Rio (pseudonym) writes about how his father, a soldier, understands the ongoing protests.Embed from Getty Images
My father is a captain in the Tatmadaw, Burma’s armed forces. I am one of the young people protesting against the junta, asking for federal democracy, justice, freedom and equality for all people in Burma, including for the Rohingya. While I believe the departure of the Tatmadaw is crucial for resolving problems in Burma, my dad perceives the institution to be the savior of the state. Undoubtedly, we disagree on domestic politics and religious affairs. The tensions between us reached a peak when the junta staged a coup on February 1st.
I am writing this because I believe that my personal experience of being a soldier’s son and my understanding of soldiers at the grassroots level could answer some important questions and offer another perspective on the current crisis. How do soldiers see this crisis and the protesters? How does the institution, the Tatmadaw, affect their thinking? How do soldiers’ understanding of domestic politics shape their reactions?
My father loves to discuss politics with me, although we have different views. Our last open discussion was on the phone on 26 March, a day before this year’s Armed Forces Day. Dr. Sasa, leader of the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), would later call this “a day of shame” after the deaths of more than 90 civilians. Our discussion ended with a confrontation and an argument. Even before the current coup, I often discussed my views with my father, his friends and colleagues (who are mainly captains and majors) and with grassroots soldiers at our apartment, and at teashops or restaurants.
These conversations have helped me understand their perspectives, which rest on their view of domestic politics. Within this view are a number of factors that can help explain why soldiers see protesters as criminals.
Most soldiers share a common and narrow understanding of domestic politics and religion. These are mainly based on anti-Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) or anti-NLD rhetoric, and Buddhist nationalism. They find it difficult to see ASSK as a genuine, democratically-elected leader of people; instead, they see her as someone with foreign allegiances, who married a foreigner and who is working for the Muslims and Rohingya. This is despite Daw Suu’s decision to protect the institutions of the military at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in December 2019. Like other conservative Burmese Buddhist people, most soldiers have strong anti-Muslim sentiments, which has led them to condone the serious human right violations carried out against Rohingyas in Northern Rakhine State between 2016 and 2017. Such sentiment was originated and amplified by the propaganda of former military regimes, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), and their related associations. These organizations regularly use religion for the sake of political advantage. Moreover, many soldiers have consumed hate speech and fake news on social media, especially on Facebook.
Regarding the current crisis, the soldiers that I have spoken to are optimistic about their former and current generals. To them, the Tatmadaw is not just the strongest institution in Myanmar, but also an essential savior of the state. My father has been a soldier for three decades and most of his thinking is shaped by this institution. He sees no other leaders and institutions that are better than the Tatmadaw. When we look at what is happening in Burma, it is unsurprising that the Tatmadaw, which has been violating human rights on civilians while fighting against the ethnic armed organizations for several decades in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan and Kayin States, does not hesitate to continue brutal crackdowns on innocent and unarmed civilians during the protests. “Past as prologue”; the same happened in 1998, 2007 and 2017.
In a New York Times article entitled “Inside Myanmar’s Army: They see Protesters as Criminals”, Hannah Beech writes about her interviews with four deserting soldiers, including Captain Tun Myat Aung. These soldiers, who have since joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), attest to how the Tatmadaw instills soldiers with the idea that they are guardians of the state. Hence, many soldiers see protesters as criminals who support ASSK/NLD and who break the rules and regulations of the so-called State Administrative Council (SAC). It is also important to recognize that soldiers on the ground see these protests as expressions of support for ASSK; they are incapable of understanding how the demands of the protesters go far beyond merely supporting her and asking for the release of NLD leaders. Now, in 2021, it is safe to assume that the Tatmadaw’s misinterpretation of domestic politics and its relationship to the ongoing crisis, plus their tendencies towards animosity and hostility, will worsen their inhumane and brutal crackdowns.
To me, the ongoing crisis in Burma is a critical juncture of both a personal and national nature. As a soldier’s son, it is already dangerous for me and my family to speak out against the coup, with clear consequences. In our last discussion, I argued with my Dad, holding on to a vague hope that he might still join the protesters who stand for justice, and that he might be remembered with honor and dignity. My intention was no more than to make him understand the basic idea that the Tatmadaw is not doing the right thing. However, even this was an uphill struggle. I am sad to think that, if I sacrifice my life protesting against the junta, he will find it difficult to feel proud as a father, even as all other people in Burma applaud.
Lastly, I would like to share a quote, which is from my favorite animation movie called The Lorax, to my fellow people in Burma. It says “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” So, whatever it takes, it is our responsibility to stop the Tatmadaw for our future generations.
(Featured image by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Rio (pseudonym) graduated from Dagon University, Yangon, Myanmar with the specialization of International Relations (IR). His interests are Burmese Politics and IR. Since February this year, he has spent most of his time protesting against the junta, reading political books, articles, essays including ones from Tea Circle and watching news. He is writing this note in the hopes of giving readers relevant and new perspectives of the crisis.