened and positions have been filled by those now desperate for work.
Par Gyi has had to leave his neighbourhood because the community knew he worked in media. At his new place he keeps a low profile. He worries he’s being watched…
Par Gyi: When I move to another area, I don’t communicate with people. I don’t go out much. And also when I stay at the house I just normally pull the curtain down and keep quiet, don’t make a lot of noise. And also now I’m kind of living in two places at the same time. Here for some days and there for some days.
By law, every citizen in the country now needs to register at their place of residence with local authorities. Like many, Par Gyi is scared to do so because it might draw attention to him.
Par Gyi: I still didn’t do it yet but neighbours and some friends have also told me that there are some places the military, the army and the police came in the night and they just grab the people because they’ve not registered, and informed to the ward office. So I still haven’t registered and I haven’t informed yet and I have a lot of worries for that.
Because I worked in a media related company so they might think I’m doing something against them. So what if they came to my house and checked my phone and they saw some conversation that I hadn’t deleted yet. So I have a lot of worries for that. And yeah, we can say that that’s our daily life.
Ali, narrating: From everyone I speak to I hear the same thing, paranoia is rife… amongst friends amongst strangers. When anything can get you arrested, then the fear of getting into trouble grows.
Par Gyi: People are worried and paranoid because of the coup. Because there is no rule of law anymore. They can arrest anybody as they want.
If we don’t know them, they can be like people who don’t like the resistance or people who like the military. Maybe so that’s why we don’t communicate much with strangers like before. We don’t make friends. That’s the reason.
Ali, narrating: This new military rule – for those who lived under the previous dictatorship – has a lot of familiar characteristics: the fear, paranoia, crackdowns, control.
But this regime is, in many respects, more relentless than the previous.
Another close friend of mine in the country, we’ll call her Pan Wah – told me how some of her friends were driven from their homes when the military destroyed their villages.
Pan Wah: It is extremely brutal. My friends, and friends of friends, their family members had to leave their native town right now in central Myanmar. So it’s extremely brutal now. The Myanmar Sit tha is committing through killing civilians. For example, you can see like more than 30 killings, in Fruso in Kayah state, that include young children and pregnant women. Like burning civilian villages, like destruction towards even the monastery and Catholic churches across the city. You know? And they intentionally attack that religious building even in their special occasions, like Christmas or new year or something like that.
Ali: And do you think they’re purposefully targeting civilians or do you think they’re just collateral damage?
Pan Wah: I think they purposely are killing the civillians. Because they, they want to show the people like fear.
Ali, narrating: For the UN and human rights groups, these are war crimes.
In other words, the ruling junta is committing war crimes against its own people.
And yet little has been said or done by western governments. The UN Security Council has failed to take any action; there have been no consequences.
You might remember this:
News reporter: “No kalar in Burma” shouts a man; kalar, a slur used against the Muslim minority. And the mob seems intent on driving them out. From a hilltop, we see a young man – presumably Muslim – attacked by men weilding sticks. He staggers, attempting to flee. But he is forced to the earth. Someone in white, armed with a machete delivers what appears to be the fatal blow. The pictures that follow are too disturbing to show.
Ali, narrating: In 2016 the same military launched systematic attacks against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Over the next year they drove hundreds of thousands from the country in a brutal campaign of killing and rape. A UN investigation concluded this may amount to genocide, and for many there was no doubt.
But no action was taken against the military. In fact, it just showed what they could get away with.
However, that could change. In July, the military government committed an act of violence not seen since the late 1980s. An act that finally made some Western governments sit up and take notice.
And shone a spotlight on the small but growing resistance movement that offers hope to the millions still living in Myanmar.
Almost as soon as the military pulled off their coup, signs of resistance started to show. At first it was small acts of defiance, people banging pots and pans, releasing balloons in the colour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted National League for Democracy party… but within a few days tens of thousands took to the streets to protest.
Although the coup itself had been bloodless, the military reacted to the peaceful protests with extreme violence, using lethal force to quell the uprising. Many protesters started to believe they had no choice but to fight back… and pockets of armed resistance started to form.
For Linn, knowing the challenges of leaving the army, his role originally began with trying to bring other defectors on board.
Linn: We established an organization named “People’s Embrace” and asked those who wanted to defect to communicate with us through the Telegram channel where we helped them connect to the revolutionary organisations on the ground. I have also been involved in a group which helped the defectors in collaboration with the National Unity Government (NUG), which was recognized as the people’s government.
We have mobilised about 10,000 police and soldiers to potentially defect. After I defected, I became a little more well-known in the revolution of our country. I have been supporting the fundraising programme to secure funds for the revolution. There are some works that I cannot disclose. I have been involved in many endeavours to my best ability in armed resistance to fuel the fall of the terrorist army and eliminating military rule.
