(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first published on June 3, 2021.)
From the terrible situation that has followed the Myanmar military’s attempt to seize power on Feb. 1 has arisen a new politics – one that the country has never seen before and one that has emerged thanks to the younger generation, Generation Z. In fact, the military’s attempt to take over power and the subsequent atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw soldiers have changed not only Myanmar’s political landscape but fundamentally transformed its political psyche.
Young people and their drive have moved the country beyond the conventional framework articulated by many in the generation before them. Gen Z has shown a willingness to seek solutions during this historic moment that not only resist the Tatmadaw (the official name of Myanmar’s military) but articulate an inclusive political vision for the country. With this generation’s leadership, there has been an unprecedented level of political awareness inside the country on two fronts: why the different ethnic nationalities have been struggling for decades for a more democratic society in a federal political framework – accompanied simultaneously by the collective acceptance among the various political forces that Myanmar’s military is the chief barrier to peace and stability in the country. These developments represent a seismic shift in political views across society.
The country and the international community have recognized the leadership Gen Z has given to the movement, and this should continue. Given that the youth, rather than the politicians, were the ones who organized themselves and the early days of protests, any political leadership in this movement should include Gen Z and the new political thinking of these young people. And any support for the movement, either from the international community or domestic sources, should invest in further developing Gen Z’s leadership aptitude.
Attitudes towards the Tatmadaw
Before the events of the last few months, many people in the country, in one way or the other, accepted the possibility that the Tatmadaw would play a significant part in the country’s political life through the special privileges granted to them in the 2008 Constitution. Thadar, a Gen Z activist and university student from Yangon, summarizes the recent evolution in thinking:
The Myanmar people have already known that the Myanmar military was evil during the 1988 and 2007 revolutions. We knew that 25 percent unelected seats in the Hluttaw (Parliament) was unjust. But when it comes to the ethnic armed conflict with ethnic armed groups, some parts of our mind still wanted to believe the Myanmar army was defending the country because we were brainwashed by the official propaganda at that time. . . . It is now clear to see what a devil the Myanmar army is. After the coup, we are united with different ethnic nationalities and ready to fight against the fascist Myanmar army.
The Feb. 1 coup opened the eyes of so many. Millions of people across the country rose up in protest against the coup, demanding the dissolution of the 2008 Constitution and the establishment of a federal democracy. But the coup changed more than just political demands – it altered something more fundamental in people’s minds: They no longer view the Tatmadaw as an integral part of the political solution they are seeking.
The military institution that was supposed to defend the nation is now regarded as the biggest obstacle to achieving peace and national reconciliation in the country. Soon after the formation of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), an initial group of elected politicians that has evolved into the National Unity Government (NUG), they declared that the Tatmadaw is no longer a defense force of the people but rather an insurgent organization that terrorizes and kills peaceful civilians. The security forces – a combination of the army and police – have killed more than 800 civilians, and thousands have been arrested and detained to date. So, the public has not only refused to recognize the military-led State Administration Council (SAC) as a legitimate ruler, but it has categorically rejected the current Tatmadaw as defenders of the country. This is indeed new thinking.
Views on the political struggles of ethnic minorities
Even during the last five-year term of civilian government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the struggles of ethnic minorities were largely after thoughts for many elite politicians, including those in the top ranks of the NLD. This all changed when the youth in the cities protesting against the dictatorship saw the same security forces that had violated the rights of ethnic minorities for decades now shooting and killing protesters in broad daylight.
Historically, for the NLD and many in the major cities in the central plains, ethnic issues and their political demands were not viewed as critical. Achieving economic development was often prioritized, and many believed that such development would, over time, solve some, if not all, of the country’s major problems. Ethnic issues were seen as peripheral – both politically and geographically – because fighting between the Tatmadaw and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) took place only in the rural parts of the country, not in the cities where the majority Bamar people live. The cruel and lawless acts of Tatmadaw soldiers in Karen, Kachin, and Rakhine States did not seem to affect the politics in Naypyidaw very much. And the constant human rights violations committed by Myanmar’s security forces in ethnic minority areas were only occasionally featured in a few independent private news media.
