Anti-coup protesters gather on Natmauk Road outside the United Nations office in Yangon on February 10. (Frontier)

Before we go dark: A letter to the international community

The world can help Myanmar by offering long-term support to civilian efforts to build peace and democracy, not by cutting all ties with the country.

By PHYO THET TIN | FRONTIER

The nationwide internet blackout imposed on February 6 lasted a little over a day, but it felt like a dark omen for Myanmar’s future – a future in which the country is plunged back into the isolation that gripped it for more than 50 years. 

The temporary shutdown, which could be re-imposed at any time, came on the heels of a digital revolution in Myanmar. This was evident in the days immediately following the February 1 military coup, when citizens took to social media to both express their dissent and mobilise a unified response. The latter emerged in the form of the Civil Disobedience Movement, in which civil servants and private sector workers across the nation went on strike to undermine the new regime, and to demand the immediate release of elected leaders and the re-instatement of the democratically elected government. 

Another objective of the online activism was to send a clear message to the international community. Despite the massive political and legal risks, we urged governments and organisations around the world to not only denounce the coup and offer short-term help, but also demonstrate solidarity through long-term support for civilian efforts towards democracy, reconciliation, peace, human rights, and inclusive and sustainable development.

As Myanmar development practitioners who have worked with both local communities and the ousted civilian government, we believe community-centred policies are crucial. To empower these communities, it is vital that Myanmar’s international partners continue to support humanitarian and development work. The political and economic consequences of the coup should be borne by the Tatmadaw, not the people.

International responses that focus on short-term political impact risk failing the very people they are trying to help. While the coup threatens to disrupt the social and economic progress that Myanmar has made over the past decade, it is now more important than ever to plant the seeds for a more sustainable, longer-term transformation of the country.

But to be effective, overseas assistance must be driven by the advice and perspectives of communities on the ground. Beneficiaries of aid should be consulted as programmes are adjusted to fit the new political context. Local non-government organisations need to be treated as experts in their fields, since many of them have established relationships with both government officials and informal authority figures, understand local cultural norms, and know what many communities have suffered.

It is no secret that conflict and ethnic oppression are ubiquitous in Myanmar’s history and present, and they could all too easily shape the country’s future. The elected civilian government had made some, admittedly minimal, headway in making peace with ethnic armed groups via the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. The coup has put this peace process in a tenuous position. Support should therefore be focused on reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts, and this includes education and health – two sectors that have historically been neglected by the Tatmadaw and continue to be endangered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We are aware and extremely grateful that the international community has a more informed approach than it did previously. Much has changed from 20 years ago, when it thought blanket sanctions would reduce the Tatmadaw’s power. Rather than an economic blockade, many in the country would back measures that are squarely targeted at the military. This could include a global arms embargo, and stricter bans by foreign governments on companies and investors engaging with Tatmadaw-linked businesses. Foreign technology companies could also restrict Tatmadaw use of their platforms to help prevent dangerous disinformation and propaganda. But more important than all these measures are relationships of solidarity with people on the ground.

We cannot predict what the Tatmadaw will do next, but we are hopeful that the achievements of recent years will not have been for nothing. While Myanmar’s democracy was fragile and far from perfect, there has been significant economic and social development, and the building of new relationships across ethnic lines and with the world. The international response to the coup can build on this existing infrastructure. Through consistent support for community-based, non-government programmes, we can lay the ground to ensure that undemocratic seizures of power never happen again.

Access to digital media has catalysed the Civil Disobedience Movement, and demonstrated the strength and resilience of the Myanmar people to the world. However, digital media is only one tool in Myanmar’s democracy-fighting repertoire. The protests last weekend, which saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets in cities and towns across Myanmar, showed that even without the internet, the new generation in Myanmar is able to stand as one, motivated by our cause and sustained by our sense of community.

The international response should support the democratic ambitions of the people and complement their efforts. We want our voices to be heard, our votes to be counted, and our generation to be the last that has to witness the Tatmadaw’s atrocities. Although the coup has obstructed the road to democracy that we were on, we remain vigilant and headstrong, knowing that the rest of the world is watching and standing by our side. 

In solidarity,

Phyo Thet Tin

Phyo Thet Tin is a pseudonym for three Myanmar women of varying ethnicity who work in the development sector.

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