The military coup that took place on February 1, 2021, in Myanmar sparked a civic uprising as millions demonstrated against the coup. The military junta has now renamed itself the State Administration Council (SAC) and is made up of junta appointed officials and corrupt generals and officers. Today, Myanmar’s democracy movement is on the march, the junta is losing ground, the People Power Movement-known as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM)– has spread to the entire country and the regime is resorting to unspeakable acts of violence in a vain attempt to maintain control over the shrinking amount of Myanmar they control.
The very first example of the CDM striking back at the junta occurred just one day after the coup attempt at Mandalay General Hospital (MGH). A group of healthcare workers and government civil servants posted statements on social media saying they would not serve or work under the illegal SAC. Dr. Zwe Min Aung, a surgeon, was interviewed by Voice of America that day. He reiterated that he and his colleagues have rejected the junta’s attempted takeover. This act of peaceful defiance was the spark lighting a fire of civil disobedience that quickly began to rage across the country. The term CDM had become widely popular in Myanmar. In fact, the CDM preceded street protests by a few days with the goal of crippling the military’s economic and political infrastructure—utilities, telecommunications, railways to name a few that are owned by the state. Together with the street protests, CDM became the symbol of an uprising that incorporated Myanmar’s entire civil society.
The military’s response was brutal to this outpouring of collective rejection. Demonstrators were gunned down and beaten. Those participating in the CDM were fired from their jobs, hunted down, and jailed. Organizers faced especially brutal treatment if caught—including jailing where heavy torture was, and remains, standard treatment. Consequently, many participants went into hiding. As time went on, with no income, they faced extreme hardships. There has been some monetary support primarily from the Myanmar diaspora for them but much more is needed.
Many protestors have now decided to switch tactics and resort to armed struggle and have formed units known as the People Defense Force (PDF). The public interest and monetary contributions have shifted towards supporting PDF units. There is still a big demand for funding those committed to the CDM. We can’t let these individuals drift from our time, attention, and especially our financial support. They face similar hardships, sometimes more so, as Myanmar’s internally displaced people (IDP) since more frequently than not, the whole family had to relocate as well in avoiding harassment by the junta.
Our National Unity Government (NUG) recognizes the critical contribution of the CDM movement and is seeking social, financial, and educational support for this branch of the democracy movement. In April of this year, Ministry of Health, NUG carried out an on-line survey to further identify the needs and circumstances faced by the CDM participants. The report came out in May. A total of 6,576 CDM participants responded with 34% of them formers members of the staff from the Ministry of Education and 27% from Ministry of Health making up a big chunk of respondents. Key findings include: 84% of the respondents were fired from work; 38% were unable to continue working in their trade or profession; 31% have been displaced from home for more than 6 months; 80% were facing financial difficulty; 26% were finding it difficult to access healthcare from their location; 48% were facing security threats and 53% were facing mental health issues such as depression. It is estimated that there are about 300,000 CDM workers and close to 1.5 million of IDP.
The NUG has set up a “CDM Success Committee” and has been working hard to support CDM participants. Strategies include improving income generating activities of CDM staff, providing financial assistance, helping find job opportunities, implementing measures to reduce security issues and attempting to create psychosocial rehabilitation programs. A “Spring Lottery” has been set up. It is a creative program run by the Ministry of Planning, Finance and Investments of the NUG where the bulk of the proceeds are focused on CDM activists. Still, the needs are huge and much more needs to be done.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) can play a critical role in assisting this important group. Afterall, they are IDPs under a different name. The NUG is ready and willing to collaborate if such an overture is made. Our policy has always been “People First”. Despite NGOs, both international and domestic, having to register with the SAC in areas controlled by the military, if there is transparency and equitable distribution and good communication with the NUG, we want them to be active in their roles. We may also have useful data to share as long as confidentiality can be guaranteed.
The SAC prohibits NGOs from operating in conflict zones which is almost 71% of the country , a tactic clearly meant to inflict suffering on those who oppose their rule. In another demonstration of callous brutality, in October 2022, the SAC issued a new law further restricting the registration and operations of NGOs. All of this suggests that the suffering of those associated with the CDM movement, as well as IDPs, are soon to increase exponentially.
Despite needing to walk a tightrope, the NGOs should not lose sight of what they were initially founded for and find creative ways to deliver help to those who need it most. They should pay more attention to delivering assistance through cross-border routes where many CDM participants are located together with IDPs. This would free them from the junta’s brutal restrictions which are handcuffing their ability to provide badly needed assistance to the people who need it most.
All NUG ministries, including mine, stand ready to work with any group to provide assistance to CDM members and those suffering so badly in Myanmar both inside the country and along cross-border areas.
(Dr Zaw Wai Soe is Minister for Health and Education, National Unity Government of Myanmar.)