With the Tatmadaw using violence in the city streets, there has been an understandable shift in attitudes. Signs at protests now say “welcome” to the EAOs. And by now, thousands of those who participated in the protests have taken refuge in the EAO-administered areas, including with the Karen National Union (KNU) and Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in the east and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the north. Htet Lynn, a prominent youth advocate for peace said it simply this way:
Myanmar people, especially the younger generation, do not think of the EAOs as rebel groups anymore. Instead, we have come to realize that they are the ones who defend the people’s interests. When our lives are threatened by the very security forces that are supposed to defend us, we have had to escape to the EAO areas for our liberation. Nowadays, it is very common to see people in the cities show their support for the EAOs and send their support to the Internally Displaced People as a result of air strikes by the Myanmar military. In the meantime, we also see that the EAOs gives us moral and material support for our fight by engaging in battles with Myanmar military forces.
Many others have posted on their own social media pages inviting or expecting the EAOs to help in their fight against the military regime, and it seems the EAOs also responded very positively in return.
The new views of Gen Z have also translated into political action. For example, a collection of student unions from Yangon University, University of Medicine One, and Mandalay University, urged in an open letter to the CRPH to adopt an “interim federal constitution” with a more definitive role of EAOs in the formation of the NUG. The letter clearly shows the more progressive thinking and understanding of young university students and their altered political vision for the country.
Collective vision for the future of the country
Today’s thought leaders shaping the vision for the future are mostly young people from Gen Z. Never in the history of modern Myanmar have the people across different ethnic and political backgrounds united against military dictatorship in the country. This time, people from all walks of life have come out with one political voice: They have not only categorically rejected the military dictatorship but have overwhelmingly committed to building a new federal democratic union and, if necessary, a new federal army. In a sense, the younger generation in Myanmar are done with the politics that seeks to accommodate military dominance in the country’s affairs. They are willing to sacrifice everything they have for their common vision.
Gen Z has not only shown its resilience in resisting the military coup but articulated the kind of country it wants to build and live in. “The military coup gives us a golden opportunity to break free from the past,” wrote Naing Min Khant, a university student, on his social media page. Even more poignantly, he shared how the coup had created new connections: “If not for this coup and the subsequent brutal crackdowns against protesters in the cities across the country, we would still not care about the rapes, the killings, the burnings of villages and the robberies committed against our ethnic brethren by the Tatmadaw.”
Ei Thinzar Maung, another protest leader, who was recently appointed NUG’s deputy minister of women, youths and children affairs, made her impassioned statement on the need for a new way forward:
It is the duty of every citizen to engage in this civil disobedience movement. We are engaging in these protests in nonviolent ways to dismantle the military dictatorship, and to establish a federal democracy. The 2008 constitution is no more; we need to come up with a new constitution to build a new country.
Though Myanmar has been independent since 1948, it has never been a nation-state cohesive enough to modernize itself. This is not the first military coup in the country’s 70-year history, and it could not have happened at a worse time with the global pandemic and the country still struggling to address its deep social and economic problems. And yet, with newfound political awareness, a new generation of young people has set forth a never-before-achieved vision for the country, one that is worth the struggle. Thanks to them, the people of Myanmar have a reason to be hopeful. And they have a responsibility to support these young leaders in this historic struggle. Both the unity government and the international community can draw political inspiration from this progressive-minded generation of young people in Myanmar. They must invest in this generation that has shown such courage and vision. Only then can Myanmar begin to imagine and build the new, united Federal Democratic Union of Burma.
Saw Kapi is the Founding Director of the Salween Institute for Public Policy where he provides leadership for the Fellowship. He previously served as the Executive Director of Thabyay Education Foundation and has spent more than twelve years working within the U.S. higher education system – including as the Director of Admissions and Records at California State University, Bakersfield. Since his return to Myanmar, Saw Kapi has been actively advocating for a better education system in his native country. He has been involved in the national efforts for education reform through a broad network of Myanmar educators. Saw Kapi earned his B.A. in International Relations from San Francisco State University, and holds an M.A. in Development Economics from Williams College.