A row of police officers barrelled through the exit of a Yangon courthouse in February 2019, shoving spectators aside as they heaved the weary body of activist Htin Kyaw toward a white van.
“You’re starving him!” the 57-year-old activist’s supporters shouted at the cops. The ensuing shouting match escalated into a brawl in which the cops beat Htin Kyaw’s supporters to the ground. One supporter was injured badly and was sent to the hospital.
Htin Kyaw is among a growing number of political activists in Myanmar who have spent years demanding an end to military rule, only to become political prisoners under the country’s first democratically elected government in half a century. He and the organisation he leads—the Movement for Democracy Current Forces (MDCF)—are among the few voices left in the country prodding the country toward full democracy by calling for the abolition of the military’s privileged role in politics and holding the military accountable for decades of human rights abuses.
Change under the NLD… or lack thereof
The ascension of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to the corridors of power in 2016 was expected to make these activists’ work easier. The party campaigned on a platform of amending the military-drafted constitution and releasing political prisoners. Instead, the NLD government has largely defended the legacy of the military. Suu Kyi has justified military operations in Rakhine State that drove more than 730,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country, and her office has accused Rohingya women of lying about being raped by Myanmar security forces. In March, a legal amendment enacted by the NLD came into effect, making millions of acres of land in ethnic minority areas more vulnerable to seizure by military-linked conglomerates.
Over the last three years, the number of political prisoners in the country has risen from 202 to 354. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, the NLD government has “failed to make substantive changes to most of the laws used against speech and assembly”, and are instead “strengthening some abusive laws and enacting at least one law imposing new restrictions on speech.”
Over the last three years, the number of political prisoners in the country has risen from 202 to 354
Between 2015 and 2017, NLD members filed more criminal complaints against citizens using Myanmar’s vaguely worded anti-defamation law than members of all other political parties combined.
56-year-old Than Than Maw, an MDCF member and wife of Htin Kyaw, tells New Naratif: “Htin Kyaw believes the direction the current government is heading in is wrong, but these days, no one is allowed to criticise the NLD or the Lady.” Whether it’s due to the government’s use of law to clamp down on dissent, or the people’s hero worship of Aung San Suu Kyi, anyone who criticises the party or their leader is taking a risk.
With the threat of arrest hanging over them, Htin Kyaw and the MDCF have had to adapt, devising new strategies to ensure that their voices are heard, even while their bodies are locked away.
“We don’t protest together”
On a cloudy day in late August 2018, Htin Kyaw stood in front of Yangon’s City Hall and held up a placard saying: “UN and ICC—come quick and arrest Myanmar’s murderous generals.”
Four days earlier, UN investigators had called for Myanmar’s military leaders to be investigated for a series of crimes against humanity committed between 2011 and 2018, including genocide against the Rohingya.
Within minutes of starting his protest, Htin Kyaw was swarmed by police and taken into custody.
Almost exactly a month later, in late September, another MDCF member named Tin Maung Kyi approached the same spot in front of City Hall and unfurled a placard saying: “Take action quick. MDCF endorse UN security council to refer Myanmar generals to the ICC.”
A month later, in late October, a third MDCF member named Thant Zin staged an identical solo protest, holding up a placard calling for the generals’ arrest. He, too, was arrested moments later.
Each of the three men is now on trial under one or more of the laws commonly used by the authorities to prosecute peaceful activists. Htin Kyaw faces two years in prison under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which outlaws speech that cause “fear or alarm to the public…whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility”. Thant Zin faces one month in prison under Section 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. Tin Maung Kyi, who had requested permission from city authorities to stage his September protest (but was rejected), faces two years and one month in prison under both charges.
Despite the heavy consequences that the three are now facing for just a few minutes of protest, MDCF considers all three demonstrations to be successes in carrying out the group’s strategy for activism under the NLD government.
Than Than Maw explains: “Whenever we protest, we do it one at a time so that we always have bodies to get the message out. If everyone who is willing to protest did it at the same time, there is a possibility that all of us could end up in jail. That’s why we don’t protest together.”
