Why a Protest Leader in Myanmar Is Reluctantly Giving Up Nonviolence and Preparing for Combat

He is ready to endure bad karma for democracy.

Anti-coup protesters flee military forces during a demonstration in Yangon.AP

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Desperate times breed desperate measures and often desperate challenges of faith.

Late Monday night, I spoke by encrypted video with a local leader of the protests against the bloody military coup in Myanmar. He was in tears. Not because of the brutal violence and suppression he has witnessed. Not because he was on the run, eluding police and military forces hunting for him and other organizers. He began to cry when he explained that he was giving up on nonviolent protest and had concluded that he and his compatriots must begin military training in preparation for civil war. During an emotional conversation set up by a mutual acquaintance, he told me he was moving from house to house these days, waiting for colleagues to set up a more permanent safe house for him. And then his plan was to eventually head to a secret compound, where he and several dozen others would receive instruction in combat arts from a paramilitary specialist who was once a bodyguard for Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader who was arrested on February 1 when the military overthrew the democratically elected government run by her National League for Democracy party.

Soe Naing Win—this is a pseudonym—is in his mid-20s and lives in a township near the city of Yangon in lower Myanmar. He grew up in a low-income family. He studied at a remote Buddhist monastery, learned English, and became a liaison for foreigners who sought to practice there. Life was going well at the start of this year. He had recently married, his wife was expecting, and he had a good job in Yangon. Then came the coup. The military took over, claiming that the November election—in which the NLD had won overwhelmingly—had been fraudulent. It arrested President Win Myint and other NLD leaders and declared a state of emergency. 

Resistance and civil disobedience began immediately. Two days after the coup, health care workers and civil servants mounted a labor strike. A red ribbon—red is the color of the NLD—became a symbol of opposition. Popular protests spread throughout the country. The junta blocked social media and intermittently shut down the internet. At a protest in Naypyitaw, the capital, police used water cannons and rubber bullets to clear protesters. One 19-year-old woman was shot in the head. She later died. The ongoing protests led to a general strike. On February 27, the security forces mounted a sweeping crackdown and arrested hundreds. The next day they fired on protesters with live ammunition, killing at least 18. 

The protests and military attacks went on in Myanmar (which is also known as Burma) through March. On March 27, the annual Armed Forces Day, demonstrators took to the streets across the country. Barricades were erected. Large crowds flashed the three-finger anti-authoritarian salute and demanded a return to democracy. The military shot and killed dozens, probably over 100 people, including children. Videos posted on social media showed horrific scenes, including security forces firing into crowds, rounding up suspects, and beating protesters. “It’s a massacre, it’s not a crackdown anymore,” Kyaw Win, the director of the UK-based Burma Human Rights Network told the BBC. The post-coup death toll now was estimated to be about 400 people. (On Monday, the Biden administration reacted to the recent spasm of military violence by announcing the suspension of diplomatic trade engagement with Myanmar.)

Soe Naing Win was an NLD supporter, and he and his family members were enraged when the military arrested their elected leaders. Moreover, as he told his wife, he did not want to see his child born under a military dictatorship. Working with students and others, he began organizing protests in his township. “I’m not a leader,” he told me. “I’m just a planner. The true leaders are the people.” He noted that Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner once compared to Gandhi, was an inspiration for the protesters. The military government had held her under house arrest for about 15 years before her release in 2010. Five years later, as a member of parliament, she led the NLD to a national electoral victory and afterward became state counsellor, a position roughly equivalent to prime minister. 

Soe Naing Win and his colleagues staged an assortment of actions. There were demonstrations held on motor bikes—so protesters could escape quickly. There were “silent strikes,” mounted when people thought it was too dangerous to assemble outside. For these protests, people remained in their homes, they did not go to work, and they took vows of silence—the silence commemorating those protesters who had been killed. (In response to the silent strike, police in some locales stormed homes and ordered people out, and tried to force markets to open.) He and others organized what he called “wishing protests.” He said, “We wished for the people who died in the protests.” Protesters printed handbills calling for the rejection of the coup and spread them through town. There was no formal structure to the opposition. The resistance set up no central office, looking to avoid providing the military and the police an obvious target. 

“We were fighting with loving kindness,” Soe Naing Win recalled, referring to a key practice of Buddhism. “A lot of people wanted to fight the police and the soldiers. They brought knives and Molotov cocktails to the protests. But we arranged for nonviolence. We succeeded with that at the beginning.”

When that 19-year-old woman was lethally shot, Soe Naing Win began questioning if nonviolence was the appropriate approach. “I was really mad about what they did.” He wondered if protesters should assault the local police station. “But if we caused more violence, more people would die,” he remarked.

As the nonviolent protests against the coup continued, the military kept responding with brutality. For weeks, he watched the escalating conflict. He was troubled by reports that the military was dispensing amphetamines and yaba (known as the “madness drug”) to soldiers to turn them into crazed killers. Then came the recent massacre. Soe Naing Win was outraged by reports that soldiers allegedly used a rocket-propelled grenade against demonstrators in Yangon.

“There was so much violence,” he said, “that much of the youth, including me, thought that nonviolence is not the answer. We started thinking this. Sometimes I hate myself for this. I don’t want to kill soldiers or the police. They are forcing us to do this.”

“We haven’t fought back yet,” he continued. “We believed we would have the help of the United States and the United Nations. We hoped. Now we realize for our democracy and for our country, we have to fight for ourselves.” 

As he spoke, tears ran down his face.

Soe Naing Win is a practicing Buddhist. He strives to adhere to the faith’s Five Precepts: Do not steal, lie, engage in sexual misconduct, use intoxicants, or kill. An associate of his notes that he even refrains from swatting mosquitoes. As a devout Buddhist, he believes in karma—and that the worst karma comes from the taking of life. Bad karma for a Buddhist entails a serious cost in this life and future lives. 

Soe Naing Win is confronting a dilemma that many in Myanmar are facing. To defend democracy and their lives and those of their loved ones, they have to contemplate violating a central tenet of their faith. It’s not that he is only sacrificing an ideal for a cause. He is weighing the personal ethical and spiritual consequences of engaging in violent activity that could cause death. Enduring bad karma for a greater good is a profound challenge. 

As part of the recent crackdown, security forces in his area have been searching for him and his allies. When we talked, he was at the home of a friend who had wifi. And he told me he was committed to the plan that would soon land him at a nearby compound for 10 days to two weeks of military training. There will be about 40 trainees there. He noted that this effort is part of an operation that involves similar endeavors in three other townships. 

Two weeks ago, members of the ousted Parliament, who insist they are the legitimate government, called for “revolution” and the creation of a federal army that respects all ethnic groups in Myanmar. “If diplomacy fails, if the killings continue, the people of Myanmar will be forced to defend themselves,” Dr. Sasa, the spokesperson for the anti-junta group, said. (Sasa fled Myanmar when the coup struck.) Soe Naing Win and his comrades are undergoing training, he said, so they can be ready to work with any such army. “We are planning to fight with the federal army, learn how to escape, how to work as a team.” They will be taught how to provide basic medical care for battlefield injuries. 

Soe Naing Win told me that he believes that the violence from the military regime will increase in the coming weeks and that the country is hurtling toward civil war. He sees himself as a Buddhist with no choice but to fight. “Young people are dying every day,” he remarked. “We did our peaceful protests. But they cannot understand our forgiveness. They don’t understand our loving kindness.” He choked up as he said these words and paused to collect himself. He then added, “But loving kindness—it will return one day.”


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