Where the People Are: Myanmar’s armed resistance and rehabilitation of ‘the People’ as revolutionary actor

The town of Ma-le reclines on the western bank of the Irrawaddy River about a hundred miles north of Mandalay. Its historic pagoda, recently rebuilt after an earthquake, catches morning light. There’s no pier, but nor is one needed. The river’s navigators can bring their shallow vessels to the sandy bank, which in dry season slips away from the zinc-roofed houses lining the ridge above. Behind them, a narrow paved road passes out of the town and winds absently southwestward, as if by afterthought. Meandering across slumped hills and through foraging cattle, it enters scrubby farmlands. Come mid-year, the stream beds that crisscross these lands will spill with rainwater. For now they are easy to traverse.

Four miles later the road ends at Pazigyi, a dot among the constellation of villages stretching across upper Myanmar’s lowlands. The people here are far from the hills and mountains where, in the three quarters of a century since the country pulled free of the decrepit British Empire, scores of armed groups have resisted lowland authority. They are as distant from those places culturally and historically as they are cartographically. Pazigyi is not on the periphery of Myanmar’s imagined community. It is at its centre. It sits in its mythological heartland. From this region, Burma’s last great empire-builder, Alaungpaya, hailed. This has been a place of state building from ancient times to today. If a state cannot build here, it cannot build anywhere.

That makes what happened in Pazigyi on the morning of 11 April 2023 all the more startling. Shortly after dawn, hundreds of people were assembling in the northwest corner of the village before the heat and tasks of the day. They had come for the opening ceremony of an administrative office. It was the eve of the lunar New Year, celebrated throughout the Theravada Buddhist world. As is customary, the event organisers had prepared food for attendees. But they were not organising the event under the authority of the home affairs ministry in the country’s high modernist capital, Naypyidaw. They were organising against it. This was to inaugurate a Township People’s Administration office under the National Unity Government, or NUG, which was formed two years earlier as a stand-in for the elected legislature.

Since the military coup of 1 February 2021 that aborted the legislature, the people in this hitherto pacified region have been at the forefront of an unprecedented fight for liberation from military rule. It was here that hundreds of local armed groups, or people’s defence forces, sprang into action within months of the army takeover. With support from para-states in upland areas, local people and the Myanmar diaspora, they got funds, weapons and training with which to target dictatorship troops, or Sittat, and officials who did not walk out on their jobs or join opposition forces. Civil administration crumbled. The burden of administering—of staffing schools and running clinics—fell increasingly to the military state’s adversaries.

The Sittat, meantime, turned out to be ill prepared for a fight against thousands of loosely affiliated opponents across wide lowland terrain. Its men have for decades been in combat against cultural and linguistic others in frontier areas, but not against cultural and linguistic familiars in regions that lie much closer to the country’s major towns and cities. They have struggled to regain control of territory on which the integrity of the Myanmar state depends. Instead, they have resorted, using Russian and Chinese aircraft fuelled by India, to a strategy of terroristic violence from above. Against this, the people’s defence forces have no defence. What they have are drones, purchased with funds raised from lotteries on Facebook. They do not have anti-aircraft weapons. Lottery ticket sales are barely sufficient even for surface-to-surface rockets. And despite all the pious expressions of moral support for anti-dictatorship forces in Myanmar from abroad, no democratic state has stepped forward to provide these kinds of weapons, or funds with which they could be purchased.

Reports of what happened that morning in Pazigyi don’t identify the type of jet whose bombs blasted the building at which villagers assembled into hundreds of pieces. The attack helicopter that followed it was a Russian Mi-35. The men in that aircraft fired on the people below them for around ten minutes. When they were finished, over 170 of the approximately 200 present were dead or dying. A quarter were children. The Myanmar Now news service, which spoke with survivors, reports that ‘three entire families had been wiped out in the assault, with no known surviving relatives’, and that the dead included the NUG-appointed local administrator and other appointees. Survivors and witnesses who came to the scene afterwards described it as strewn with body parts. Photographs show a gully in which people had taken cover full of charred remains. Debris from the building where they had gathered lies in shreds all over the place.

The attack on Pazigyi followed the bombing of a school near the border of India a couple of days earlier, which reportedly killed nine, and another on a village that killed a similar number at the end of March. These followed the same design: first a jet aircraft, then a helicopter. In this pattern they resemble attacks on a concert in the country’s north half a year before, in which over eighty died, and one on a school southwest of Pazigyi that left more than a dozen children dead last September. Days after the attack, helicopters launched another on an NUG-supported clinic in neighbouring Magway Region, firing on the clinic and the village in which it was located and then ferrying in troops to capture health workers who had joined the resistance, and their patients.

