By James Emery*
The February 2021 coup d’état by the Myanmar Defense Forces, known as the Tatmadaw, has parallels to the Ramayana, the 24,000 verse Hindu epic that became popular throughout Asia, including Burma. In 1989, the Tatmadaw replaced English translations with Burmese words, changing Burma to Myanmar, Rangoon to Yangon, and so forth.
The Internet provides articles and videos on the Ramayana for those who want to become more familiar with this classic, which compares to the Odyssey, the 12,000 verse Greek epic. Both Rama and Odysseus are on a journey filled with challenges. In Sanskrit, “ayana” means journey. The Ramayana is the physical and spiritual journey of Rama, prince of Ayodhya, the capital of the kingdom of Kosala, which is ruled by his father, Dasharatha. Rama is unjustly banished to the forest for 14 years. He is accompanied by his wife, Sita, and loyal, younger brother, Lakshmana.
Ravana, the evil king of Lanka, kidnaps Sita, taking her back to his kingdom. Rama and Lakshmana begin a heroic quest to track down Ravana and free Sita. During this epic struggle there are numerous additional characters.
Hanuman is the human-like, monkey general with superhuman powers and strength that were given to him by the gods. Hanuman is a daring and devoted ally to Rama and Sita, as he battles Ravana and his demon soldiers, the Rakshasa.
Vanaras, including Hanuman and Sugriva, are forest dwellers that have special powers. They formed into military units to help Rama. Sugriva is the king of the Vanaras. He agrees to help Rama in his quest, after Rama helps Sugriva reclaim his thrown. As with all of these characters – and others not mentioned – compelling details can be found in the Ramayana.
The Ramayana celebrates purity of spirit, strength of character, and bravery in the face of evil. This epic also serves as a warning of treacherous, evil demons, capable of taking human form to deceive and destroy others. In casting the Ramayana with key figures in the February 2021 Myanmar coup d’état, I looked for core traits shared by the current players and their mythical counterparts.
Rama destroys Ravana, frees Sita, and returns to rule his kingdom. He is known for his bravery, integrity, and determination. Rama represents the population of Myanmar, who are willing to risk everything – including their lives – for the just and righteous cause of freeing their leaders and restoring democracy. Such strength of character and clarity of purpose is the stuff of legends. It’s an honorable pursuit that is worthy of respect and support from throughout the world.
Sita, the wife of Rama, was created from the blood of those who had given their lives to drive out evil demons that plagued the earth. The Ramayana celebrates her for her purity of intent and virtue of character. Sita, who was kidnapped and imprisoned by the evil Ravana, is Aung San Suu Kyi, who was kidnapped and detained by the Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing,
Lakshmana is Rama’s younger brother, who loyally follows him into the forest and courageously fights the Rakshasa demons of Lanka in an effort to save Sita. Lakshmana represents the members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). The Tatmadaw arrested and detained hundreds of them during the coup, brutally beating, torturing, and killing some NLD members.
Lakshmana also represents the collective youth of Myanmar who have bravely challenged Tatmadaw leadership and hordes of soldiers and police. The youth of Myanmar continue to march with an inner strength and resolve that is far beyond their years, bravely holding protest signs in the face of bullets, rifle grenades, stun grenades, water cannons, tear gas, clubs, and other weapons.
Jatayu is a very old vulture-like bird with divine qualities of spiritualism and sacrifice. In the Ramayana, Jatayu, who is loyal to Rama, hears Sita’s cries for help as she is being abducted by Ravana. Jatayu flies over and tries to reason with Ravana, who ignores him. This leads to a fight in which Jatayu strives to free Sita. Ravana cuts Jatayu’s wings, causing him to fall to earth and die.
Jatayu represents Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, the first protester killed by the police a few days before her 20th birthday. She was shot in the head as she was walking away from a water canon that was spraying her as she stood behind a fence. Jatayu also represents all other protesters – to date and to come – killed or injured by the Tatmadaw. Jatayu and the protesters share a common trait, an altruistic willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause. The advanced age of Jatayu reflects the population’s 59-year struggle for democracy following the coup d’état on March 2, 1962 by Ne Win and the Tatmadaw.
