The scenes unfolding in Myanmar’s anti-coup protests over the last two weeks represent a distant dream come true for Thinzar Shunlei Yi. For years, she and a small group of youth activists campaigned to bring the country’s powerful military under civilian control, only to be rebuffed by supporters of state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party. 

In 2018, after protesting against the military’s displacement of thousands of civilians in Kachin State, she and 16 other activists were charged for holding an illegal demonstration, under a law that the NLD-led government had declined to abolish or amend. They spent the next two years on trial and were ultimately convicted, with each defendant paying a 5,000 kyat (US$3.50) fine and walking free.

Similarly, when she condemned the military’s treatment of ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya, as genocide, NLD supporters warned that her critiques of the military would “break the country apart” and accused her of “disrespect[ing] older generations”.

The military scripted everything, and the NLD were their actors. …We don’t want this scriptwriter anymore. We want our own script.

But ever since the 1 February coup and Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest, hundreds of thousands of Myanmar citizens suddenly see the threat Thinzar Shunlei Yi spent years trying to expose. 

Thousands of civil servants and industrial workers have joined the apparently leaderless Civil Disobedience Movement, refusing to work for the junta set up by army chief Min Aung Hlaing. Protesters have publicly apologised for failing to stand up for the Rohingya, whose mass expulsion from the country was defended by Aung San Suu Kyi at the International Court of Justice in 2019. 

Even with 384 people arrested for opposing the coup, as of 12 February, and one young woman on life support after being shot in the head by police, crowds of protesters have been seen physically intervening in arrests, and dozens of police across the country have even joined the pro-democracy movement.

While in hiding to avoid arrest, Thinzar Shunlei Yi spoke to New Naratif about how she hopes the current pro-democracy movement will make up for the complacency of the last five years.

Protesters in Yangon hold signs denouncing Myanmar’s military coup in February 2021.

You’ve been protesting against Myanmar’s military for years. What makes this protest different?

This is the first time I’ve been joined by so many other people. Before, whenever we protested, the NLD government told people to be silent and just follow their national reconciliation process and their peace process. The people were not encouraged to intervene. 

Now, everybody is going into the streets because we are on the edge and about to fall, so we need to save ourselves. The people have realised that we are our only saviours, so we need to help ourselves and stand up for our future. That’s how I feel this is different.

How did the NLD government discourage people from playing a role in strengthening democracy for the last five years?

Over the last five years, the situation of freedom of expression got worse and worse. The number of political prisoners rose. We’ve been campaigning against many different unjust, undemocratic laws, and the NLD did not amend any of them. They just looked away. In fact, they strengthened these laws, and now, the military is using them to oppress us further. 

For example, during the coup, the military used Article 77 of the Telecommunications Law to shut down Facebook. We had been petitioning the NLD-led parliament to abolish this article, and they didn’t listen. They liked it. They didn’t want to abolish it, and now it’s being used to limit our freedom.

Has the coup forced you to view the last 10 years of democratic transition in a new way?

When I was young, I just cheered for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She was going to be in power, and that’s what we wanted to see, because we were looking at democracy not as a system, not as a collective thing, but more like a person. Having that person in power meant we lived in a democratic country. No, that was clearly the wrong idea, and I think people are starting to realise that. We are sick of personality-based politics and personality cults.

The ethnic minorities are not surprised by the military coup. For them, coup or no coup, constitution or no constitution, they have been fighting the same army since the very beginning.

The last 10 years took a long time, but when we look back now, it feels like a flash before our eyes. The first election in 2010, second election in 2015, the third election in 2020—now it all seems like a dramatic movie scripted by the military. The military scripted everything, and the NLD were their actors. Now, the military wants to change the script, and the NLD are waiting to play their role. 

We don’t want this scriptwriter anymore. We want our own script.

What are the NLD’s demands to the military?

The NLD have three demands: to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the other leaders; to recognise the results of the November 2020 election; and to legitimise the new parliament. 

