On February 1st of 2021 when Myanmar witnessed a coup d’état by the junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, everyone was stunned, including parliamentarians who had gathered in Naypyidaw to commence their new parliament session, and members of the leading political party National League of Democracy (NLD). The public kept their eyes and ears open for any sign of protest or resistance against the new coup, yet nothing happened on the first day. On February 2, healthcare workers from Mandalay 300 Bed Hospital, led by assistant doctors, denounced the military coup and refused to work under the new army administration. The sound of banging pots and pans roared at 8 pm in the streets of Myanmar every night to get rid of the evils in green uniforms. Despite knowing all too well about the violence that the military could afford, the public showed their defiance against the coup from their houses every night. On February 4, around 20 people gathered in front of the Mandalay Medical University and staged a protest against the military, and ignited nationwide protests and the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). In retrospect, it is fair to make a point that Myanmar’s anti-military regime movement was born from those healthcare workers who rejected the military administration, and here we are, two years after the coup.
One must ask how to define CDM and who the CDMers (the commonly used abbreviation) are. Surely, the Civil Disobedience Movement is a broad movement where millions of citizens rejected military rule in any non-violent way. The movement was initially derived from civil and public servants who refused to work under the newly installed military government and its departments, but later expanded to the citizens who refused to comply with the regime’s administration in any capacity such as refusing to pay the electricity bill. Civil and public servants include doctors, nurses, basic education and higher education teachers, municipal clerks, bank employees, railway workers, police forces, soldiers and many more. Students of all ages in basic education and university levels boycotted the military’s education system by refusing to go to school. In the early days of the coup, the CDM movement was extremely strong that the military’s administrative mechanism was unable to function. Joining the CDM means refusing the monthly paychecks, risking livelihoods, and giving up the future that one had worked all their lives for. This is the first of many sacrifices people made as CDMers. Determined to hold the power by any possible means, the putschists carried out various tactics to bring the civil and public servants back to work such as pressing legal charges, evicting them from government housing, and arresting them arbitrarily. To avoid the regime’s assaults, CDMers fled from their homes, parted their loved ones, and in some cases, lost their lives like Ma Theingi @ Anaw who passed away while trying to flee from the soldiers. Unfortunately, as the revolution drags to two years, the lives and futures are getting cloudier so some CDMers parted their ways, and gave in.
For those who continued to defy the military regime despite the hardship and danger it comes with, the civilian-led National Unity Government (NUG) has acknowledged and appreciated their sacrifices while multiple fundraisers, whether affiliated with the NUG or not, work their hardest to support the CDMers throughout. On January 20 this year, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), the advisory wing consisting of political parties, NGOs, CSOs, strike committees and special observers, published the CDM policy for public consultation. The 14-page document was prepared with the aim to acknowledge and recognize the sacrifices that the CDMers made in this revolution, to provide compensation, as well as to apply appropriate punishments to those who failed to join the CDM, commonly known as Non-CDMers.
For the CDMers, the policy is designed to record the events that unfolded during the revolution and recognize the sacrifices that they made. Among different ways of acknowledging the CDM, the policy has proposed dropping all the legal charges that the CDMers have been facing, bringing justice for human rights violations against the striking civil and public servants, allowing public or individual hearings for the human rights violations, reinstating the CDMers to their original positions at work or giving promotions, re-providing housing and other perks, and providing education, healthcare and social supports for the CDMers and their families as a part of the compensation program. Other recognitions such as including the CDM in the textbook syllabus in the future, writing a chapter for CDMers in the new constitution, and assigning an official gazetted holiday for the CDM movement were proposed in the policy.
On the other hand, the CDM policy dedicated a chapter for non-CDMers and how to take action against them. Regulations include identifying non-CDM civil/public servants, investigating their activities inclusive of corruption cases during the coup period, and consequently taking action against them. Penalties on non-CDMers range from preventing any promotions for three years, terminating non-CDM civil/public servants who hold deputy director and higher from their positions and blacklisting them, and prohibiting them from overseas travel. Military servants who were transferred to administrative departments by the military council will be considered as non-CDMers as well. Any promotion given by the military council during the period of the illegal coup will be discarded. The same goes for any local examination held by the military regime as well. However, if non-CDMers were able to provide any proof of their support towards the pro-democracy forces in any way and would like to resume their jobs as civil/public servants, reconsiderations will be made case by case.
There is no doubt that many people acknowledge and respect the role CDMers play in this revolution. However, some raised their concerns over the policy against non-CDM students. The NUCC’s policy clearly stated that all examinations held under the military administration will be abolished with no excuse. Human rights activist Moe Thway argued that not all students have the luxury to boycott public education and join alternative online education programs provided by the NUG’s Ministry of Education since many families can be short of resources such as computers and access to the internet. He wrote on his Facebook, “Every child has the right to education, and it is not the job of the revolutionary government to take action against non-CDM students”.
A CDM teacher who remains in hiding for her safety also echoed Moe Thway’s view on access to the internet and alternative education for some students. While Daw Htoo Sann (alias for her safety) appreciated parents who chose not to send their children to school in the academic year of 2021-2022, she could not blame those who send their children to school in the next academic year. She said, “I don’t have the heart to blame these parents because different parents have different levels of knowledge, understanding, and resources that they can afford. Some parents simply don’t know what to do for their kids’ education so they send their children to school, not because they support the military”. As an alternative for these parents and students, she suggested that the NUG’s education system should be promoted more widely, and arranged to be more accessible for students from every background. However, for students from higher education such as university or college students, Daw Htoo Sann thought that it would be unfair to see non-CDM students continuing their lives as they were such as going to school and having fun while other young people gave up their lives or their futures in this revolution.
It’s not unusual to see public discourse taking place in our social media, voicing different opinions on each matter. Activist Moe Thway reminded that as the revolution is at a critical time, it is important for the leadership to not push those who cannot join the revolution for various reasons to the military’s side such as policing through regulations and legislation. On the other hand, Daw Htoo Sann, like several other netizens who commented on the NUCC’s policy document on Facebook, still feels bitter towards non-CDMers who caused trouble for their CDM colleagues who chose to side with the people, not with the power holders.
In 1849, American philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay titled “Civil Disobedience” in which he lengthily discussed the State’s control and penalties over civil disobedience instances. In his essay, Thoreau emphasized that an individual’s conscience should be prioritized rather than state-controlled penalties in the case of civil disobedience. Thinking through Thoreau’s logic, how would one’s conscience be formed when one saw thousands of innocent people, including children, have been killed under Min Aung Hlaing’s regime?
In the last week of January, a new express train service from Yangon-Bagan was announced by the military authorities, as if the country was peaceful and prosperous under its control. Don’t we remember the railway workers who were evicted from their homes because they refused to go to work? Packed their lives in cardboard boxes and gunny sacks, we saw the pride on their faces as they carried their beloved pets in their arms. It’s only been two years. Have we forgotten about them? At the end of the day, people make their own choices and right so, the freedom for everyone to make such choices must be protected at all costs. That being said, certain decisions do come with repercussions at least in moral terms. Even if an elected government does not charge non-CDMers with treason one day, one must live with the thoughts for the rest of their lives questioning where they once stood when the truth mattered the most.