Ali, narrating: There is no sure way to verify the numbers Linn is telling us, but the resistance movement has undoubtedly mobilised quickly and expanded since last year’s coup. It’s a dangerous life…
Linn: There are various types of dangers. The reason why we do not disclose our whereabouts is that the army is very tricky and wicked. If they knew our locations, they would assassinate us. As they do not value a human’s life.
Ali, narrating: But it isn’t just former soldiers joining up to fight for the resistance movement. Thousands of ordinary citizens are too.
Pan Wah and her husband, let’s call him Ko Nyo, are just a couple of them. After the coup they left their jobs and their home to dedicate themselves to the resistance. They moved to a safehouse and used their skills and contacts to support the movement. Pan Wah is an experienced broadcaster – so she helped set up “Federal FM”, a radio station developed to counter the military’s attempts to block communication.
While her husband organised rallies, Pan Wah reported news and spread information about the protests.
Pan Wah: I have been working as the voluntary kind of producer for the federal FM in, in, in Yangon. We just secretly trying to broadcast in different townships and different areas. This is because the military cut off the internet and the people hang out for information. So we’re trying to secretly broadcast.
Ali, narrating: Then, when one of her colleagues was arrested, they realised they had to abandon everything.
Pan Wah: So, ah, he know my face and he know my real name as well as he know where my safe house is, that kind of thing. So I need to relocate urgently.
We both don’t have a chance to even say bye to our family members. We only inform them through mobile phone. But, you know, for my dad and for his dad, they are both quite uncomfortable with our decisions. They are quite, you know, afraid, and they are very worried a lot for both of our safety.
Ali, narrating: Pan Wah’s husband was already in touch with this growing underground movement that were forming rebel armies. They quickly relocated to Myanmar’s mountainous border regions in an area controlled by one of many ethnic armed organisations that has been fighting the Myanmar Military for decades.
For a city kid who grew up in relative comfort, arriving in a misty hillside town deep in the jungle was a shock to the system for Pan Wah. After Yangon’s tropical climate and low lying streets, carrying icy buckets of well-water through the chilly mountain paths of the borders was a new experience.
These isolated villages have spent decades being ravaged by war. Roads are often blocked by conflict, so food and supply shortages are common.
Pan Wah: I faced lots of challenges and I witness the real ground situation of the states where you know, inequality happening compared with mega cities.
Ali, narrating: When they first joined the resistance, Pan Wah and her husband believed in non-violent means. But after the military turned their guns on the people they realised peaceful protest could never be the answer. Pan Wah was horrified after learning the protesters had been shot and killed by the security forces.
In separate incidents just days apart, two teenage girls were shot in the head. Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing from Naypyidaw and then a few days later in Mandalay, a girl known as Angel.
Pan Wah: … I think I decided to fight … the military back in whichever role I need to play. This is because, I don’t know, they both are like my sister’s age. They were so young, you know, and I cried all day when they both were killed by the police officer and military sniper man. I cannot endure anymore regarding their cruel and, you know, brutal crackdowns.
Yeah, you know, brutal headshot killings, even in the daylight, committed by that, that soldier. Those kind of… all past incidents, still made me motive to join the resistance journey.
Ali, narrating: And as time went on, it became apparent that there was only one option on the table: violence.
Her husband Ko Nyo, it turns out, had already been preparing.
Pan Wah: After two months of the coup, at the time he already attended kind of military related training, He’s already doing his own work secretly, without even saying clearly what he, what he’s doing to me. And he also taking part in some of the missions in the cities.
Ali: So is he actually running his own armed group?
Pan Wah: Yes, he, he is. He is, he is initiating the Urban Revolutionary Front, URF.
Ali: And he has no military experience before this?
Pan Wah: He, he didn’t before this, before the coup. You’re correct.
Ali, narrating: In July, more devastating news came, that for Pan Wah and Ko Nyo was further proof that fighting back with weapons is the only way.
Myanmar’s military regime had executed four prisoners including two prominent figures from the resistance – a famous politician and a democracy activist. The first executions in the country since the 1980s, it was a move that signified the difference between this junta and the previous one.
For Pan Wah it proved that the military is never going to negotiate…
One of those executed, Phyo Zayar Thaw, was a popular hip hop artist before becoming a prominent politician in the National League for Democracy party.
Thazin Nyunt Aung: I think they targeted the talented youth leader or the famous democracy activist who are loved by the people in order to stop these democratic movements.
Ali, narrating: This is his wife. Thazin Nyunt Aung.
Thazin: So, you can see the reaction from that community has been very strong and I’ve been seeing that a lot of people who are in this revolution are working harder to topple this military dictatorship as quick as possible.
I do think it strengthened not only the people who are participating in the revolution, but it has reached the ordinary people as well.
Ali, narrating: I know Thazin from the music scene in Yangon. Over the years we’ve hung out in bars and music venues, and drunk beers together by the jetty with friends.