These demands are totally different from what the younger generation wants and what the ethnic nationalities [minorities] want. The ethnic nationalities demand the abolition of all forms of dictatorship and of the 2008 constitution [which grants the military supremacy over the civilian government]. 

They are also demanding a new federal Union [with greater autonomy for ethnic minority states].

But many protesters seem to just want the NLD to return to government.

I think our demands are based on our own struggles. For most people in Myanmar, electing the NLD was all the power they had, and the military just took it away.

But Myanmar’s ethnic nationalities have been fighting against oppression for a long time. Even just a month ago, there was fighting in Karen State, and many people fled their homes

The main goal is to shut down the military government—to shut down the mechanism that keeps running the military government, so that the military government stops functioning.

The ethnic minorities are not surprised by the military coup. For them, coup or no coup, constitution or no constitution, they have been fighting the same army since the very beginning, so their demands are quite different. They are demanding an end to all forms of dictatorship. They don’t want civilian dictatorship, and they don’t want military dictatorship. For them, dictators are just dictators, regardless of whether it is the military or Aung San Suu Kyi. 

The ethnic nationalities, like Rohingya people, know exactly how the military is brutal to the people, even when the NLD is in government. They have been fighting against these things for a long time, and they have been feeling alone. They never experienced this kind of mass protest on their behalf, so they are kind of heartbroken. So I really appreciate their participation in the protests going on now.

What did you experience on the first day of the coup?

The first day was the longest day. I was so numb. I couldn’t focus on anything. I followed the news. The military turned the internet off, but I still had Wi-Fi, so I reported to my friends around the world about what was happening. I tried to think about what I could do about all of this, though I was feeling depressed because this was my worst nightmare. It wasn’t like a bill was approved and we could go protest against it. It was a coup, and I could foresee a long way and long sacrifice ahead. 

I also felt a big burden on my shoulders, being an outspoken activist. I felt pressure to get out and raise my voice—a lot of pressure mentally, physically and in terms of security.

How did the street protests begin?

On the second day of the coup, we started thinking about our strategy. We got together to discuss what could be our solution. People were pressuring each other not to go out onto the streets, and the NLD also gave a signal to its supporters not to do anything within three days of the coup.  

Then we heard about the Civil Disobedience Movement. As we were planning, we heard about a young doctor leading a protest in Mandalay, and they were arrested immediately. That was shocking and groundbreaking because that doctor who was leading the protest had never done that before. That totally changed the whole narrative—now there was peer pressure to go into the streets.

Some NLD supporters were shaming and blaming that doctor, accusing him of being fake. I could see a collective fear online over the street  protests. Even some of the MPs who were detained, when they were released, thanked the soldiers for their hospitality. That kind of reconciliation mindset, even though they were detained by the military—it was so shocking to learn their mindset.

What is the Civil Disobedience Movement? 

After it was first launched by young doctors in Mandalay, it spread throughout the whole country. The Yangon Youth Network and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions released a similar statement calling for civil disobedience, and almost every government department has joined.

The main goal is to shut down the military government—to shut down the mechanism that keeps running the military government, so that the military government stops functioning.

How do you explain the military’s motivation for the coup?

I didn’t foresee the military staging a coup because they still have the constitution they drafted, and their crimes against humanity are being covered up by the civilian leaders. But even though the NLD has been playing along with them and complying with their policies, there is still a big trust deficit between the military and the NLD. 

Once the NLD gets back in power, we need to organise a referendum as soon as possible.

At the same time, despite all the international condemnation against them, the NLD is still super popular. The military was so shocked by the election result, and they are ashamed. I think this coup is a reaction to their shame. Even though they have all the resources and all the weapons, they cannot win over the people’s love from the NLD. 

Also, they use the other political parties as excuses. Many other parties have approached Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing to complain about the NLD—how the NLD bullies the minorities—so the military could claim their actions were in the name of the ethnic minorities and democracy. They feel like they are the guardians of the country.

