For Aye Min Thant, a journalist who received the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, the Myanmar armed forces, which regained power after a coup in February, will not be able to restore the same level of control they exercised during the military dictatorship (1962-2011).
“Even with the blocking of social media and media censorship, people have found different ways to access information. And the military know that if they cut off all access to the Internet, they will end up hurting themselves, because they also depend on this service, ”he said.
Myanmar, Thant fled Rangoon and is in Bangkok, Thailand, where he spoke to Folha, via video call. “My family members are in prison, people I know have been killed. I don’t want to become a martyr, I want to be able to enjoy democracy in Myanmar when we can finally restore it ”.
On February 1, the military deposed the elected government and arrested civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on allegations of fraud – so far without evidence – in the November elections, in which the pro-military party suffered. a crushing defeat for the National League for Democracy. (LND).
Myanmar marks Armed Forces Day on Saturday (27) and activists are planning new acts for fear of further violence – at least 320 pro-democracy protesters have been killed since the coup. Thant, who won the Pulitzer for covering ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslim minority while working for the Reuters news agency, says that “if the military decides to be even more violent than it is ‘has been so far, this will be the time “. .
How has your life been since the coup? Chaos. I started to write a daily summary of events in the country and share with my followers on Twitter even to be able to locate myself, because everything is changing all the time. It was to be expected that things would be more organized, since the coup was the army, a hierarchical institution, but in reality the process was somewhat haphazard. After the military seized power and arrested Suu Kyi along with 150 other LND leaders, pro-democracy activists were afraid to take to the streets, but were not prosecuted at first. It seems that the armed forces do not count on the dissatisfaction of the population.
Over the days, officials began to organize a civil disobedience movement. Unionized workers, railway workers, dockworkers and women in the garment industry also joined in, and street protests were taking shape. What unites all these people is hatred of the military. There are a few small gatherings of coup supporters, but I would say less than 10% of the population is on the side of the armed forces. I did not participate in the protests because I am a journalist, I do not feel comfortable participating in an event that I am covering, but some colleagues have left.
How have social media blocks affected the civil disobedience movement? It is a movement mainly organized on social networks. The armed forces have banned Facebook, Twitter and other platforms in an attempt to quell the protests. According to my accounts, there were still 39 internet blocks at night and 11 days in which all mobile networks were down. But people have found other ways to access the Internet. Most of the LND staff are over 60, and when they were arrested, a leadership vacuum arose. The leaders of the protests against the coup are younger and already knew how to use VPNs to access pornography, Tinder and even some human rights sites that were banned by the previous government. It should be noted that the LND government, although democratically elected, was somewhat authoritarian.
Faced with the blockages, journalists booked luxury hotel rooms in order to use Wi-Fi, which was not knocked down. Other citizens, especially in ethnic minority areas, where the internet has always been scarce, have activated pirate radio stations. So even with social media blocks and media censorship, people have found ways to access information. And the military know that if they cut off all Internet access in the country, they will end up getting injured because they also depend on this service. Despite the best efforts, the putschist generals will not be able to establish the same level of control that they exercised in the past, unless they decide to “fuck themselves” in the process.
How did the military government react to the pandemic? The LND government’s handling of the pandemic has been widely criticized by the military, and they have used Covid-19 as the justification for the coup. In his first statement, Commander Min Aung Hlaing announced a state of emergency with the aim of reviving the economy. Although Myanmar has some of the most restrictive measures against Covid-19 on paper, in practice people continue to leave their homes in various parts of the country. This is not the case in other regions, especially ethnic minority areas and districts where industrial workers live, where, in addition to the pandemic restrictions, martial law was imposed after the coup. State.
Even before the military came to power, poverty had increased dramatically. To make matters worse, food and fuel prices have skyrocketed. The pandemic has reversed much of the progress of the past decade, and the coup could make matters even worse.
Suu Kyi’s government has been criticized for its inability to act in the face of the Rohingya genocide. What should Myanmar’s ethnic minorities expect now, with the army back in power? The military hired a public relations agency to spread the story internationally that the LND government was really responsible for the ethnic cleansing campaign and that the armed forces are ready to negotiate the return of the Rohingya expelled from the country these days. recent years, even if they do not recognize them as citizens of Myanmar. The truth is that the relationship between the military and the armed groups that claim to represent certain ethnic minorities is quite complicated.
In theory, they have been at war for many decades, but in practice what often happens is a collaboration to enable the extraction of mineral resources in the areas where these minorities live. There is, indeed, a racial hatred against minorities, but above all, there is an economic stimulus to oppress the poor and extract resources from the earth. It is an extractive capitalist model that benefits both the military and local leaders, but exploits the people who live in those areas.
What can the international community do to help protect democracy in Myanmar? There is a campaign for sanctions against fraudsters and for the divestment of companies controlled by the military. The US government recently adhered to the sanctions and froze over $ 1 billion in Myanmar military personnel funds on US soil. But the reality is that the armed forces don’t care much about what the West has to say, they have maintained for 60 years one of the most repressive and isolated dictatorships in the world.
It is the Asian partners, such as India, China and Japan, who control the largest investments in Myanmar that could exert some pressure. In addition, other countries must be prepared to welcome refugees and provide the necessary resources for activists to continue fighting for democracy in exile. Food insecurity will also be a major problem in the coming months, so it is important to provide humanitarian assistance.
Why did you decide to flee Myanmar? I have run away now because I managed to book a flight before March 27, which is Armed Forces Day. If the military decides to be even more violent than it has been so far, now is the time. A lot of the people I love were also on the same flight without agreeing to travel on the same date. At the airport, the situation was tense, some have already been arrested while trying to leave the country. I am scared. I have heard stories of people who have been arrested and who appear to have been tortured, others who have received the bodies of their loved ones with missing organs. My family members are in prison, people I know have been killed. I don’t want to become a martyr, I want to be able to enjoy democracy in Myanmar when we can finally restore it.
Aye Min Thant
Journalist, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019 with his colleagues at the Reuters news agency. He holds a BA in Anthropology from the University of California (USA) and an MA in Southeast Asian Studies from Cornell University (USA).