Don’t give up on Myanmar

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.”

Excerpt from Return of the Junta

Despite the increased investment, even in pre-coup Myanmar life was still incredibly difficult for most teachers, especially those living in rural areas. Myat Kyaw Thein is a secondary school teacher close to the town of Monywa, in central Myanmar. “We have so many things to worry about as teachers, especially our safety and salary,” said Myat Kyaw Thein, who told me in an interview conducted before the coup that he earned the equivalent of about US$150 per month. “It’s not enough, especially when you compare it with other countries in Southeast Asia. No wonder so many people leave teaching to go to better paying jobs.” “It’s a rotten salary, but whenever we raise it with authorities, they tell us it’s because of the low budget for education. Well, if you want to improve the education in this country, then increase the budget,” he said. A similar story was told by a teacher in a remote village of Myanmar’s Nagaland. The teacher had worked at a school in her local village for more than ten years, and although the resources had improved in recent years, life was still difficult for her and her colleagues. She told me they often used their own money to provide things such as pens and books for their students. “It’s difficult for us because we don’t have much salary, and sometimes have to use our family’s [money],” she said. “But then we want [the students] to be happy and to come to school. That’s why we provide these things for them.” Even before the coup, it was clear that those tasked with overhauling Myanmar’s education system had an unenviable task ahead of them, including bringing together the dozens of different stakeholders – national and foreign – involved in such a monumental task and forming a cohesive strategy that pleases everyone. Even what some may regard as the successes of the past decade in terms of reforms to education did not please everyone. For example, a recognition by the government about the need to switch from a teacher to a child-centred approach was a welcome step for those hoping to encourage more critical thinking, but parents who have only ever been exposed to the former their entire lives were understandably sceptical. ‘When a parent passes a school and doesn’t hear students chanting in unison what the teacher has written on the board, they think, ‘What’s going on in there? They aren’t learning’”, said an educator involved in the reforms. Since the coup, however, much of the progress made over the last decade or so in Myanmar’s education sector has gone swiftly into reverse. With many teachers refusing to work under this junta, and parents not wanting to send their children to schools – either due to legitimate security concerns or because they don’t want them taught under this regime – the SAC has resorted to many of the tactics of past military juntas to try and portray an image of normalcy in schools and universities. Like in 1962 and 1988 it has closed universities and fired teachers not supportive of the coup. Thousands of teachers have been sacked, and hundreds jailed, for participating in the civil disobedience movement against the junta. To fill these teaching ranks, the military-controlled education ministry has encouraged applicants with lower qualifications to apply for jobs, and even been accused of dressing up army wives and female members of pro-military organizations in teachers’ uniforms and transporting them to schools. Like under the SLORC government [the military State Law and Order Restoration Council that ruled the country between 1988 and 1997], teachers have been sent on month-long ‘refresher courses’ where they are urged to ‘pay attention to the preservation of Myanmar culture and traditions’ as well as ‘speak and behave respectfully and to be disciplined’, almost certainly euphemisms to discourage teachers from imbibing any form of revolutionary thinking into their students. Before the coup, despite some bumps, the general trajectory of the education system in Myanmar was on a positive path. The changes were also made largely free of the military’s sphere of influence, an indication of the potential Myanmar has as a whole if the Tatmadaw’s own interests are not directly threatened. Like almost everything in Myanmar, however, the 2021 coup has created considerable concerns about what happens next. If the current situation continues, and the military manages to maintain an albeit loose grip on power, it is the next generation of young people in Myanmar, and others beyond that, who will be the ones to suffer the most, through a lack of investment, or care, in their education, a lack of capabilities to think critically and problem solve, and a lack of skills to prepare them for the working world. This could well manifest, as it has in the past, of creating a general feeling among the population that Myanmar’s remarkable diversity is something to be feared, not celebrated. Return of the Junta was published by Bloomsbury in January 2023. Click here for more information on the book.

A new generation of protesters in China?

It is now three days since protests erupted across the country after 10 people died in an apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang. Protesters, both on the streets and online, have blamed the country’s strict Covid-zero policy, closely associated with leader Xi Jinping. Millions have joined a call to find out whether the building’s fire escapes were blocked as a result of the policy.

The protests have been wide-ranging – and has the crackdown. Already Wulumuqi (Urumqi) Middle Road in Shanghai has been cordoned off, police present on every corner. There have been arrests of protesters around the country. A BBC journalist has been assaulted and detained. An elderly woman in Hong Kong has been beaten. As for China’s internet, the censorship machine is in overdrive with searches blocked or diverted and state-approved pundits are blaming the protests on foreign influence.

And yet still the protests continue. It is remarkable.

Contrary to many people’s assumptions about China and protest, the two are not wholly unhappy bedfellows. There have been many big protest movements since the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. Tiananmen in 1989 is of course the most oft-cited and arguably the largest both in terms of how long it went on for (well over a month) and the sheer numbers who headed to the capital’s square and the other protest sights across China. But there have been others both before and after, as well as those in Hong Kong. On occasion Beijing even welcomes a protest – they can be a handy distraction and forum for people to vent, just not at the CCP. In 2012, for example, as news continued to swirl about the arrest of popular Chinese politician Bo Xilai and his wife, hundreds of thousands took to Beijing’s streets in anti-Japanese protests.

