Strikes and protests in Myanmar have put the military regime on the backfoot–but there are ominous signs that this may be about to change.
In January Myanmar’s military seized power and detained the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and leading members of her party. In response there have been waves of protests.
On Wednesday thousands of protesters blocked main roads in the commercial hub Yangon for the third consecutive day. Meanwhile, striking civil service, bank, railway and power workers have brought some sectors of the country to a halt.
Oil and gas pipeline workers are also reported to be considering action. This would hit the economy particularly hard as Myanmar is deeply entwined with multinational energy firms drilling ultra-deep gas wells off the coast.
Widespread strikes have already hit the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, Myanmar’s power provider. About 60 percent of employees there have joined the movement and walked off their jobs, striker U Pyae Sone Ko Ko told the New York Times newspaper.
Some striking ministry employees have stationed themselves at their offices at night to prevent the authorities from shutting off electricity before leading night time raids and arrests.
Strikers have targeted the military’s extensive business interests and government departments essential to military rule. And many join the noisy new ritual of banging on pots and pans every evening.
For its part, the military has shut down the internet across much of the country in a bid to stop activists coordinating protests and calling for their escalation. This restriction also makes definite news hard to access.
But it's clear the military is worried enough to take counter-measures.
Generals yesterday issued a strongly-worded demand for civil servants to return to work. They then announced that six local celebrities that had supported their strike faced up to two years in jail under anti-incitement laws.
But the army’s crackdown failed.
“If we don’t win this battle, our future, the future of our generation, the future of our children, will be lost,” actor Pyay Ti Oo, one of the six, told a protest rally.
So far the generals have shied away from using the military to unleash terror on the streets as they did in 1988 and 2007. They fear the result would be even greater numbers joining the uprising.
But that they might turn to a policy of slaughter cannot be ruled out.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said on Tuesday he had received reports of soldiers being transported into Yangon from outlying regions.
“In the past, such troop movements preceded killings, disappearances, and detentions on a mass scale,” he said. “We could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar.”
Soldiers from the light infantry divisions, long engaged in human rights abuses, have been seen in Yangon in the past week.
These include the notorious 77th Light Infantry Division. This not only played a crucial role in the genocide against the Rohingya Muslims driven from their homes in Rakhine state, but also brutally suppressed the 2007 uprising.
The threat of another slaughter must not push the movement onto the defensive. Only by escalating the strikes and bringing more people into the movement can tragedy be averted–and the murderous military permanently removed from Myanmar’s government.