Revolution in Myanmar

Fighting sovereign commandment in the name of popular will

The date 27 March was once known as Fascist Resistance Day in Myanmar, which was once known as Burma. It was a day to commemorate the struggle against Japanese imperialism. Later, its name shortened to Resistance Day, or more precisely Tawlanye Ne (Revolution Day), it was coupled with Armed Forces Day, a title that later eclipsed the earlier one. By the 1990s only soldiers observed it, parading inside their camps or at the People’s Park in Yangon. Although the people were, without a hint of irony, barred from the park, they were still able to watch the televised parade, with garlanded men standing to attention for the same self-congratulatory speech about the military’s defence of national sovereignty that was repeated each year. With the coming of pay TV and mobile phones, Armed Forces Day ceremonies lost the audiences they once had. Nevertheless, the date has remained on the calendar as one officially and exclusively for military pomp and tinsel.

With this background, 27 March 2021 was a doubly appropriate date for protestors to mobilise against a reinvigorated military dictatorship. Soldiers had, almost two months before, detained Myanmar’s president, hundreds of elected officials, bureaucrats and assorted others, along with the erstwhile doyenne of democracy and human rights, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and state counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Though by now reviled abroad for her defence of the army against allegations of genocide on the country’s frontier with Bangladesh, Aung San Suu Kyi had led her National League for Democracy party (NLD) to another thumping victory the previous November, in an election that had gone ahead despite the unprecedented difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The win was the party’s second since the newly established legislatures began work in 2011, initially under a former army general serving as president, with the army-established Union Solidarity and Development Party dominant. The NLD did not contest the 2010 election—most of its senior leadership, including Aung San Suu Kyi, were still detained. When it romped to victory in 2015 the military begrudgingly waved it through. The party formed government with its representatives vastly outnumbering the soldiers who—to keep an eye on things—occupied one in every four seats of the national legislature. Five years on, and lessons learned, the military hinted that if its party, its affiliates and other minor parties didn’t get a larger share of the pie, there could be trouble. Nobody expected the NLD to lose, but the idea was that it should have a rather less decisive victory than in 2015. In the end, the party strengthened its hold on both houses, gaining even more seats. Through spokesmen and written statements the military complained of massive voter fraud. In January the volume of its complaints increased, but the NLD and the election commission brushed them aside. 

News of the 1 February coup broke just as the legislature was about to sit. Protests began almost immediately: small and impulsive at first, soon larger and more organised; from the banging of pots and pans in alleyways to throngs filling major thoroughfares. Cities were brought to a halt. By the end of the month Myanmar was in the grip of the largest popular uprising since 1988, the year that had propelled the NLD, and Aung San Suu Kyi with it, to the national political stage. Paramilitary police backed by soldiers met the protestors. They used gas canisters and rubber bullets initially, then systematically interspersed the rubber bullets with live rounds. Army snipers appeared, picking off demonstrators with shots aimed at the head. Soldiers and paramilitaries raided houses and offices, abducting occupants. Reports of torture, and abductees’ mutilated corpses, followed. 

By the eve of Armed Forces Day soldiers and paramilitaries had killed over 300 people in and around the streets, most of them in March. As the protestors’ numbers lessened, their resolve hardened. Those who remained built barricades. Demonstrators carrying specially manufactured metal shields and wearing helmets organised defensive teams and armed themselves with catapults, Molotov cocktails and jingali—sharpened bicycle spokes and the like, which can be fired from slingshots. On 27 March they went out defiantly, prepared as best as they could, to confront soldiers of a country that has been embroiled in civil war from its inception—soldiers of an army trained not for combat but in it.

One of those demonstrators was Ko Thiha Tin Tun. An archetype of the vanguard among the anti-dictatorship protestors, Thiha was young, educated and handsome. A graduate of the University of Medicine, Mandalay, he wrote poems and played music in his spare time. Doctors and nurses were at the forefront of the civil-disobedience movement that swept the country in February, when public services ground to a halt. Mandalay was the epicentre from which their words and deeds reverberated, and Thiha was on the streets too. By mid-February he was helping to organise a strike by medical staff that badly shook the junta, leading it to detain hundreds of doctors, interns and medical students, and to post announcements in state media naming others who had been charged with criminal offences—all this in the middle of the pandemic. 

When the shooting began Thiha did not back down. He joined a frontline team that was responsible for slowing approaching troops while other protestors retreated. He was on his way to join his team on 27 March when soldiers and paramilitaries ambushed a group of people as they were preparing to demonstrate. Thiha was somewhere among them when the group, undefended, scattered. One of the attackers shot Thiha in the head. He fell but did not immediately die. Troops upbraided him as he sprawled, fatally wounded, on the ground. They threw putrid water from a nearby drain into his face, strangled and kicked him, then left him lying in the street.