So what makes these remarkable then? Well firstly they offer a glimmer of hope. This isn’t hope in the “CCP will collapse” way – there have too many false dawns in the past to believe that might happen. But hope in a way that makes us start to believe that China’s incredibly extensive censorship machine is not quite so well-oiled as we imagined. Since Xi Jinping came to power 10 years ago, the amount of control he has amassed has been terrifying. What the last few days have shown is that it’s far from absolute. News of the deaths in Urumqi have reached people across the country: attempts to censor the information came too late.

People were outraged, perhaps in part because they’d also heard news of the awful treatment of Uyghurs over the years – news that the Chinese government has tried hard to crush or manage – and they felt the sense of injustice.

A more likely reason for the rage is that many who have been locked down have had their own fire escapes blocked. The Urumqi deaths spoke to their greatest fears. And they spoke to these fears at the very time people were most angered – when lots of the country was locking down, again, against a backdrop of smiling, mask-less crowds at the World Cup.

The protests are also remarkable because of how widespread they are. Most protest movements in China are in one geographic area or on one issue. Workers strike about poor factory conditions; young parents about tainted milk. Here people across the country and in Hong Kong are all uniting. Their irks might sometimes differ – some want Xi Jinping to resign, while others just want to be able to leave their house and watch a movie. But there is a common thread – a desire for more freedom and free expression. You can see this in the photos of people holding up blank sheets of paper (a form of protest that incidentally first happened in Hong Kong) to protest censorship – saying nothing at all is the only safe thing to say. You can see it online. “When can we have freedom of speech? Maybe it can start at Beijing’s Liangmahe [an area of the city],” one person wrote on Weibo. Another said: “Before going to sleep I saw what was happening in Liangmahe on my WeChat Moments and then I looked at Weibo and saw that the Xicheng area had added 279 new Covid cases. I started thinking about my own everyday life and the things I am doing. I can’t help but feel a sense of isolation, because I can’t fight and do not dare to raise my voice.” The examples could go on and on.

Have we overstated just how much control the party have? Perhaps. We’ve always known Chinese social media users are in a constant battle of cat-and-mouse with the censors and so it’s no surprise that people did find out about Urumqi (as for World Cup envy, that probably just caught officials off-guard). Or maybe it’s the Chinese state themselves who have slipped up, in this instance in underestimating the bravery and fury of the population, and in creating the conditions for more widespread dissent ironically through their Covid-zero policy. The policy has kept people locked away yes, and the now ubiquitous health QR codes are excellent tracking devices. But people have bonded with those who they’ve spent inordinate amounts of time either literally inside or online and created the very thing the authorities fear - networks.

The question will be whether this dissent will be violently silenced by the CCP, will just peter out over the coming weeks or whether the growing and more united number of voices can bring about long-lasting change. We really hope for the latter.

Whistleblowers: the lifeblood of democracy

[vc_row][vc_column width="1/2"][vc_single_image image="117103" img_size="full"][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/2"][vc_column_text]The importance of the role of whistleblowers in exposing corruption and malpractice is well-established in law and rightly celebrated in a string of Hollywood movies from All the President’s Men to Erin Brockovich. But whistleblowers should also be celebrated as champions of free expression. Join us for the launch of the Summer 2021 edition of Index on Censorship, which highlights several prominent cases around the world.

Whistleblowers are extraordinary people, who take incredible risks to bring the rich and powerful to account. This often exacts a terrible personal price, with whistleblowers losing their livelihoods, their mental health and even their freedom.

Daniel Ellsberg
was the whistleblower behind the Pentagon Papers, which exposed the secret history of American involvement in Vietnam .

Brittany Winner is the sister of Reality Winner, the former US intelligence specialist who leaked details of Russian interference in the 2016 American election.

Martin Bright, editor of Index on Censorship, will chair the discussion.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

When: Tuesday 3 August 2021, 17:00 to 18:00 (BST)
Tickets: Free, advance booking essential


China: A century of silencing dissent

[vc_row][vc_column width="1/2"][vc_single_image image="116569" img_size="full"][/vc_column][vc_column width="1/2"][vc_column_text]Join us for the launch of the new Index on Censorship magazine, China: A century of silencing dissent. In this special edition we are marking the centenary of Chinese Communism with a series of long reads by writers, historians and journalists in the field, including acclaimed writer Ma Jian, whose exclusive personal essay on the legacy of the Chinese Communist Party is a centrepiece of this edition

Ma Jian will open the event with a reading from China Dream, his 2018 dystopian novel about repression and state-enforced amnesia set in contemporary China. The reading will be followed by a conversation with Tania Branigan, The Guardian’s foreign leader writer. 


Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China. He is the author of seven novels, a travel memoir, three story collections and two essay collections. He has been translated into twenty-six languages. Since the publication of his first book in 1987, all his work has been banned in China. He now lives in exile in London.

Tania Branigan is foreign leader writer for The Guardian. She was previously its China correspondent from 2008 to 2015, and before that its political correspondent.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

When: Wednesday 28 April 2021, 18:30 to 19:30
Tickets: Free, advance booking essential