By Phuong Nguyen
Large groups of students began their second week of protests outside Yangon on March 9 to urge Myanmar’s government to amend a draft education law. In the days before, police and plainclothes thugs arrested five students on the outskirts of the city and eight inside Yangon while beating others. [Update]: Students were authorized to march in small groups toward Yangon on March 10, but as they continued chanting and shouting slogans, police and thugs were again deployed to break up the protests, physically attacking student groups and taking many student leaders away in buses.
Deploying baton-wielding civilians to halt peaceful gatherings is reminiscent of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when the previous military government brutally cracked down on Buddhist monks leading marches.
The United States should speak out strongly against these recent actions, and urge Myanmar authorities not to allow this kind of incident to happen again, especially in a critical year that could make or break the country’s international reputation. A U.S. State Department spokesperson on March 6 called the authorities’ actions “not in keeping with Burma’s efforts to transition to full democracy,” but could not confirm whether diplomatic channels have been used to communicate with the Myanmar government.
Some quarters of Myanmar’s leadership are concerned about the possibility of another 1988-style uprising, when thousands of students and ordinary citizens, disillusioned with the state of society and the economy, took to the streets to call for change. The result was a violent nationwide crackdown against pro-democracy elements that led to western sanctions on the regime and decades of international isolation for Myanmar. Authorities are likely afraid that by allowing students to continue their march into Yangon, they could easily lose control of the crowd, and hence chose to respond with a heavy-handed approach as a warning and to disperse protesters.
There is a public discourse, especially among some in Myanmar’s civil society and ethnic communities, about whether Washington has chosen to align more closely with the government of President Thein Sein than with other constituencies in the country. According to this narrative, although the United States has expressed strong concerns about the treatment of religious and ethnic minorities, it has simultaneously engaged in unhelpful dialogue and interactions, albeit limited, with the military. Myanmar remains a divided society as a result of years of internal conflicts and military rule, and some aspects of U.S. policy have been read by actors outside the elite as a stamp of approval for the country’s new rulers, regardless of what the real intent behind those policies may be.
Washington cannot afford to stay silent about the mass suppression of peacefully-demonstrating students. If the U.S. government does not strongly condemn these actions, it will lend credence to the still nascent narrative that the United States does not stand on the side of ordinary citizens in Myanmar who aspire to exercise their democratic rights to the fullest.
To its credit, the government of Myanmar earlier agreed to sit down and listen to students’ demands, although it was later accused of altering the agreement struck with student groups. But the authorities’ willingness to talk shows a level of change unseen in Myanmar in decades. In 2013, the government was also willing to meet with civil society representatives to discuss their concerns about a draft law on associations, and incorporated some of their suggestions. These are flickers of progress that, while small, should be recognized.
Yet at the same time, a minister in the president’s office defended the government’s use of plainclothes thugs as being in accordance with Myanmar’s peaceful assembly law, which allows the government to take action to stop protests if they seem harmful to the state. His statement was later pulled from the internet due to the deeply negative public feedback it attracted on social media.
In addition to condemning the use of mass violence and plainclothes vigilantes against peaceful protesters, the United States should use its significant leverage to press for an official explanation of the government’s response, and make clear that any actions similar to the March 5-6 arrests and use of force will come under close international scrutiny. In the future, the United States, along with international partners with an interest in Myanmar’s reforms, should call for changes to the existing assembly law, which is rife with loopholes for authorities to abuse their position.
Myanmar’s most valuable resource is its people; since independence, the country has produced a secretary-general to the United Nations, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and many internationally recognized artists, scholars, and successful businesspeople. As long as the government continues to treat its people in such a callous manner, it will seriously hamper the ability of U.S. officials to convince crucial players within Congress that Washington should continue its support for Myanmar’s reform process and future development.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.