A photograph of Thiha on the Medical Family Mandalay website shows how he might have looked as he went out that morning, a gas mask hanging at his throat, goggles perched on a helmet that was of no use against a bullet, and that might have made him more of a target. The photo is juxtaposed with another from happier times that shows Thiha standing with a broad smile in front of a local hospital, his hair ruffled, in loose jeans and a V-neck sweatshirt. No pretentious white coat and necktie for him: a stethoscope flung across his shoulders as if as an afterthought is the only thing to indicate his status as assistant surgeon. 

In a handwritten letter that he left for his relatives and comrades, Thiha recalls those happier times. If he died, a friend says, then the 26-year-old wanted the letter circulated immediately. He was anxious that the protests would lose vigour as casualties rose. He wrote the letter to encourage everyone to push on, and to let them know that he was ready to give up his life. 

‘While we were hoping for the best, things took a turn for the worst’, Thiha begins the one-page letter. ‘Our country’s power seized, happy days free from fear are behind us. It’s time to fight back for what’s been lost, in any way possible.’ Then he writes of his impending death in an unperturbed way; self-assured though not arrogant. ‘If I die somehow, be proud of me’, he tells his mother. ‘Don’t mourn too long. Don’t be overcome with sadness if I die, for my death will have been in the struggle for popular will over national sovereignty.’

This is the last letter of someone who lived up to his ancient name, from the Pali sinha, lion; a letter that roars with the spirit of revolt. That is not to romanticise the letter or its author, nor to imply that Thiha has uncommon insights about the character of the struggle, even if he had had an especially active interest in domestic politics and international affairs. On the contrary, he echoes familiar demands from every part of Myanmar that popular will must prevail over military dictatorship. That’s exactly the point. He reminds his loved ones—mother, grandmother, father, sister and brother-in-law, aunty, and lover, each in turn—that his is a shared cause. He is committing himself bodily to a collective fight in which lives will be lost. One of them might be his. Audaciously, he embraces the possibility of bloodshed. ‘Hands that have held the scalpel’, he observes, ‘are already stained with blood’. 

But Thiha’s letter does more than convey the spirit of revolt. It also theorises a nascent revolution. It does that, first, by differentiating between state sovereignty as Myanmar’s military would have it and the constitutive power of popular will and, second, by recognising that constitutive power emerges from collective action that may, in going up against reactionary violence in the name of sovereignty, respond by any means necessary. Though Thiha does not say so explicitly, these means might include violence of another kind, namely, revolutionary violence.  

Thiha’s statement that he’s enjoined in a struggle for popular will over national sovereignty is noteworthy not only because it affirms a competing, collective claim to power but also because it formulates power differently from the way the military formulates it. In Burmese, agyokagya-ana (sovereignty) denotes apex power. It is power that represses, power as commandment. That it echoes old European ideas about political order is not coincidental. The British who invaded Burma in three phases over the nineteenth century claimed the right to rule by linking their conquest to the sovereign power of commandment emanating from the metropole. 

But the colonial subject of sovereign power as commandment was constituted differently from the metropolitan one. Though the subjects of power at home—or settlers in a settler colony—might be socially inferior to the people who ruled them, theoretically they were still members of the political community, their adult propertied menfolk legally enfranchised equals. This was never the case in the extractive colony, where the colonial subject appeared before sovereign power as a biological and cultural inferior whose conquest would, ironically, be uplifting. But no matter how far lifted up, the native would never be equal to the coloniser, whose prerogative it was to govern. The fiction was that one day the native might be equal. This was always a sham. The native was destined to be forever unready—permanently consigned to what Dipesh Chakrabarty once memorably referred to as the imaginary waiting room of history. 

Earlier kings whom Myanmar’s military commanders today memorialise with comically grandiose statues erected in the country’s high modernist capital, Naypyidaw, also sought to concentrate and exercise sovereign power over subordinates. Like their European counterparts, they held this power in themselves. And like European palaces, theirs exuded anxiety about the potential for chaos and disorder. But their notions of right differed from those of the British administrators who came later, as did their sovereign prerogatives. Their power was cosmological; it was essentially moral, and in many respects understood with reference to phenomena that were beyond the sovereign’s effective control—crops, floods, epidemics. By contrast, colonial power was repressive; it was essentially juridical and, to borrow from Michel Foucault, strangely restrictive: ‘poor in resources, sparing of its methods, monotonous in the tactics it utilises, incapable of invention, and seemingly doomed always to repeat itself’. 