These are among the hundreds of aerial attacks that the Myanmar military has launched in response to the revolutionary war it has been met with since the 2021 coup: a war locally, on the ground; a war to defend the People that is now two years old.

All seizures of government have unanticipated consequences. The 2021 coup in Myanmar has had many. One of the most remarkable of these is that the military has inadvertently rehabilitated ‘the People’ as a primary category for political action. The People’s rehabilitation constitutes a threat to it. Military success depends on the People’s destruction.

The rehabilitation of the People, or Pyithu in Burmese, is remarkable because before the coup the term had suffered a long period of abuse and neglect. At one time it had been central to political discourse. Anti-imperialists in the 1930s and 40s denoted the People the object and source of their fight against British despotism. The term was not new: pyithu, or in its older form pyithu-pyitha appears in dictionaries that predate the British occupation of Mandalay in 1885—an occupation that precipitated years of armed resistance and a program of imperial ‘pacification’ through bombardment, arson, summary executions and forcible relocations. But by the 1920s it had grown in significance. Nationalist politicians and activists had veered to the Left. They sought allies in other subjugated nations. The People loomed large in their imagination, and rhetoric. It was at once their audience and their point of departure. It was the place from which their struggle had to emerge and to which they had to speak.

Over the next decade the term became unmoored. It bobbed about in the choppy seas of independence politics and armed conflict. Both the government and its myriad opponents fought in the People’s name. Then things changed abruptly. From the mid-1960s a military dictatorship displaced politics, and with them the political primacy that the People had had. It rendered the People a matter of public policy; a problem for proper organisation through hierarchical command and expedient economic reordering. By the 1970s the dictatorship had established people’s councils, people’s courts and people’s police, all tasked with enforcing its singular conception of good order. Pyithu went from being a term with which to liberate to an instrument with which to dominate.

Critics and dissidents now cast around for alternative ideas with which to spell out their political aspirations. By the late 1980s the last of Asia’s great anti-imperialist wars had concluded. Soviet communism was teetering. Apartheid was too. History was about to end, not with the People’s victory but in liberal democracy. Armed revolutionary struggles were no longer in fashion. Nonviolent social movements, the storyline went, would succeed where they had failed.

In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi, newly returned to Burma from Oxford, read from this script. People in Myanmar, then Burma, followed it. The army didn’t. It shot and bludgeoned its way through demonstrators, promised a multi-party election and reneged on the results. The historical moment was not Burma’s, after all. Liberal democratic social movement politics were bereft of defences when existentially threatened by an army that didn’t have events in Europe or Africa as reference points for its own actions.

This was no minor setback on the way to the democracy to come. While elsewhere the advocates of political transitions confidently predicted their success, in Myanmar there were no predictions of this sort. The military initially attempted to contain politics, and when this attempt was unsuccessful, it banned them. All efforts to break the prohibition, including by way of a colour revolution in 2007, failed. Two decades on, in 2010, an election was engineered to hand government to the Sittat’s own party. By-elections in 2012 brought Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy into the legislatures. When the 2015 election gave the League incomplete control over government, hopes resurged for a belated transition of the sort that had for a quarter of a century been promised but deferred.

The League was unbeatable electorally. To win it had no need of the People. What it needed were electorates of compliant voters to make up what would have become a permanent majority for the party. Everywhere she went, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about self-discipline and individual responsibility; she and her party did nothing to ameliorate the inimical effects of race and other forms of identity politics in the constituencies from which they drew support. They contributed to the political conditions that in 2017 made genocide possible. Even when the army embarked on a Saturnalia of killing, rape and torture that pushed hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Bangladesh, they did not try to intervene. To the contrary, Suu Kyi betrayed everything that her admirers abroad had made her into by going to The Hague in 2019 to defend the military against accusations of genocide.

It was not until 2021 that many of those people who denied or applauded military atrocities in Rakhine State against dehumanised others saw for themselves what the Sittat is capable of doing. They were not yet born or had not been old enough to remember the previous waves of violence that had swept Myanmar’s cities during periods of upheaval. They had no experience of the conditions in frontier areas where wars for political autonomy and cultural survival continued. Now, when the residents of towns and villages around the country assembled to demand that their votes be respected and political prisoners released, they were met with incremental bloodshed. This hardened the resistance of those who did not withdraw. They upped their demands, calling for federalism and the complete removal of the military from public affairs. In response, soldiers and paramilitary police killed, assaulted and abducted people who continued to resist, precipitating the armed uprising that brought jet and helicopter to Pazigyi.

The National Unity Government, which formed in April 2021, had the choice to reject the armed violence that was proliferating through new armed groups around the country. Instead it opted to go with it. It established a defence ministry and its own People’s Defence Forces, under which it has attempted to draw others into a command structure. In September 2021 the NUG’s acting president, Duwa Lashi La, declared a people’s defensive war. He justified the declaration on the grounds that all other attempts at defending the People’s lives and homes had been exhausted. The NUG’s remaining option, he said, was to shoulder the responsibility of defending the People with arms. He urged the people’s defence forces to carry on.

