A heated debate over whether to one day punish civil servants working for the military regime has engulfed the Civil Disobedience Movement, raising important questions about justice and reconciliation.
The National Unity Consultative Council, a body for coordinating resistance policy, released a paper in January that advocated promotions and financial reimbursement to state workers who joined the mass strike known as the Civil Disobedience Movement.
In a country where strike participants are regularly extolled as heroes, these policies are unlikely to face much resistance. More controversial, however, are additional provisions on how to deal with those who have not joined the CDM, if the uprising is successful.
“For those of us who joined the CDM, our suffering and sacrifices have been so much greater than the non-CDM civil servants,” said Dr Htet Myat*, a doctor who quit his government job shortly after the coup and now treats those displaced by conflict in his native Kayah State.
Like Htet Myat, many rank-and-file CDM participants have called for their non-CDM counterparts to face punishment, while some more prominent activists and politicians have urged caution. It’s a disagreement that raises important questions about accountability and reconciliation in a future post-conflict Myanmar.
But rather than derailing the resistance, these competing views have been aired and moderated in a remarkably pluralistic fashion in the midst of a civil war by the NUCC – a broad platform that includes elected lawmakers, ethnic armed organisations and a wide range of civil society organisations and protest groups.
The NUCC’s Joint Coordination Committee for the CDM, which steered the discussions, released the resulting policy paper for public feedback on January 20.
Yet, despite the months of consultations and the endorsement of several prominent activist and strike groups, some still object to the policies and they remain a source of disagreement within the resistance movement.
The document clarifies the CDM’s objectives and the criteria for taking part in the strike, and also commits to “honouring” CDM participants, remedying their losses and seeking “truth and justice”. But the most contentious part of the document is a section on action to be taken against non-CDM civil servants.
The policy paper says anyone who joined the strike after April 2021, or has since returned to work, will be considered non-CDM and face a range of punishments depending on their civil service rank. Those at deputy director level and above will be dismissed and blacklisted for state jobs, while assistant directors and lower ranked staff will be sacked but have the option of applying for readmission to the civil service in entry-level jobs.
Non-CDM staff will also face temporary foreign travel bans, in an echo of the junta’s measures against CDM participants, and any awards or other benefits bestowed by the junta will be revoked or recalled. The results of exams sat under junta rule will also be voided, and those who skipped exams to oppose military rule will receive a remedy, although the nature of these exams and the proposed remedy aren’t specified.
The policy paper also says non-CDM civil servants will face unspecified legal punishments for firing and threatening striking staff and disregarding the announcements of the parallel National Unity Government, among other offences.
However, the document includes a very broad caveat, pledging to forgive anybody who failed to join CDM for “a valid reason”, as determined by an investigative process. Another provision says non-CDM staff who can show “firm evidence” they had assisted the revolutionary movement or helped members of the CDM can continue in their roles.
Many CDM members consider the penalties outlined in the document as necessary to right the wrongs they have suffered.
“I believe that there is justice in this CDM policy law for the trauma, threats and bullying that we have been through, and for our fallen comrades and those in prison,” said Daw Thuzar Htay* a CDM teacher in Sagaing Region, which has seen the worst of the violence during the post-coup civil war.
But U Aung Moe Zaw, a long-time activist and chairman of the Democratic Party for a New Society, disagreed. “It doesn’t make sense that civil servants should be prosecuted for not being part of the CDM,” he said.
Aung Moe Zaw warned that the proposed punishments could wind up “pushing your own people towards the enemy”.
“The public is divided in two over this policy and how to take action against the non-CDM workers. The NUG needs to be aware of this,” said democracy activist Daw Theinni Oo, adding that the NUG must listen to all voices, including those not participating in the strike.
How the policy was made
Dr Sitt Minn Naing, head of the CDM Medical Network and a member of the JCC, explained to Frontier that the consultation process began in September 2021, when a committee started distributing questionnaires to CDM groups across government sectors. Striking staff from the lowest grades upwards were asked for their views on appropriate rewards and punishments for CDM and non-CDM people respectively, and proposals were voted on using Google forms.
In the health sector, the CDM Medical Network distributed forms to representatives of sub-groups across the country and held workshops, he said. The CDM Medical Network is a particularly powerful bloc, estimating that more than 46,500 of the health ministry’s 110,000 employees are on strike.
“We discussed the policy ideas that they came up with for three hours a day for nine days,” Sitt Minn Naing said, declining to divulge details on what was discussed or the results of the votes.
The results of the various consultations were submitted by the end of 2021 to the CDM committee, whose members started formulating policy proposals with legal advice from the NUG’s Ministry of Justice.
The resulting draft policy document was then submitted to the NUCC, which formed the JCC in April last year to discuss it among CDM members. The JCC met weekly to revise the policy document for four months, although the final document only emerged for public review in January this year.
Sitt Minn Naing admitted there had been “some very controversial issues” that took time to discuss, but he insisted the JCC “welcomed all suggestions”.
Now that the policy paper is public, those suggestions continue to pour in.
Public Legal Aid Network, which focuses on rule of law, said nobody should be punished without due process. It argued there are many understandable reasons why some civil servants didn’t join the movement, including out of fear.
The General Strike Committee and All Burma Federation of Student Unions also opposed the policy, with the ABFSU saying current CDM staff should be supported while “the door should be left wide open” for other civil servants to join at any time.
Others are concerned that codifying the CDM in policy undermines the organic nature of what began as a massive grassroots labour strike. Ko Ye Htet, a member of activist group Freedom Fighter Myanmar, said during a public debate on January 29 that the CDM shouldn’t come under the control of any one political group – even the NUG.