This essentially negative model by which to dominate and expropriate, in which sovereign power took on responsibility for all the things over which it could exert effective control and absolutely nothing more, formed the basis for military dictatorship in Burma after independence. Arrangements for the conduct of politics in the postcolony were from the beginning hostile to any kind of order that did not refer back to sovereign power as commandment. British arrangements tilted towards government by dictate rather than by debate. In short, military rule became a historically specific consequence of colonialism in Burma. Not despite the arrangements of British colonialism but because of them did military men succeed in obtaining the wherewithal to repress their postcolonial subjects. Not without precedent has Myanmar’s military invoked the language of ‘not yet’ every time the country’s citizens have dared to suggest they ought to be the authors of sovereign power rather than merely being subjected to it.  

What makes the revolt against military dictatorship in 2021 so threatening to Myanmar’s military is not only that it envisages a profoundly different conception of sovereignty but also that it literally embodies it. Against sovereign power as commandment, Thiha and his comrades theorise self-constituted power, with which to make political order anew. Their struggle is enriched by the fullness of the idea that power derives from involvement. Their sovereignty emerges out of actions, through the spoken words and bodily deeds of those who struggle in concert and, if necessary, through violence. Against sovereign power that is concentrated at an apex, in the fist or scrotum of some non-existent superman, this sovereignty is distributed. Against the emptiness of the postcolonial right to issue commandments, its potential to reconstitute things finds meaning in its being felt and expressed collectively. 

Listen—it’s there in the cries of defence teams on the protest barricades back in March, yelling thabon! (rebels!) at approaching soldiers and paramilitaries. With these two syllables the protestors invert the relationship between themselves and those coming to try to disperse, capture and kill them. Their message: the army that turns against popular will is not defending sovereign power; it is attacking it. The soldiers, not the demonstrators, are the rebels. There it is again, in the recurrent cry that ‘the people’s armed forces don’t kill the people’, once more negating the military’s claims to be acting in national defence. And there it is too in countless photographs and fragments of text scattered across the revolutionary archive, like a banner at a February protest in Yangon: ‘Tear out the rebel government by the roots!’ In the background someone holds aloft a cardboard sign written in English—which is convenient to swear in—that reads: ‘We don’t want your fucking law’. To the occupants of a township court in downtown Yangon, someone with a can of red spray paint delivers a message to the agents of fucking law on the lime-green exterior wall: ashetmashigya thumya (YOU ARE SHAMELESS). 

The day of 27 March marked a turning point in the fight against recuperated military rule in Myanmar. Thiha’s letter is prescient. He seems to see what’s coming: not just his own death but also that shields and barricades and slingshots won’t be enough to sustain the fight; that Samsung phones and Facebook pages won’t make such a big difference to how things play out in the streets this time around, compared to previous uprisings. And they didn’t, though they did record the brutality of it all—Thiha’s killing included. Four soldiers dragged and dumped him in the street where onlookers could see him struggle with his punctured and beaten body. Someone with a phone made a video of his life ebbing away. Thiha was not the only one recorded while dying on a street that day. Well over a hundred people lost their lives. The exact number is unknown. Some deaths must have gone unreported. And soldiers and paramilitaries carted away many of those killed, including Thiha, whose mother had to hold a funeral service without her son’s body. 

Anyone who had been on or near the frontlines of the protests had by now seen very well for themselves what the army can do. Perhaps many of them had not believed or had not given any thought to reports of its atrocities from years gone by—from the lowlands near Bangladesh to the hills near India, China and Thailand. Now there was no avoiding the facts. So the protestors took an imaginative leap. Men, women and non-binary people individually and in clutches made their way to areas occupied by sympathetic, albeit cautious armed groups, some actively at war with the military, others in ceasefires. There they learned how to make explosives, how to handle guns and how to shoot. For them and their supporters, what began as non-violent revolt in these crucibles unambiguously became violent revolution. Many, perhaps most, were in their twenties. Like Thiha, they had spent their teenage years expecting that they had a future in Myanmar as doctors or nurses, engineers or journalists, singers or models. The fight they have put up since is not for those futures lost but for some other future or futures in which the military is no longer the arbiter of how their country is run. Perpetual military rule is the one future they cannot tolerate. So they imagine others. And many if not all act on them. 

Unlike the students who after the massacres of 1988 went to frontier areas and formed their own army, this generation of fighters has not long stayed in the hills. Nor has it united in a single fighting force. It has come back to the towns and cities as it left, in trickles. The fighting is dispersed, subterranean and not much reported by international media, which have lost most of the access they enjoyed to the country in the 2010s, and much of the interest that they had when the violence was spectacular. Not so the networks of local journalists, who despite internet blackouts have via outlets like the long-running Mizzima news group been issuing reports on the ebb and flow of revolutionary violence. They go like this (from 9 October): the Tantsi People’s Comrades ambushed a junta army patrol on Friday afternoon; the Monywa Heroes Group shot dead a betel-shop owner who was an alleged junta informer; South Monywa PDF said they carried out a bomb attack against a military truck near the city clock tower; a section of the Mandalay-Pyin Oo Lwin railway line was blown up Friday; in Mogoke there were explosions at Music Zone karaoke, where junta soldiers tend to go for relaxation, and at the house of a junta informer on Thursday; in Mawlamyeingyun, Min Min Oo, a member of the junta’s army, was stabbed to death Wednesday; in Loikaw, a bomb exploded at the junta-owned Inwa Bank on Friday; in Hlaing, Yangon, there were two explosions at an administration office, injuring a garbage collector and three policemen; after exchanges of fire between Kawhmu PDF and the junta army, soldiers raided Wathinka on Friday and arrested two residents. 

