Historical Continuity in Myanmar’s Second Struggle for Independence
The movement fighting against the military junta in Myanmar has deeper roots that stretch back to the 1988 uprising, and even beyond. This provides another reason to treat it with the respect it deserves.
Speaking at the 74th anniversary of Myanmar’s independence on 4 January 2022, Duwa Lashi La, acting President of the National Unity Government (NUG), spoke of a ‘second struggle for independence’. He was referring to ‘the people’s revolution’ that came as a response to the coup staged by the military almost a year ago.
The turn of phrase used is clever, as it plays on the relative proximity between the words for ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’ in Burmese. It has been used by many, and not least Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, since the 1988 uprising, and as recently as 2018. The uprising in 1988 saw Myanmar students, monks, doctors and other citizens protesting against one party rule of the government headed by General Ne Win.
This is only one example of direct reference to the 1988 uprising on the part of participants in the current ‘spring revolution’ against renewed military rule. Tens of thousands of Myanmar Burmese youths, many of whom had never even heard the songs of 1988 before the coup, spent the month of February 2021 singing some of the most famous of those songs in demonstrations and sit-ins. Taxi drivers, too, blasted these songs from their cars during and outside of the quarter of an hour every day when streets resonated with the sounds of pots and pans (an old tradition already resurrected during the rainy season of 1988). Many of them were clearly moved to see the younger generation singing the same songs they sang some 30 years ago, and were understandably eager to underline, in music, the links between the two movements.
Invocations of a second struggle for independence have also been key in linking the political role of Aung San Suu Kyi to that of her father and namesake in the 1940s. And there has been much in the vocabulary of the ongoing movement that borrows from the country’s (first) struggle for independence from its British colonizer. The phrase ‘slave education’, for instance, reappeared, when teachers, students and parents decided to boycott schools and universities following last year’s coup. They thus adopted language first used in the wake of the 1920 students’ protest, in a movement that led to ‘national schools’ created as an alternative to colonial education.
There was much, also, in the institutions created by the opposition in the wake of the coup to remind observers of the 1990s and the struggle against the junta in power in Yangon at that time. The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) of elected parliamentarians could be compared to the Committee Representing the People’s Parliament (CRPP) founded by the NLD in 1998. The National Unity Government – the government in exile which includes the CRPH –- could be compared to the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma (NCGUB). And the National Unity Consultative Committee (NUCC) – which includes the CRPH and NUG – could be compared to the National Coalition for the Union of Burma (NCUB). The respective roles of the NCGUB and NCUB, the ‘solution of a double entity’, answered to the same logic and dynamics that led to the creation of the contemporary NUG and NUCC. One group represents the legitimacy of democratic elections (the NCGUB, and now the NUG), and the other recognises the role of organisations, of ethnic nationalities in particular. These entities had not contested the elections of 1990 and 2020, respectively, but enjoyed other forms of legitimacy. They were key elements in the fight for democracy (the NCUB, and now the NUCC). Interestingly, then as now, federalism, as much as democracy, was the professed objective, under the same ‘Panglong Spirit’, another throwback to the independence era.
There was much, also, in the institutions created by the opposition in the wake of the coup to remind observers of the 1990s and the struggle against the junta in power in Yangon at that time.
Last but not least, the fact that Min Ko Naing is a key spokesperson for the NUCC is a powerful mark of historical continuity. He is the hero of 1988, and the man who started the Saffron Revolution in 2007. In 1988, Min Ko Naing was elected as a leader of a resurrected All Burma Federation of Students Unions (ABFSU), an organisation with roots in the independence movement of the 1930s.
Armed resistance is not a new phenomenon in Myanmar either. As many student activists of 1988 told me two decades ago from their exile in Thailand, members of the ABFSU faced a difficult choice after the coup of September 1988 and ahead of the elections of 1990. Some decided to continue the fight as a students’ union. Some decided to join the armed struggle of ethnic armed organisations. They formed the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF) and received support from the same ethnic armed groups that are training members of the People’s Defence Forces (PDF) today. Some chose to form a political party, and founded the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS).
The ABFSU today is only but one of the dozens of students’ unions that have been instrumental to organising the country’s youth, but it is one that matters particularly, for obvious historical reasons. The ABSDF signed the 2015 National Ceasefire Agreement, but it has largely been replaced by the PDF. The DPNS has been involved in recent protests, trying to associate with trade unionists in organising the workers’ movement against the post-coup regime.
To the observer, Myanmar’s current multi-faceted struggle for freedom finds its roots much earlier than the first independence movement, in the peasant revolts of pre-colonial Burma, or the Saya San revolt of the 1930s, for instance. But that today’s movement would identify so clearly with its own past is significant, and yet another reason to treat it with the respect that it deserves.
Mael Raynaud is a political analyst specialising in decentralization, federalism and education reform in Myanmar.