Myanmar, Once Again? looks at Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement

Expert Robert Anderson gives an overview of the political complexities in Myanmar

Civil disobedience movement protest in Myanmar's capital. PHOTO: Getty Images.

Written by: Dev Petrovic, Staff Writer

Rarely in Westerm mainstream media are events in foreign countries covered, which is why the political tension in Myanmar is not a topic that many people in the Western world are privy to. The seminar sponsored by the David Lam Centre, Myanmar, Once Again?, sparked an informative discussion through highly informed lecturers giving detailed insight on the unseen current events in Myanmar. 

Hosted by Shaheen Nanji, acting executive director of SFU International, the event featured speaker Robert Anderson and guest speaker Dr. Tun Myint. Anderson has been working in Myanmar for 21 years, leading a policy-making initiative with young environmentalists. He is also a professor in the School of Communication at SFU. Dr. Tun Myint has also been working closely in Myanmar as an expert on COVID-19 activities. 

Civil Disobedience Movement

To delve into the political tension in Myanmar, people must first know the specific events that led to Myanmar’s current situation. After the last election in November, some losing candidates protested the results and initiated a court case claiming the election was fraudulent. This eventually led the senior general Min Aung Hlaing to arrest politician Ang San Suu Kyi and a majority of the other winning candidates. Since then, martial law has been progressively implemented in Myanmar — something that has not been seen since the 49-year martial law that reigned from 1962. 

“[Myanmar] has a long history of military interruptions in social and political and economic life,” opened Anderson, explaining how “the military is so deeply embedded, it’s hard to see how it can move in any other direction.”

He explained that the photos of demonstrations and civil confrontations against the military highlight the persistence of the Myanmar people exhibit through years of military conflict.

“Although the gun is powerful,” said Anderson while showing a picture of a protest on Sule Paya Road in downtown Yangon, “so is the camera.”

The pictures he showed were intriguing, each photo displaying the thousands of demonstrators who showed up to rebel against the military’s actions. Some of the images were taken by drones — a different perspective that really how large of a turn out the protests really had. There were also images showing monks sitting with signs in solidarity with the movement. 

Commenting on the general’s response to the protests, Anderson paraphrased: “He wants to take action against the money behind the riots and the protests.” He elaborated that the general was taking a stand against a parliamentary committee for getting monetary support from foreign organizations. 

“This is a quite familiar position that coup makers [take],” Anderson pointed out., “It is a traditional response in Myanmar to say that all these previous entities that were created by this previous government are now illegal and they must be if they’re getting support from outside the country.”

Anderson closed his overview by showing a picture of a registered lobbyist from Ottawa, known as Ari Ben-Menashe, who was “contracted by the Myanmar military to assist in the removal of international sanctions and alter world perception[s] of the coup.” 

Ben-Menashe runs the Canadian lobbying firm Dickens & Madson, and is a former Israeli Military Intelligence official. He was incarcerated in the United States from 1989–1990, and charged with trying to sell transport aircrafts to Iran. He was eventually acquitted as he claimed he was following Israeli government orders. Other sources show that he was paid $2 million to represent the Myanmar military, shortly after the movement broke out. 

Anderson’s thorough explanation of the events, with personal anecdotes from his time spent there, made the complex situation easy to understand and follow. His storytelling abilities, along with the images he showed, made the events engaging and fascinating.

Dr. Myint asked Anderson about the likelihood of the Myanmar government keeping its promise of granting civilians a fair elected government if they are currently holding control of power. 

“I would say they are going to try to, as in a chess game, put the pieces on the board in their favourite positions, so that when the game begins, their pieces can play,” answered Anderson. He added that it hurt them to see a loss in the last election so that moving forward “they won’t play again, I predict with great respect, until the pieces on the board are in a better position to play.” 

COVID-19

Dr. Myint provided insight into how the post-election movement, also known as the civil disobedience movement, evolved during COVID-19. He showed news articles of how medics went on strike to protest the actions of the military. Pictured in these articles were medics holding placards with red ribbons for the red ribbon movement, condemning the coup. 

Myint explained that close to 90% of healthcare workers joined the civil disobedience movement, causing hospitals to shut down or only operate to a limited degree. He showed pictures of set up fever clinics, that are separate from government hospitals, aiding in trauma, minor injuries, and non-communicable diseases. During the protests, civilians were tormented, tortured, arrested, and some killed — at times when being treated by medics — and medics who chose to protest were also arrested and harassed.

As a professional researching COVID-19 activities in Myanmar, Myint also showed statistics of how COVID-19 cases have escalated, now being the fourth most infected country in South-East Asia. Among other images, he also showed a graph of Myanmar’s case count in which after the coup, the numbers appeared to be lower only because of the low volume of people getting tested. He explained that the vaccine situation is currently being manipulated by the government, in which the distribution of vaccines has been used as an incentive to stop protesting. 

Resolving the Conflict & How Canadians Can Help

One participant asked what countries are most likely to put pressure on the generals and why and how they might do that. 

“As for the regional powers,” answered Anderson, “Canada, of course, is a marginal player and it can gang up with embassies or gang up with other like-minded countries, which is a classic formulation.” He explained the main investors like South Korea, Japan, Thailand, and Singapore are the big players in the monetary world and that China has probably invested everything it’s intended to. 

“We do know there was some talk of a three-part ultimatum issued,” continued Anderson. “We don’t know all the details, but China does have a disproportionate influence. India could, if it was, in my opinion, in closer liaison with the Japanese and the Koreans and perhaps with the ties could exert considerable pressure, but on its own, it hasn’t done so in the past.” 

To close off the event, the speakers were asked what Canadians can do to help with the situation in Myanmar. 

“To put pressure on our government,” responded Anderson, “expect them to provide the evidence for us to reveal more than just what we see in video clips of nuns standing in front of soldiers who want to shoot them.” 

He added that we should expect more from our government and from our agencies. “There is an ambassador there,” he said.

Anderson left attendees with some words of hope, “I hope that the general public will show more interest in Myanmar, it is an extremely interesting country and has great potential and from time to time, in my opinion, gets sidetracked from the real issues that face it.”