Burmese protesters respond to army bullets with economic shutdown
The windows of the cashiers are gathering dust. Cargo at the port is not collected. And in the major government departments in Naypyidaw, the capital of Burma, stacks of documents curl up in moisture. There are few people to handle all the paperwork.
Since the military took power in a coup last month, an entire nation has come to a standstill. From hospitals, railroads and shipyards to schools, stores and trading houses, much of society has stopped showing up for work in an attempt to thwart the military regime and force it to return authority to a civilian government.
As protesters continue to brave bullets – at least 220 people have been killed since the February 1 coup, according to a local group that monitors political jails and deaths – the quiet persistence of this civil disobedience movement from mass has become a powerful weapon against the military. Despite all the planning for the putsch, the generals appear to have been absolutely unprepared for the breadth and depth of resistance against them.
“They have stolen the power of the people from our elected government,” said Daw Cho Cho Naing, a foreign ministry employee who refused to work with most of her colleagues. “The journey to democracy in our country has just started and we cannot lose it anymore. “
The effect of millions of people refusing to do their jobs has been dramatic, even though the military is designed to withstand the pressure. Up to 90 percent of national government activities have ceased, according to officials from four ministries. Factories are idling. In February, the National Commercial Register recorded fewer than 190 new registrations, compared to nearly 1,300 the previous year.
In a country where at least a third of the population already lived below the poverty line, civil disobedience causes enormous self-imposed hardship for the population. But the striking class is hoping that a few more weeks or months of financial coercion will rob the military of the manpower and resources it needs to run the country.
On Sunday, dozens of people were killed in factory districts in Yangon, the largest city in Burma, when security forces cracked down on street protesters with lethal force. The area is now under martial law, but many workers have vowed not to give up.
“We may be poor in terms of money, but we are rich in the value of loving our country,” said Ma Thuzar Lwin, whose husband, Ko Chan Thar, a construction worker, was shot. in the neck during a recent stroke.
Earlier this week, as her husband fought for his life, Ms Thuzar Lwin expressed her aspirations for him. “I want him to see with his own eyes the day when the junta withdraws,” she said.
Mr. Chan Thar died on Wednesday.
The Burmese army, which has ruled the country for most of the past 60 years, is skilled at killing. It is less practiced in running an economy that began to integrate into the global financial system during a decade of reform.
In the raids that followed the coup, soldiers assembled hundreds of officials believed to be loyal to the civilian government led by the National League for Democracy. An Australian economic adviser to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto civilian leader, has also been jailed. More than 200 central bank employees, including five deputy directors, have been sacked for their civil disobedience.
As a result, taxes are not collected in Myanmar. Most import, export and other licenses are no longer granted. With private bank workers joining the strike, most of the flow of money in and out of the country has come to a halt. Many companies have not been able to pay their employees. Military banks have limited withdrawals for fear of cash rushes.
Last week, the military ordered private banks to transfer funds deposited by agricultural traders to state or military banks so that the money can be withdrawn for the next harvest. The order has remained a dead letter.
“They are the king now, but we are not their servants,” said Daw Phyu Phyu Cho, a private bank loan officer who joined the strike. “If we all unite, there is nothing they can do.
Myanmar now lacks many things at once: gasoline for cars, imported grains and pulses, foreign toothpaste. In the Yangon region, retail palm oil prices have risen 20 percent since the coup, according to the World Food Program.
People got used to the long queues, for ATM withdrawals, for collecting pensions, for distributing rice and curry. Striking factory workers must choose between wearing helmets and goggles to join a protest or wait in the scorching sun for whatever they might need that day.
For now, informal funding networks are helping to alleviate some of the pain of lost wages. In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, a single Facebook group run by ordinary citizens has raised funds to support nearly 5,000 people who participate in the civil disobedience movement, known by the abbreviation CDM.
“The people of Myanmar are so generous in giving to those in need,” said U Aung Htay Myint, one of the organizers of the Mandalay effort.
Myanmar’s economy, one of the least developed in Asia after decades of military mismanagement, was already reeling from the coronavirus, which hit the garment and tourism industries particularly hard. With the coup, foreign investors are feeling fearful. Toyota has delayed plans to open a factory. The World Bank has suspended disbursements in the country.
Western governments’ sanctions against military officers and companies have piled up. Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department banned U.S. transactions with, among other businesses, a gym and restaurant owned by the children of senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the military chief who led the coup. The United States government has frozen approximately $ 1 billion in assets held by Myanmar at a U.S. financial institution.
But the military still has many sources of income, including oil and gas fields. U Ye Kyaw Thu worked for a decade as an offshore platform technician for the Shwe natural gas project in the far west of Rakhine State. Most of his colleagues are foreigners, many of them South Koreans, and he knows that other Burmese workers will be recruited to replace him. Still, Mr. Ye Kyaw Thu said participating in the strike was the right choice for him.
“That’s all I can do,” he said.
A group of lawmakers who say they represent the ousted parliament have written to foreign oil and gas companies, including those in France, South Korea and Malaysia, asking them to halt payments to the regime for fear that ‘they “support the violence of the current military junta. to govern and enrich its leaders.
But Shwe’s natural gas extraction, which is sent to China, has not declined since the coup. These oil and gas revenues amount to $ 90 million per month in the coffers of the regime, according to the estimates of the dissolved Parliament.
Beyond oil and gas, the military and its vast commercial farms profit from the illegal collection of natural resources, such as jade and timber, which bring in revenues that rival the country’s official revenues.
“So much of their funds come from the black market,” said Dr Sasa, United Nations special envoy for the fallen civil authority.
The civil disobedience movement will not stop such unlawful activity. In some cases, such as the production of methamphetamine and other drugs, production can explode in the dark spaces of political conflict.
Meanwhile, Myanmar citizens pay the highest price. An administrator from Shan State County, who requested that his name not be released due to the danger of speaking out, described how he was taken for questioning after participating in the civil servants’ strike. After escaping through the jungle, he is now hiding.
In Yangon, Ko Soe Naing, a garment factory worker, said he recently saw a striking colleague shot in the head and killed. Mr. Soe Naing earned around $ 115 a month for his work, barely a living wage.
“We have nothing to lose,” he said. “As a grassroots worker, we have only one choice. It is to fight against the junta.
Before dawn last week, soldiers descended on a railway staff housing complex in Yangon. According to eyewitnesses, the soldiers demanded that strikers who had shut down the country’s rail system to leave their homes immediately. Around 700 residents left, grabbing armfuls of goods at gunpoint.
U Ko Ko Zaw, one of the residents, rushed out of his house with everything he had: a suitcase of personal effects, a jug of cooking oil and a live chicken. Later that day, he sold the bird for money.
“It’s OK to starve under military rule, it’s OK if they fire me,” said Ko Ko Zaw. “I will continue to join the CDM because I think it can bring down their economy. “