They have. Against many expectations, the people’s defence forces have not disintegrated. The war continues. Outside the cities, over which the military has regained control through nighttime raids, abductions, torture and executions, the people’s defence forces operate across swathes of previously pacific territory: firing on security outposts, seizing arms, bombing army trucks and targeting state officials. They are forming alliances and linking with pre-existing groups in the hills, beyond military state control. Their struggle is exported through the work of the NUG for recognition abroad. And it continues in hundreds of towns and hamlets like Pazigyi, where anti-dictatorship activists are attempting to build a new civil administration, which the military state is set upon destroying in order that it exist instead of the People.

In his 2018 Ruth Benedict Lectures, Partha Chatterjee reflected on the responses given by a number of radical thinkers a few years earlier when asked the question: what is a people? Alain Badiou thought the term reactionary. Jacques Rancière said that ‘the people’ does not exist. Their responses, Chatterjee observed, ‘show how vacuous the idea of popular sovereignty has become under contemporary conditions of electoral democracy’. Yet, he added, ‘lurking on the surface of these justified denunciations of the uses made of popular sovereignty by the rulers of contemporary nation-states there is a discernible longing for a people that … is nonetheless virtuous, asserting an autonomous will and speaking truth to power’. Are the events in Myanmar since the 2021 coup evidence of that longing? And if they are, what difference does it make to the struggle, and to how it is understood?

The People, like all political categories, is exclusive. There must be a way to differentiate members from non-members. But the difference between the People and other salient political categories in Myanmar today is that its members have no necessary prior ascriptions. Membership hinges not on who they are but on what they have done in response to the military takeover. Unlike other categories for political action in Myanmar, the People, Pyithu, has not been naturalised. It does not appear as if it has grown organically from a seed. Indeed, it’s obvious that it hasn’t. The People summoned itself in the immediacy of a revolutionary situation. Its rehabilitation was a political act. Participants in Myanmar’s revolution reconstituted the People by invoking it. They did that not by following the terms set down by political theorists or populist leaders, or even revolutionary others. They did it in the historically contingent and socially specific conditions in which they were acting.

Of what are these conditions comprised? Among other things, they are comprised of the ossified detritus of British imperial forms of order, in which people are classed and organised at birth along racial and religious lines. The People rehabilitated rebuts that way of classing people. Everyone who has resisted the Sittat since 2021 is in principle included among its members. To be sure, who does or does not count among the People is disputable, and disputed. But the answer to this question hangs not on who they are but on what they have or have not done. This is not the case for categories in Myanmar like race and citizenship. These are administratively fixed. To enter or exit them is bureaucratic and difficult, if not impossible. The People, Pyithu, by contrast admits anyone who chooses through their actions to become a member. It includes defectors from the army and police, who are welcomed into ‘the People’s embrace’. It includes schoolteachers who have refused to indoctrinate their students in classes that they have characterised as a pedagogy for enslavement to the army, sitkyun pannya sanit. It includes the members of religious, cultural and sexual minorities. The glue that holds them all together is not hereditary. It is revolutionary.

As source and site of political action, the People became the means for its own defence once defence was necessary. When soldiers used crowds of assembled demonstrators for target practice, when they dragged dead bodies around and left them lying in the streets like rubbish bags, when they stormed into houses and apartments and abducted their occupants, people resisted. Protestors who remained on the streets built higher barricades and made heavy shields with which to deflect bullets. In apartments, some took their own lives rather than be captured. When the fight on the streets could not be sustained, thousands of youths left for the countryside to seek training and arms from groups in the hills and frontiers with which to shoot back. By now it was no longer people, but the People resisting.

The People, as a political proposition, did not bring arms with it to this struggle. The assemblies that followed the coup in 2021 did not anticipate their use. They were, as on every other occasion that people in Myanmar have gathered to oppose military prerogatives, nonviolent. But faced with existentially threatening violence, the choice is whether to put a political struggle at risk by responding violently or submitting to the threat and trying to find another way forward politically. In 1988 people in Burma were not prepared to make this choice and the movement faltered. In 2021 the People was.