Hanuman, Sugriva, and the armies of Vanaras are represented by all of the ethnic and tribal groups living in Myanmar. The Karen, Kachin, and other Christian and Buddhist tribal members of the National Democratic Front (NDF) have been battling the Burmese military since 1948. During this protracted 73-year conflict, as with the more recent strikes against the Rohingya Muslims, the Tatmadaw have repeatedly carried out heinous crimes against ethnic populations. These transgressions include burning villages, destroying crops and livestock, sexual violence, and torturing and murdering men, women, and children. The vicious annihilation and dislocation of ethnic populations enables greedy and corrupt Tatmadaw leaders to seize and sell their natural resources, from lumber to rubies.
Vibhishana is the younger brother of Ravana. Unlike the evil Ravana, Vibhishana is guided by principles and integrity. He is against the abduction of Sita, but Ravana ignores his pleas to return her, so Vibhishana joins Rama. His knowledge of Lanka is vital to Rama’s successful campaign to defeat the demons and retrieve his wife.
Vibhishana represents Kyow Moe Tun, Myanmar ‘s Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), who courageously condemned the Tatmadaw and the coup during a speech on 26 February 2021. He formally requested the UN and international community to use any action necessary against the Myanmar military to provide safety and security for the people. The day of his plea is an 8 (2+6) in numerology, a coincidental reference to Myanmar’s 8888 Pro-Democracy Uprising on and around 8 August 1988. Vibhishana also represents government officials, soldiers, and police that join the protesters in this earthly battle between the forces of good and evil.
Ravana is Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, a multimillionaire despot, who staged the coup d’état to increase his personal power and wealth. The General controls the military, police, and the courts, using them to protect and exploit the Tatmadaw’s economic, political, and judicial stranglehold of Myanmar. The Tatmadaw’s tyrannical rule is fueled by their insatiable greed and lust for power.
The Tatmadaw modified Myanmar’s constitution in 2008, enabling them to block amendments, legislation, and judicial reforms, protecting their unwarranted political power and their extensive legal and illegal enterprises. The Tatmadaw own and operate two large conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), dealing in everything from natural gas and gem stones to banking and tourism.
Since Ravana is a ten-headed demon, the additional heads are made up of top-tier Tatmadaw leadership that excel in oppressing the population, while extracting billions of US dollars from the Tatmadaw’s legal and illegal enterprises and alliances.
The Rakshasa were brutal creatures that served as powerful warriors for Ravana, their commander. They were shape-shifting, illusionists that could change their form and distort reality. The more ferocious Rakshasa’s were large, man-eating monsters that feasted on the carnage of war. Ancient Vedic literature describes them as being vampire-like creatures that consumed the blood and flesh of their victims – day and night. The Tatmadaw are the Rakshasa, though the crimes of the Tatmadaw far exceed those of the brutal, mythical creatures they represent.
While variations exist, the Kabandha is often depicted as a gigantic, long-armed, headless Rakshasa that has a single eye on its chest and a mouth on its belly. In the Ramayana, the Kabandha blocks the path of Rama and his brother, Lakshmana, before seizing them, one in each hand. As Kabandha brings the brothers closer to his mouth to devour them, the brothers draw their swords and cut off his arms. When the brothers burn Rakshasa’s corpse on a funeral pyre, the evil demon that possessed him, is destroyed.
The Kabandha represents the police force of Myanmar, headless because it is controlled by the Tatmadaw junta, which represents the evil spirit that possesses it. Removing the demon that controls the police will enable civilian authorities to reshape the corpse into becoming the People’s Police Force, better ensuring that they justly serve the population.
The current police forces in Myanmar are brutal and corrupt. They have relentlessly attacked protesters in towns throughout Myanmar with metal and rubber bullets, rifle grenades, stun grenades, water cannons, tear gas, clubs, and other weapons. They’ve launched large-scale arrests of protesters in the streets and political leaders and activists in their homes.
Kumbhakarna is one of Ravana’s brothers. He was a giant and a great warrior, whose size and capacity dissuaded most potential challengers. He would typically sleep for months at a time, due to a misunderstanding in a tongue-twisting episode with one of the gods. In addition to his size, fighting skills, and huge appetite, Kumbhakarna was acknowledged to be intelligent and virtuous. Ravana had his subjects wake Kumbhakarna so that he could help him in his fight with Rama. Upon learning what had caused the conflict, Kumbhakarna thought Ravana’s actions were unjust, but loyally agreed to help him, capturing Sugriva before being killed by Rama.
Kumbhakarna represents the Rule of Law in Myanmar, which in spirit is virtuous, but has become thoroughly corrupted. The Tatmadaw sully the Rule of Law to arrest and incarcerate Aung San Suu Kyi, political members of the NLD, political activist and anti-coup protesters, journalists and others.