You said on Twitter recently that Aung San Suu Kyi played with the tigers, and we see how she ended up. What should she and the NLD have done differently over these last five years?

If the NLD had not cut ties with the ethnic minority leaders, they might have avoided the current situation, even with the 2008 constitution in place. If they had not cut ties with civil society leaders, if they had not cut ties with student leaders, farmers, grassroot leaders, they would not be standing alone right now. They would be fully supported by an inclusive coalition to stand against the military regime.

The NLD also did not show leadership to the military. The military needs to be under civilian leadership. They could have amended and abolished various laws in parliament to show this leadership‚ to hold the military accountable. Instead, Aung San Suu Kyi covered up the military’s crimes at the International Court of Justice.

Now, the military thinks the NLD are incapable of achieving national reconciliation because the NLD are being criticised by different minority groups and boycotted by civil society activists. The NLD should have looked beyond the 2008 constitution. They tried to amend the constitution, but they ended up normalising it.

It’s almost impossible to amend the constitution, but they could have amended other laws to make Myanmar more democratic over these last five years. Which ones should they have amended?

For example, the Telecommunications Law. They used Article 77 to shut down Facebook. We were campaigning to the parliament to abolish this article. Article 66(D), for example—they didn’t abolish it; they wanted to keep it because it protects the government and members of parliament from criticism, so they kept it. They didn’t listen to us. Now, these laws are becoming tools for the military junta to oppress us further, and they can say it is all lawful.

Another one is the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law. Anybody out on the street right now, if the police want to grab one person, they can just grab anyone, and they can charge them [under] that law because the law requires protesters to have agreements with the police. We were asking to abolish this law or take out the requirement for an agreement with police, but it didn’t happen. 

You also tweeted that the coup made you understand why the non-Bamar [ethnic minority] communities and the students have turned to armed struggle in the past? Can you explain that feeling?

When I talk to them, they don’t have any feelings at all. They lost their feelings a long time ago, after the NLD failed to protect them and chose to ignore them, ignore the suffering. Now, the NLD’s power is being grabbed by the military, and they feel like, what’s the difference? What’s the difference between the NLD and the military? That’s what they are feeling right now.

They were oppressed under the old military government, they were oppressed under the civilian government, and now under another military government, they will be oppressed further. What is the difference? So I can understand those feelings.

But still, now, they are trying to help, trying to be involved in the mass movement and demand what they want. But even when they demand the abolition of the constitution, or a new federal Union, the NLD people tell them not to make those demands—just follow the NLD’s demands. That’s kind of discouraging for all of us. The NLD cannot see their situation clearly.

If the NLD government is restored, but the 2008 constitution remains, what will your movement do?

We have three options. The first is that we will stay under military control. The second is the NLD will be back in power, but we’ll stay under the 2008 constitution. Third is we completely change the whole scenario. The third is what we want, but the second is likely. 

My organisation [Action Committee for Democracy Development] released a statement demanding the release of the civilian leaders as soon as possible and to respect the people’s vote—the people voted for the NLD. But we also demand that the civilian government organise a referendum to change the constitution. The current constitution will enable the military [to seize power], regardless of whether Min Aung Hlaing is around or not. If not him, there will be another military dictator to stage another coup. So we need to ensure the constitution will be amended or abolished based on the people’s will, and then we will draft a new one based on federal, democratic principles. 

That’s what we are demanding. Once the NLD gets back in power, we need to organise a referendum as soon as possible.

How can people outside Myanmar help?

They can look at the Dirty List of companies supporting the military junta’s businesses, and they need to pressure these companies to stop working with the junta. 

Thinzar Shunlei Yi is an award-winning activist and advocacy coordinator for the Action Committee for Democracy Development. She also hosts the Under 30 Dialogue at Mizzima TV. Follow her on Twitter.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The headline of this article has been edited out of concerns for its subject’s safety.

Jacob Goldberg

Jacob Goldberg is a journalist based in Thailand. He is New Naratif's Editor-in-Chief. Reach him at jacob.goldberg@newnaratif.com.