“The frame could become too narrow,” he said.
The backbone of the resistance
Estimates vary as to how many civil servants joined the CDM and remain on strike today, ranging from some 200,000 to 410,000.
Of the 21 civil servants interviewed by Frontier from the health, education and transport sectors, 19 said there should be some form of punishment taken against non-CDM staff.
One CDM teacher told Frontier she was the only member of her local board of education, which includes over 90 other teachers, that voted against punishing non-CDM participants.
“The CDM policy paper is fair,” said another striking teacher, who belongs to prominent union the Myanmar Teachers’ Federation.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that many grassroots CDM members, who have formed the backbone of Myanmar’s resistance movement, would like to see their counterparts held accountable for abetting the regime.
In the weeks after the coup, CDM participants risked arrest, torture and even death to hobble the new military junta. And when newly formed armed resistance groups chased the junta out of villages across the country, CDM teachers and healthcare workers plugged the public service gaps, even as non-CDM workers helped prop up the regime elsewhere.
Dr Soe Thura Zaw, a former government dentist who gained fame as a whistleblower in 2019, gave voice to the frustration of many in a fierce Facebook post, saying non-CDM workers are “pillars of the terrorist military council” who “must face appropriate action according to the severity of the crimes they have committed”.
But while some non-striking civil servants may be military supporters or unscrupulous opportunists, others feel they are caught in an impossible position, either due to economic circumstances or threats from the regime.
“Military coercion forced me to return from CDM. But I donate money for the revolution and help the CDM staff as much as I can,” said a Yangon-based teacher. He told Frontier that his ward administrator threatened him with imprisonment and having his house seized if he didn’t return to work.
Htet Myat, the doctor in Kayah, said he’s concerned not enough sympathy is being extended to people in danger or dire economic straits, but still wants to see some form of punishment.
“I would like to see an easing of the punishments for such people, although we accept that there should be some punitive action,” he said.
Dr Win Ko Ko Thein, a former deputy director in the health ministry who joined the CDM after the coup, was blunter in his criticism of the policy.
“Taking action against non-CDM workers is not realistic and it seems that they will do this with malice,” he wrote on Facebook.
There are also different considerations in different states and regions. The powerful Arakan Army, which seeks political autonomy or independence for Rakhine State, has worked to co-opt the junta’s administration rather than completely tearing it down and replacing it.
A healthcare worker in Rakhine said very few civil servants there are on strike. A future policy to punish civil servants could therefore wind up disproportionately affecting members of an already marginalised ethnic minority group.
“We need to help our ethnic people,” the healthcare worker said.
Ms Mandira Sharma, Myanmar senior legal expert for the International Commission of Jurists, told Frontier accountability and reconciliation shouldn’t be seen as being in conflict with each other.
“It is important to note that reconciliation cannot be achieved without truth, justice, reparations and accountability,” she said.
Sharma said civil servants directly responsible for or complicit in “serious crimes under international law” should be punished, including for “extrajudicial killings, torture, including rape and sexual violence, enforced disappearances”.
However, she said civil servants shouldn’t be punished just for choosing not to protest or join the CDM.
“Everyone has the freedom to choose whether or not to join the protests. No one could be punished simply by not joining the CDM just like we argue the junta cannot punish those who enjoy their freedom to protest peacefully, including by joining the CDM,” she said.
Instead, she advised reforming institutions.
“Without their reform, public trust in these institutions cannot be rebuilt into a new democracy operating under the rule of law,” she said, adding that removing some individuals from public service could be part of that reform.
What happens next?
A NUCC statement published on the same day as the policy paper said the “necessary law, bylaw and procedures will continue to be drafted”, without stating a timeline or what the next steps will be.
Sitt Minn Naing said the policy paper had been sent to the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a legislative body, to codify into law but he was unable to provide further details about the process. The NUG’s press team referred Frontier to JDC member U Naung Cho for more information but he did not respond.
At a meeting of the NUG’s CDM Success Committee on February 26, NUG Prime Minister Mann Win Khaing Than referenced the proposed policies and said “the committee must continue to work on them”. However, this committee’s role in developing the policies is unclear.
At the meeting, Mann Win Khaing Than seemingly acknowledged the difficult position the NUG is in, while avoiding taking a definitive stance.
“It’s very important to consider the wishes of CDMers in the implementation of policies, but on the other hand, our government must follow the values of guaranteeing human rights,” he said.
Theinni Oo said one problem is that CDM participants may feel compelled to return to work because, after two years, many are still not receiving financial support.
“The NUG said it’s systematically providing aid to CDM staff, but in practice there are a lot of CDM civil servants who haven’t received any assistance yet,” she told Frontier.
Mann Win Khaing Than said during the meeting that the NUG is doing its best to support CDM participants but acknowledged there are “bound to be limitations”.
The policy paper promised that in the “post-revolutionary period” those who joined CDM would be promoted one grade above their pre-coup posts and reimbursed fully in lump sums for lost income.
CDM participants cautiously welcomed the news but said they didn’t quite believe it. In any event, they must make ends meet until the revolution succeeds.
“It’s good that the NUG plans to do that, but I won’t count my chickens just yet,” said U Nyein Maung*. He quit his state job at Myanma Railways nearly two years ago, only recently finding a new position as a security guard to support his struggling family.
Ko Phyo Thu*, a CDM education department worker, said he understands the revolution needs forms of moral encouragement, but also said officials shouldn’t raise false hopes.
“Maybe the NUG will deliver, but reimbursing fully in lump sums is absolutely impossible,” he said.
*denotes the use of pseudonym for safety reasons