This strategy marks a departure from how MDCF used to operate under the previous, military-backed government. When Htin Kyaw founded MDCF in 2012, shortly after being released from a prison stint for his involvement in the anti-military protests of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the group quickly gained a reputation for their high-risk tactics.
Between 2014 and 2016, Htin Kyaw received at least six separate prison sentences and spent most of those two years behind bars for, among other things, leading victims of military land seizures in protest marches across Yangon and standing outside the home of then-MP Aung San Suu Kyi to demand a meeting about land rights.
At one of Htin Kyaw’s hearings in 2014, Tin Maung Kyi and another MDCF member showed up and distributed pamphlets saying: “The civilians are the real masters of the country, and the government is only the servant.” They joined Htin Kyaw in prison that day.
Under the NLD government, MDCF members have retained their willingness to endure prison but have learned to make even more calculated decisions.
“Most people who see [multiple arrests at once] would be scared to come forward and join the movement,” said Than Than Maw. “We’re leaving behind people so that we have people to use when the time comes.” Some passers-by who spoke to New Naratif during a MCDF protest said that while they supported the cause, they were afraid to join in.
MDCF’s strategy has won praise among other opponents of military abuses in Myanmar. “MDCF are smart and have recognised and adapted to this political reality with their solo protester model that guarantees constant publicity for their cause and ensures their resources are not overstretched,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“The fact the government and military feel threatened by their expression of views in a public place shows just how intolerant and rights-abusing they have become,” he adds.
Under the NLD government, MDCF members have retained their willingness to endure prison but have learned to make even more calculated decisions
Youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi has been on trial under Section 20 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law—for helping to organise a public protest against military abuses in Kachin state—since May 2018. She also lauded the group: “Most civil society groups in Myanmar censor themselves out of fear of the repercussions for weighing in on human rights, civil war, democracy, and peace. MDCF are vibrant, brave, outspoken, and, most importantly, principled. They are the change we want to see in civil society here.”
Interfaith activist Thet Swe Win, who is also on trial for his role in the May protest, says: “Htin Kyaw is a man of principle. He always dares to say what he believes. MDCF know very well the risks they face but are willing to accept them. We need more people like them. I sometimes feel ashamed [of] myself when I see their heroic activities.”
“Not for nothing”
To be sure, MDCF’s model is not foolproof, and while they’ve been able to highlight issues with the military, they’ve yet to win any concessions or have their demands met. With three of its leading members in prison, the group’s activities have slowed. “It’s not a small thing, dealing with the case of each demonstrator who is arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned,” Robertson says. “These are legally drawn-out, labour-intensive procedures that require continuing legal and other support from the group.
MDCF members provide this support by convening at Htin Kyaw’s hearings to document his trial and record the speeches he gives as he’s shoved into the van that will take him back to his cell.
Than Than Maw said the group will also continue to schedule solo protests to coincide with major news events, such as land disputes or news of conflict in parts of the country. “Whenever there is something that needs to be done for our nation’s politics, for our human rights, we will do it. It’s not because there is a lot of support. Whenever there is someone who is committing a crime, or harming the people, we will take on the work.”
“It’s not because there is a lot of support. Whenever there is someone who is committing a crime, or harming the people, we will take on the work”
Meanwhile, Htin Kyaw himself has pivoted to a role he’d adopted throughout all of his previous prison stints: interviewing other political prisoners and land seizure victims so that he can advocate for them, either through the justice system or through the media, when he gets out.
“Even when he is in prison, he is still collecting testimonies, collecting news… It’s not for nothing,” says Than Than Maw.
She went on: “The number one problem for Myanmar’s common man is the generals and their cronies’ disregard for the rule of law and justice. Even though the people elected the current government, there hasn’t been a lot of change for the common man. Htin Kyaw is a leader, through and through. That’s why he continues to do this work. If the next government continues to ignore these problems, he will keep going.”
Jacob Goldberg is a multimedia journalist based in Yangon, Myanmar. His work can be found in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere.
Nay Paing is a journalist from Yangon, Myanmar. His work can be found in The Guardian and Coconuts Yangon.