There is a common misconception, even held by media editors, that Myanmar is just a military country now and that’s the end of its story. And yet this couldn’t be further from the truth, says Oliver Slow. The journalist, who lived in Myanmar between 2012 and 2020, tells Index that people in Myanmar have "got a taste of democracy". "They want to at least have a free choice in their matters, they don’t want to be controlled by this very violent military, they want to have leaders who they have chosen for themselves," he says. Slow is talking to Index in light of his newly released book Return of the Junta: Why Myanmar's military must go back to the barracks, an excerpt of which is featured below. For Slow, getting across this message is one of his hopes for the book. As he says, he wants everyone “to not give up on Myanmar, to understand that there is a vibrant future there." Return of the Junta blends first-hand accounts with wider research into the background of the military. The result is an accessible, informed read on the 2021 coup d'état, and ultimately on this very complex country. While there are lighter moments in the book, it is not a sugar-coated retelling. Struggle for basic rights – nay survival – is a constant and unifying thread. Early on Slow writes about how doctors have been a primary target of repression, persecuted in large part because they were central to the civil disobedience movement that formed in the immediate aftermath of the coup. "That angered the regime and they decided essentially that they would punish doctors in many ways," Slow tells Index. "I remember from the time some pretty horrendous videos of soldiers just beating doctors in the streets." He says that when a third wave of Covid hit a few months after the coup the authorities would call doctors out to what they described as bad cases of Covid only to then arrest them. Slow says "it speaks to the violence of the Myanmar military that doctors were specifically targeted" and shows "their lack of respect for international norms". Such violence against doctors not only punishes them, it punishes the population more broadly. Two years on hospitals are in a parlous state in Myanmar. Doctors have fled. "There is this feeling that they don’t want to work for any institution which aligns with the military," says Slow. A friend of Slow’s who recently visited a hospital in central Yangon described the conditions as “horrendous”. Slow – who wouldn’t return to Myanmar right now because it would be too risky – finds it tougher and tougher to communicate with people there. "Most of my contacts have left because they’re journalists." Instead Slow relies on secure messaging apps to reach people on the ground. According to Slow the main resistance is in the form of armed militia in the border areas. Many of the people in these militia were university students in 2021 and were enraged over the disappearance of their promising future. He says these militia are making some advances. Of course it’s not just in the border regions that protest exists. On the anniversary of the coup this year Twitter was filled with images of a silent protest - streets of towns and cities across Myanmar were empty as people stayed at home to make a statement. There are also flash protests, very short protests where people “walk through the streets, do a photo, it goes on social media, they’re usually wearing a mask (for obvious reasons) and then they disband." These anecdotes, combined with rising discontent over the military, give Slow hope. "Can the military ever rule again in that country with any legitimacy? It’s a resounding no. Whether that means the resistance will win is a different matter as the military has made itself powerful over 50-60 years. The resistance is up against a pretty monumental machine," he says before adding: "But I do see a time at some point in the future where the military will be defeated or removed from power.”
Jemimah Steinfeld has lived and worked in both Shanghai and Beijing where she has written on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on youth culture, gender and censorship. She is the author of the book Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China, which was described by the FT as "meticulously researched and highly readable". Jemimah has freelanced for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Vice, CNN, Time Out and the Huffington Post. She has a degree in history from Bristol University and went on to study an MA in Chinese Studies at SOAS.