Battle Creek

The blog: To my friends who asked why I have been at the rallies

Editor’s note: In the latest installment of the Second Wave blog Dr. Than Oo gives us insight into what is happening in Myanmar, formerly Burma, and why the Burmese community in Battle Creek and other cities across the country are seeking support for rallies against what is happening there. In the most recent news, the Associated Press reports 114 people were killed Saturday on the bloodiest day yet in the crackdown on protests against the February military coup and in eastern Myanmar about 3,000 villagers fled to Thailand after Myanmar military dropped bombs on guerrilla positions. The Thai military began sending back those who fled the bombing.

Some of my friends, especially the non-Burmese ones, have asked me what has been going on in Burma (which is also known as Myanmar) recently, why I have been on the local news attending rallies and why the newsfeed on my Facebook has been flooded with posts about a country that I left more than 30 years ago. While apologizing for such unintended social media bombardment, my friends, a darkness has fallen upon Burma recently. On Feb. 1, 2021, the notorious Burmese military staged a coup and detained many elected political leaders of the country. The most well-known among them is the former opposition leader, human rights activist and former political prisoner Ms. (Daw) Aung San Suu Kyi. These events are gravely concerning knowing the history of Burma and how the military has operated in the past. For me it is a deja vu. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach with an awful surreal feeling of dread when I first learned the news.

To understand better, please allow me to go back 30 years ago when the military staged a similar coup. It was in 1988. I was still in Burma then and witnessed the whole situation firsthand. At that time a popular democratic uprising, or people’s revolution, took place, toppling the then socialist government run by the retired and active-duty generals. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Daw Su) emerged as the main leader of that movement. But as the socialist government toppled, the military stepped in and made a coup violently suppressing the uprising. Many protest leaders were arrested. Thousands of protesters were gunned down. Daw Su was put in house arrest for the next 15 years. The country was isolated and sanctions were put in place by the West.

Dr. Than Oo hopes more people will join in the "Free Myanmar" movement.The military knew that they couldn’t go on this way forever. They promised to eventually return to civilian rule and allow elections. They relaxed restrictions little by little. In a sense, they fooled the world. They formed a turncoat political party made of former military men. They drafted a constitution in 2008. It is the most ridiculous constitution in the world. For example, per that constitution, the military is automatically reserved a bloc of seats, a whopping 25 percent, in the country’s parliament. The Commander in Chief of military handpicks who fills that 25 percent of the seats and also is uniquely authorized to select ministers for the three key security apparatuses: defense, border affairs and interior ministry and one of the two vice presidents. The Commander in Chief wields enormous and unchecked power. 

Since the country was in limbo for decades and populace suffering, National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Su eventually agreed to run in the election despite this fundamentally flawed constitution. They knew that they needed to win by a landslide since the other party backed by the military was already ahead by 25 percent of the seats. And yet in the 2015 election the NLD and Daw Su won. A civilian government was formed and a nascent democracy was born, though their hands were often tied on what they could accomplish since the security apparatuses and 25 percent of parliamentary seats were still under military control. Likewise, the military and its minions controlled the major businesses of the country through Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), two major conglomerates run by the Burmese military through the Ministry of Defense, as well as the financial institutions making them richer and richer while ordinary citizens became  impoverished year after year. 

Sixty years ago, when Burma gained independence from the British after WW2, it was the richest, most developed and western educated country in southeast Asia, well ahead of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. Now it has become the least developed and least educated in the region thanks to systemic and successive destruction of civil society by the military or military backed governments.

Finally another election took place on Nov. 6, 2020. The military had different strategies and high hopes this time. This time the military created and supported four additional parties to run for the seats, hoping to splinter the voters’ bloc. Still the National League for Democracy party won by a landslide, by a bigger margin than 2015. NLD won 396 of the 476 seats (an 83 percent majority). The whole country was opposed to the military and showed their support to the NLD at the ballots. 

The military was stunned as well as furious. They claimed that there was voter and election fraud as reported by the parties that lost in the election. They pressured the Union Election Committee (UEC) to change the vote counts. They demanded the election be declared null and void. The current Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is to have a constitutionally required retirement in four months and is worried that the next CIC chosen by the newly elected NLD government may not be loyal to him or the military or defend their business empire. He couldn’t let the NLD remain the majority party in parliament. And thus, the coup! 

In Myanmar the Civil Disobedience Movement opposes the militray The military claims that the main reason for a coup is to investigate election fraud. Of course, it is a lie. There were international observers during the election. This coup is to continue their indefinite grip of power with a return to military rule. It is wrong, despicable, and illegitimate. It is the beginning of another cycle of dictatorship with a repeating pattern of “military coup culture” as in 1962 and 1988. 

This is all taking place while the country is reeling from the worst economic downturn due to the COVID pandemic and the military cannibalizing the country’s economy. The people of Burma are suffering. Poverty is rampant. There have been reports of people starving. We need the military to reverse their actions. The elected civilian leaders need to be freed immediately. The newly elected democratic legislature must be allowed to form a government. And when the citizens of Myanmar courageously defied the military by staging a Civil Disobedience Movement and protesting peacefully on the streets, the military is now brutally crushing them by using live rounds of bullets. The streets of Myanmar have been turned into slaughterhouses. The junta uses snipers from unseen long distances to demoralize the protesting crowd. They shoot even at medical crews tending to the wounded. The military thugs don’t even pretend to disperse the crowds. They just shoot into it and anyone whom they think looking suspicious. No age is spared and the youngest victim is a 7-year-old girl from the city of Mandalay. 

About 400 people have been killed in the past seven weeks. All of these atrocities are recorded via cell phone videos and available on the web. Unlawful nighttime raids have been done on the prominent activists and leaders of the civil disobedience movement. They are truly crimes against humanity.

We need to let the world know what kind of atrocities are taking place in Burma and hopefully international pressure may make the military relent. And that’s why I have been in the rallies to show my support and stand in solidarity with the brave souls of Myanmar. I wish for democracy to flourish in Burma and people may enjoy similar rights as I can here in my adopted country. I hope that the people of Burma can look up to America as a beacon of democracy and be inspired to continue their defiance against the military dictators. And that is, my friends, what I have been doing lately.

I hope that you may now feel moved enough to join hands with me on this cause. If so, please support this “Free Myanmar” movement which aims to fight against the tyrants through advocacy work seeking assistance from friendly western democratic governments and organizations. Thank you for your understanding.

Dr. Than Oo is a nephrologist who lives and practices in Battle Creek. Oo left Myanmar 30 years ago. He has been in the United States since 1989. He did his medical training in Michigan and settled in Battle Creek in 2003 because of the job opportunities.  His wife has siblings and other family members in Myanmar. He says they have been able to keep in touch despite the military’s frequent shutdown of Internet and telephone services. Among the friends he had in Myanmar were those who were members of the military. Those friendships, he says, are no more.