Thazin: What I knew for sure from the start is that the military junta would do anything to hold onto power that they crave. So until now, even today people have been dying at their hands because of their inhuman acts and their human rights violations and inhuman ways that they have been acting upon the people. Announcing the death penalty, they were trying to threaten us, they are trying to threaten the whole nation and to instill fear in us.
Ali, narrating: I know her as wild, creative and passionate and it’s sobering hearing her talk so stoically about the horrors of the political situation. She’s been changed and hardened by the events of the last year and a half. Her strength and determination are still there, but with an underlying anger.
Thazin: What I have lost personally and what our country has lost can’t be expressed in words. The junta has been telling us that they will kill Zeya Thaw and after they said it they actually did it. Regardless of that we have been determined to topple this military dictatorship. So I don’t want any international condemnation or words, I don’t want that anymore and I want actions to stop them.
As Myanmar people we always said “nga do ma nga do she” we only have ourselves, we, we have to try ourselves. But I’m starting to lose faith in the global powers saying that they are leading democratic countries because they are just sitting and watching this happen. So I’m starting to lose faith in them. If you believe in democracy and if you believe in human rights don’t just stand and watch us suffer. Do something.
Ali, narrating: The cruelty of the executions has caught the world’s attention. But still no action has been taken.
Myanmar’s civil war is disparate, spread across the country. There is no single resistance force but numerous different groups. Most claim to represent the People’s Defence Force, an armed group under the command of the National Unity Government, formed by ousted elected officials: the alternative government in waiting.
Strong alliances exist and a common goal but communication is challenging in these war torn areas.
Meanwhile the Myanmar military’s equipment and firepower – subsidised by China and Russia – dwarfs them. But despite this, both Linn and Pan Wah believe the resistance movement will be victorious. They talk of thousands of defectors signing up, civilians fleeing to join them, and believe they can thwart the military rule.
In the early days of the coup, there was some support for the protesters from abroad.
People sent money for protective equipment and food, and to support those who had gone on strike. But as the resistance has militarised, supporting them has become more complex and political.
Pan Wah and Linn have both been disappointed by the lack of international support.
Pan Wah: There’s no more international focus on the resistance anymore. You know, I don’t know why. Even several villages were burned down in central Myanmar and the military is applying excessive air attacks across the country. I don’t hear, or I don’t see like kind of concrete force pressure toward the military.
Linn: As far as I know, in my opinion, there have not been as much support as expected from international communities. There are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced populations who do not have access to the humanitarian assistance. The support for other sectors are even more lacking.
Ali, narrating: And as the world ignores the people of Myanmar, its leadership enjoys diplomatic visits and continued trade with neighbouring countries.
The executions shocked and appalled, and for a moment, it seemed like the media was interested again as videos of masked protestors began to spread across the internet.
Protests like this might seem small – but the people here are risking everything to participate. They know the potential consequences if they are caught, but they are desperate to still be heard. A year and a half on from the coup, they are not giving up.
Ali, narrating: But the international community seems unlikely to go beyond words. Supporting the alternative government, is supporting guerilla warfare. Arms embargoes are meaningless while Myanmar’s powerful neighbours continue to provide weapons to the ruling power.
But still, even without help from outsiders, the rebel forces are optimistic and defiant.
Thazin: So we should not surrender this time, we should go until the end, we should win this time.
Pan Wah: For me, I believe that this time, this time is the really last chance for us to, to get rid of the, the dictatorship system.
Ali, narrating: And although Myanmar has been here before, there is something different this time. The resistance may be ill equipped and it may seem disorganised but they continue to grow and evolve. The people involved are intelligent and tactical and they have support from thousands around the country. They are doing something that’s not been done before and although they may be far from a victory, their actions are having an impact.
There was a time when Myanmar would regularly appear on the news. The world was eager to follow the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi as the country transitioned towards democracy. But as she became tainted, the media lost their hero. And now, without a protagonist the world has lost interest in this story.
For friends inside Myanmar, either those fighting back against the junta or trying to survive and live a normal life, they feel forgotten. And as they watch the world’s attention on Ukraine, it’s difficult not to feel ignored as a brutally repressive dictatorship terrorises its own population.
For now Myanmar’s plight continues, stuck in an ugly stalemate with a frightened population determined not to accept life under military rule, a passionate resistance intent on fighting to the end, and a stubborn and ruthless military refusing to back down.
People ask me what it will take to make people care, to make the world act, but sadly I don’t have an answer.
How we got here
In July this year, the Burmese military regime executed four democratic activists: the first such executions in the country since the 1980s. World leaders condemned the violence, America called on China to step up in response, and news channels across the West covered the story. It felt like the first moment since the coup happened more than a year earlier that the West was finally taking notice of what was happening in Myanmar.
So in order to better understand the situation in the country, Ali Fowle has spent the past month speaking to various people: from a military defector to a rebel fighter to ordinary citizens who have stayed behind. The story she has found is one of remarkable resilience and wrenching neglect.
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