The people’s defence forces apparently responsible for the killings, bombings and warnings are, like the protests that anticipated them, loosely structured and horizontally interrelated. In places where armed groups have long fought for separation or autonomy from Myanmar proper, their members have ties with those groups, and experienced fighters among their ranks. Elsewhere they have formed largely through the involvement of people like Thiha, who before February would not have dreamt of taking up arms. Many though by no means all affiliate with the National Unity Government (NUG) that is acting in the stead of the ousted NLD. The NUG, unlike the exiled government of the 1990s and 2000s, has a defence ministry. On paper it oversees the armed struggle. In September the NUG’s acting president, Duwa Lashi La, declared war on the military council. But he is not in command. Those who survive Thiha are. They are leading defence forces, forming their own alliances and coming up with their own ideas for how to fight back. 

But to what ends? What are they fighting for? Do the defence forces have express goals? Or are they just loosely united by shared enmity for military rule—a negative coalition against negative sovereignty? On the surface of it, these are reasonable questions. They are often asked of revolutions and revolutionaries in hindsight, when the outcomes of their struggles are already known. But asked of revolution in progress, they seem to miss the point. The meaning of the people’s defence forces’ violence lies not in how it relates to some end or ends but in the way it is opposed to the violence of the revolution’s enemies. Whereas the military junta sanctions its violence through a conception of state sovereignty as commandment, its opponents upend this repressive notion of power by investing the popular will, the power to constitute political order anew, in theirs. This is not to say that their violence is itself constitutive. It is not. Violence alone constitutes nothing political. But by rupturing the existing order of things it makes some other order possible. And it is this that makes it revolutionary. Put another way, revolutionary violence is made meaningful in relation to the reactionary violence it opposes, rather than in relation to its putative ends, which in Myanmar remain to be seen, heard and fought over politically. 

It is already hard to recall how not very long ago lawyers were poring excitedly over Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, debating articles and contemplating amendments. Political scientists and consultants were winging their ways into the country to talk up its elite pact, and conduct public-opinion surveys about this or that. And liberated technocrats were, with foreign advice, enthusiastically cutting a pathway from authoritarian capitalism to electoral neoliberalism. None of that matters much now. The military claims it is adhering to the constitution. The elite pact, such as it was, is broken. Public opinion is irrelevant. And leading technocrats have, along with Aung San Suu Kyi and much of the NLD leadership, been detained or blown to the wind. The compromises and complicit silences that enveloped her and her party in their efforts to appease the military during their last years in government are, like the happy days that Thiha remembers, well and truly the stuff of history. What remains is revolution. 

To be sure, high above the Irrawaddy basin Aung San Suu Kyi’s star has never faded. No matter what happens she will forever represent virtue, morality and hope to millions in Myanmar. For them, she can do no wrong. It is for love of her that untold numbers took to the streets in protest. But it isn’t her people who are leading the fight any more. Though the NUG includes members of the NLD among its ministers, and identifies Aung San Suu Kyi as its state counsellor, it’s not her government. Nor is it her or her party’s revolution. The fight is in others’ hands. 

Thiha came to the view that Myanmar’s military will never voluntarily give up sovereign power as right of commandment. For thousands more who share this view, what remained after Armed Forces Day was to fight back in any way possible, which is to say, to make 27 March Revolution Day all over again. Thiha didn’t live to see the fight through to its next phase, but if he had, he would surely have remained among his comrades, organising and struggling for a different political order from the one that has prevailed in Myanmar for so long. It is to his comrades that he addresses the closing lines of his letter. ‘I urge you not to give up until the people have regained power’, he implores them. ‘I’m sorry for having had to go so soon. Down with military dictatorship! Long live the popular will!’ Like droplets of rain hanging heavily in a storm, these last words bulge, and cling to the bottom of the page. 

About the author

Nick Cheesman

Nick Cheesman is a fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. He is the author of Opposing the Rule of Law: How Myanmar’s Courts Make Law and Order (Cambridge University Press, 2015). He is working on a political lexicon of Myanmar, for publication in 2022.

More articles by Nick Cheesman

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