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Navigating The Opaque Path Towards Democracy: My Time In Myanmar

A view of Downtown Yangon; picture taken by the author.
A view of Downtown Yangon; picture taken by the author, Eugenio Corrias

Staff Writer Eugenio Corrias provides personal insight into Operation 1027 in Myanmar and the future of democracy in the nation.

In 2022, The Economist’s Democracy Index, which primarily measures pluralism, civil liberties, and political culture, declared Afghanistan to be the world’s least democratic country. Right above it, as the second least democratic country in the world, was Myanmar. My aunt and uncle, both diplomats working for the European Union, told me this as they half-sipped a pint of Singaporean beer at an outdoors barbecue restaurant in the lively student district of Sanchaung, Yangon. The establishment was brimming with a band of chain-smoking locals, walls adorned from top to bottom with pieces of hanging cuts of meats, fish, and innards of all kinds, and stray dogs skilfully manoeuvring their way around the tables to snag any leftover pieces from the concrete.

My trip to visit them, which was months in the making, had just so happened to align with the realisation of Operation 1027. On 27 October 2023, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, composed of various armed rebel groups, launched a wide-scale offensive in the northern Shan state against the junta. The conflict led to the concession of over 100 regime positions and numerous key towns, such as Laukkai, along their border with China, altering both the course of the ongoing conflict and the atmosphere amongst the country’s 55 million citizens. I arrived on 17 November. 

Myanmar is currently in the middle of a bloody revolution against a military dictatorship that brutally consolidated its power in the 2021 coup d’état. This crushed the democratic aspirations of an entire nation and now, three years on, Myanmar is facing another crucial moment in determining whether those aspirations can be concretised this time around.

The Secretariat building in Yangon, the old administrative seat of British Burma, taken by Eugenio Corrias

Burma was the name given to the nation during the era of British colonial rule from 1885 to 1948, and since 1962 the country has been plagued by military rule. For many within the older generations conditioned to such a degree of authoritarianism, it has always been perceived rather passively, despite the student, labour, or monk-led protests that would occasionally arise. It is the brief yet critical period of semi-democratisation and liberalisation that the country began to undergo in 2011 that provided the younger generations a window into a freer world. During this period, press censorship was relaxed, currency practices regulated, elections internationally monitored, and pro-democracy figures, most notably Aung San Suu Kyi, were released from prison or house arrest

This process of democratisation ended with the 2021 coup, when the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military who had continued to operate alongside the civilian government in the preceding decade, fully seized power and set in motion one of the most draconian iterations of the military regime thus far. But the people of Burma, newly galvanized by the power of social media and the liberties they had just begun to enjoy the past decade, decided to fight, and the revolution has gone on since. 

After nearly four years of brutal repression, throughout which the abduction, torture, and murder of civilians has become a persistent ubiquity, a curfew remains in place, and the seemingly timeless divisions amongst the country’s ethnic groups have only worsened. Operation 1027 is yet another step forward for a country that, post-coup, is holding on to not just a glimmer of hope, but what they see as a tangible path forwards towards liberation

Upon arriving in Yangon, the dichotomy between being in one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world and the inherent buoyancy underlining the spirit of the Burmese people was overwhelming. On one hand, I should not be in the country. While the country is theoretically open to visitors, they have not seen any significant number of foreigners since before the Covid-19 pandemic. Most Western nations have placed the country under their ‘Do Not Travel’ advisories, and the process of acquiring a tourist visa is endlessly convoluted. Driving into the city, roadblocks are omnipresent, particularly in front of police stations or military posts that serve as prime targets for opponents of the junta. 

On the other hand, the timing of my arrival made it so that the locals’ descriptions of the military, as horrifying and vengeful as they were, were almost always accompanied by a smug smile; one that evoked a reality of a government that was exuding less and less assertiveness as the days went by. Their efforts to maintain control are increasingly being viewed as desperate, the latest example being around a month ago, as a military draft was instituted for the young men and women of the country. 

This is not to say that the situation can be conjured up to be a positive one. While Yangon remains comparatively calm, the fighting continues to intensify in the surrounding regions, and the repercussions can be felt everywhere. It would be an understatement to say that as desperate as they appear to be, the military continues to sow fear and anguish amongst the population. 

During my time there, I had the unique pleasure of meeting Kyel Sin, the daughter of a prominent native artist and activist, Htein Lin. Her father, beyond pioneering the idea of Burmese performance art and drawing light to the country’s dire situation through exhibits around the world, spent nearly 7 years as a political prisoner at the beginning of the century and was again detained after the 2021 coup, this time with his wife, former British ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman. Kyel has followed in his footsteps, managing Coming from Kalaw, an organization devoted to promoting southern Shan state artistry. 

As she took me around her favourite parts of the city, rightfully enthusing over its one-of-a-kind charm, the conversation was littered with details reminiscent of the same dichotomy mentioned earlier. One minute, I was being led around an abandoned amusement park where she fondly recalled babysitting her younger sister, or walked through the bewitchingly green campus of the University of Yangon. The next, she would reveal to me that her father was currently in the northern Shan state, where he continues to reside and where the violence has been escalating most severely. 

I encountered the most transparent example of this discrepancy when Kyel and I boarded the Yangon Circular Train. The journey was entrancing. As my companion gave me thorough background information on everything from the elderly lady besides us rolling up betel nut, a native nut typically chewed for stimulating effects similar to tobacco, to the villagers setting up a trail of clothes to dry behind the train as it departed, it felt like a glimpse into a level of authenticity untethered from the grip of tyranny. But as our journey was close to its end, a fellow passenger approached us, kindly suggesting we stop speaking English, for the soldiers traveling in the last carriage were not very pleased with the presence of a foreigner on the train. We spent the final minutes in silence, and discreetly got off at our stop. 

Insein Station along the Yangon Circular Train line, where Kyel and I got off at, taken by Eugenio Corrias

It is clear that my experience of the country’s authoritarian reality as an outsider, evidenced by mild episodes such as the train story, is nothing compared to what the vast majority of the population has to go through on a regular basis. What it does is serve to display the ubiquity of a repressive system that shows no signs of improvement. Instead, it is reaching new extremes, as shown by the latest military draft that prevents the younger generation from even pursuing a livelihood as they are sequestered from their homes and places of business to fight an unconscionable war in remote corners of the jungle. 

Ultimately, while the narrative spun by Western media is one of optimism, depicting a floundering regime in the throes of desperation, the truth of the matter is that in a country with a political reality as incomparable as Burma’s, everything is conjecture. Despite the military’s unprecedented level of weakness, the fragmented nature of the factions that make up the rebellion, some of which place as little importance on democracy as the regime itself, indicate a scenario with no clear path to freedom. 

At the end of the day, the government continues to receive arms from both China and Russia and has no intention of loosening its grip on power. Even in the far-fetched event of a complete military concession, the chaotic scrambling for the centralisation of power that would follow suit renders the idea of democracy wondrously engulfing the country rather idealistic. It is an ideal, however, that vast networks of both local and international organisations continue to work towards, and after witnessing the potential of this breath-taking country first-hand, I can’t say I blame them.

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