The integrity of the Rule of Law has been compromised by the Tatmadaw during the last 59-years. Suspects, criminal charges, and verdicts are often predetermined by the military and the police. The courts, like the constitution, are in dire need of reform, but these efforts are blocked by the Tatmadaw.
Dasharatha is the king of Kosala and father of Rama. In casting him, I suggest the spirit of Saya San, a Burmese physician and nationalist who inspired the 1930 to 1932 revolt against British colonial powers. Saya San was from Shwebo, 110 km (69 miles) northwest of Mandalay, where numerous protesters – valiantly striving to restore democracy – have been shot, beaten, and incarcerated by the Tatmadaw. Saya San chose the Galon, a mythical bird, also known as Garuda, to represent his rebellion. In Burmese and Asian mythology, the Galon is often pitted against the naga (snake) that threatens and kills humans. It’s a suitable symbol for courageous people challenging the venomous vipers leading the tyrannical Tatmadaw
Reversing the Coup and Flipping the Leadership
General Min Aung Hlaing, playing the role of the evil Ravana of the Ramayana, abducted and detained Aung San Suu Kyi. The Tatmadaw’s unjustified coup d’état of the democratically elected government of Myanmar does not alter the fact that they are despised and rejected by the vast majority of the population of Myanmar.
In the national election of 2020, the Tatmadaw’s political wing, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), only won 33 of 476 seats (6.9 percent) in the two Houses of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (Assembly of the Union). The USDP’s share decreases when local and regional elections are included. Virtually the only people voting for the Tatmadaw junta are Tatmadaw members, and their families and associates, who profit from alliances with the regime.
The collective evidence and lopsided election results refute Tatmadaw claims of fraud. The self-serving coup d’état and lies perpetrated by the politically ambitious General Min Aung Hlaing is the real “fraud.” The Tatmadaw criminal cartel fear a true democracy that could indict them for their illicit activities and eliminate their unscrupulous control and exploitation of Myanmar’s government, economy, military, police, and the courts.
General Ne Win’s coup d’état of March 2, 1962 seized military control of Burma. Ne Win was influenced by numerology and astrology, with “9” being his favorite number, as noted in his changes to Burmese Kyat denominations in 1987. One of the aspects of the number “9” in numerology is that it represents the completion or end of a cycle and the transition or beginning of a new one. With “nine” months left in the year, it’s time for the United Nations and the international community to significantly intensify efforts to “reverse the coup” and “flip the leadership,” putting a cyclical end to the Tatmadaw’s unlawful reign of terror, tyranny, and corruption.
UN and international pressure on the Tatmadaw, China, and Russia should strive to reverse the coup by General Min Aung Hlaing’s birthday on July 3, 2021, which is a “6” (7 + 3 + 5) in numerology. Reversing and flipping the “6” makes it a “9,” signifying the potential end of his cycle and the transition to a new one, headed by Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy.
The concepts of freedom and democracy, which are taken for granted in many countries, hold much deeper meanings to people suffering under oppressive, tyrannical regimes. The words themselves – freedom and democratic rule – inspire passionate reverence, honor, and hope among the battered and bruised bodies in Myanmar and other countries that are willing to sacrifice everything to achieve these objectives.
Since the coup d’état, the Tatmadaw have killed 700 civilians and incarcerated over 3,000, with these numbers increasing significantly each week. The Tatmadaw will likely intensify their use of lethal force, slaughtering protesters to silence dissent, unless the United Nations and international community take firm steps to stop the carnage and reverse the coup. If China and Russia continue to use their seats on the UN Security Council to block sanctions and initiatives against the Tatmadaw regime, they should face significant economic and political consequences from the international community.
Like the battles between Rama and Ravana, the heroic population of Myanmar are in a struggle between the forces of good and evil, as they strive to restore democratic rule. General Min Aung Hlaing and the Tatmadaw junta are without honor, merit, or legitimacy. They behave like ravenous demons that have taken human form. The United Nations and the global community need to heed their better virtues to collectively and unconditionally support the population of Myanmar through whatever means are necessary for them to achieve their objectives of freedom, liberty, and democratic rule by the officials they’ve chosen.
*James Emery, a cultural anthropologist and analyst, has coved issues around the world. He has traveled into Myanmar through Yangon and in cross-border trips to ethnic tribal territories to conduct interviews and research on insurgency operations, narcotics trafficking, human rights abuses, and other issues. He may be contacted at [email protected]