Because of the profound threat that it poses to military rule in Myanmar, the People has met with atrocity from the moment of its reemergence on the streets in 2021 until the time of the attack on Pazigyi. It will continue to meet with it for as long as the Myanmar military is capable of terroristic violence. Far from denying atrocity, the Sittat celebrates it and promises more to come: two days after the attack on Pazigyi the state media trumpeted the military’s success in ‘annihilating the terrorist NUG office’ and killing ‘so-called PDFs’. The NUG and people’s defence forces retort that it is the military junta itself that is a terrorist outfit. Undeniably it is, if we, with Achille Mbembe, understand the terrorist project to be one that ‘aims to effect the collapse of a society of rights’ by killing sufficiently large enough numbers of people to force the withdrawal of others from the political scene. But nobody needs to read Mbembe to get the point of labelling the military state terroristic. The appellation ‘terrorist’, when turned back onto the state, inverts the relationship between the people’s defence forces and their enemy. If the military state is terroristic, it follows that those armed groups organised in defence of the People are the counter-terrorists.

That’s a nice rhetorical manoeuvre; however, the worry that follows from the formation of the people’s defence forces is that no sooner does the People reappear as a category for political action than by opting for violence these fighters risk destroying the political conditions that made the People’s rehabilitation possible. This is a genuine worry. Generalised violence can quickly and decisively overwhelm politics, as people in Myanmar know from decades of bitter experience. As the people’s defence forces find the remains of comrades whom the enemy has not merely killed but has tortured to death—decapitated and disembowelled—there will be those among them who opt to treat their captives similarly.

This worry cannot be obviated, but it might be palliated by pointing to the general difference between the terroristic violence of the military state and the revolutionary violence that opposes it. The facile idea that all human-on-human violence is reprehensible subsumes many different types of violence into one. This is unsatisfactory. Terroristic state violence and revolutionary defensive violence are not in the same category. The People, armed and defensive, aims at the downfall of an existing order by positing a different type of political future through revolutionary violence in the present. Terroristic military violence aims at nothing other than destruction of any conceivable political future through the magnification of violence and glorification of the military institution itself.

This is not to apologise for specific acts of violence in the name of the People’s defence—the shooting of alleged civilian informers or collaborators, for instance, let alone practices of public degradation or torture in interrogation that enfold with the institutions and violence of dictatorship. But to compare the assassination of alleged informers by revolutionary forces to the slaughter of anti-dictatorship activists by soldiers, or gathered villagers by gunships, is not only to disregard differences in scale, it is to err in kind. That the Sittat’s violence is grossly disproportionate to that of its opponents is obvious. But this violence is not just on another scale; it is of another type. The two have obverse relations to power. Defensive violence in the name of the People, Pyithu, does not occupy the same class of practices as terroristic state violence. There is in it, as collective action, an idea of freedom that radically differentiates it from military violence in the name of sovereign commandment. In contrast to the People in whose name defensive revolutionary war is being fought in Myanmar, the military violence of sovereign commandment is practised on behalf of a people that does not exist.

* * *

In this era of proliferating unarmed revolutions, when nonviolent resistance is lauded as the most politically effective option for activists in a world of networked capital, people in Myanmar have once more taken up arms. Unlike the violence they oppose, the revolutionary violence of the people’s defence forces has political ends. Whether those ends are imperilled by armed resistance is a question that cannot be answered. The risks that violence poses to political ends are historically contingent. The variables are too many to make reliable predictions. The sensible thing to do is to ask other questions about the choices that people have made together when opting for or against violence, the conditions in which they have made those choices, and the implications for how they organise and communicate.

The National Unity Government chose defensive war. It did not initiate that war, but it has committed to it. For this it met with criticism from people inside and outside Myanmar. There are those who think all forms of violent resistance morally repugnant. Others blame the people’s defences forces or the National Unity Government for violence to come. And stalwarts of the National League for Democracy point out that Aung San Suu Kyi, whose government the NUG claims to act on behalf of, would not have taken this course of action.

No, this is not the nonviolent path for which Aung San Suu Kyi and earlier generations of political dissidents advocated. And why should it be? Suu Kyi and her party declined to summon the People. The NUG, on the other hand, has been summoned by it. It was confronted by the immediacy of a situation in which hundreds of new people’s defence forces were arming and preparing to fight regardless of what it did or did not do. Rather than try to keep its hands clean by holding those groups at arms length, it reached out to them. That meant it would get its hands dirty. And it has. But its willingness to do so has shown its preparedness to act like the government it says that it is.

In conditions that are unavoidably violent, since violence is under all circumstances the imperative of the military state, the worry that revolutionary violence could endanger political action is not a good enough reason to insist on nonviolence. In these circumstances, in defence of the People, the National Unity Government’s position is defensible. It is, at least, not hypocritical. That is more than can be said of all those governments, Australia’s included, that have wrung their hands at the military takeover and the atrocities that have followed but have failed to recognise the NUG as Myanmar’s government, let alone do anything materially significant to help its people defend themselves.

This article benefited from Dorothy Mason’s contributions and advice.

Revolution in Myanmar

Nick Cheesman, Dec 2021

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.

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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