YANGON, Myanmar — When minority rights activist Esther Ze Naw prepared for Yangon’s first major anti-coup protest on Feb. 6, she was well aware of the possibility that security forces might open fire, as they had done in the past.
“There is no one who is not afraid of that, but at the time I was more afraid that people would not turn out. I was more afraid that people would not come out on the streets if something happened that day,” she says.
Fears of a low turnout were unfounded. Following that protest, which drew a crowd of some 5,000, Yangon and other parts of Myanmar exploded in weeks of mass demonstrations as millions took to the streets to demand democracy and defy the Feb. 1 military coup, launched the day before the new parliament was set to be sworn in.
The majority of Myanmar’s protesters are supporters of the National League for Democracy party and its detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Yet many of those responsible for igniting and maintaining the protests in Yangon were not members of NLD, most of whose senior leaders are in detention. Instead, the first protest was led by minority rights activists like Esther Ze Naw, labor unions, garment workers, students’ groups and other organizations that had butted heads with the NLD during its short time in power.
While much of the world’s attention has focused on the country’s deposed leadership, some of the original anti-coup protesters have come forward, in phone interviews with NPR, drawing attention to a broad range of demands for civil rights in Myanmar.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her party drew criticism for failing to make meaningful reforms when in government, especially in regard to the treatment of ethnic minorities, including the persecuted Rohingya Muslims. NLD supporters argue that the military’s influence constrained the party, as the 2008 constitution put the elected party in a power-sharing arrangement with the armed forces.
But with the military violating the constitution it wrote with a complete government takeover, many citizens say they are now open to more radical change rather than a return to the pre-coup status quo.
Esther Ze Naw, a 28-year-old ethnic Kachin, made a name for herself by protesting Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense of the military from accusations of genocide against the Rohingya at the International Court of Justice in November 2019.
She says she first became involved in activism in 2011, when a cease-fire between the Myanmar military and the ethnic rebel group the Kachin Independence Army collapsed. Operating in northern Shan and Kachin states, the then-teenager braved shelling and brutal clashes to assist displaced civilians.
“I have been continuously working as a humanitarian and ethnic activist since that time,” she says.
But after the NLD won Myanmar’s first democratic election in decades in 2015, she came to believe that a total political overhaul was necessary. That would include abolishing the 2008 constitution, which gives the military a guaranteed 25% of parliament seats, and instituting a federalist system to grant ethnic minorities more political power. She felt both the military and the NLD were standing in the way of these changes.
Esther Ze Naw says NLD politicians “neglect all issues from ethnic areas,” making minorities “second-class citizens in our own country.”
She says she still protests alongside NLD supporters, as long as they agree on the same core demands, which party representatives are increasingly endorsing.
The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a group of mostly NLD parliamentarians who won seats in November’s election, pledged to abolish the constitution and institute true “federal democracy.”
The NLD won reelection in a landslide, a result the military has refused to recognize, citing unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud.
Most analysts, however, attribute the coup to the political ambitions of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who realized after a second consecutive humiliating electoral defeat that he had no path to power democratically.
Workers in both private and public sectors have played a defining role in the movement against the coup. Garment and other trade laborers have been at the forefront of many of the demonstrations, while civil servants have crippled the military government by going on strike en masse.
Moe Sandar Myint, a 37-year-old garment union leader, was also a key figure in the Feb. 6 protest, alongside thousands of female garment workers. She says she first became a labor activist in 2015, after clashing with management at a factory.
“In 2015, the government set a minimum wage but the factory where I worked didn’t follow this. They did not pay us according to the act and we had to fight for months,” she says, adding that she was fired over the dispute.
She says she was overall “disappointed” by the NLD’s record on labor rights. “They were targeting labor leaders to sue and imprison them. They didn’t give us full freedom to form unions. They let the employers oppress us,” she says.
Kyaw Myo, a leading member of the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions, was one of those activists who spent the NLD’s term in and out of prison for supporting protests against labor abuses. He was sentenced to six months in prison for helping to organize a walkout in Naypyidaw in 2016, another two months for protesting against a violent police crackdown on a garment worker protest in Yangon, and another three months for supporting another one in 2020.
“I do not support the NLD. I do not support any political party under the 2008 constitution,” he says.
ABFTU organized silent protests immediately after the coup, with factory workers wearing red ribbons on Feb. 3, before joining the mass protests five days later.
Moe Sandar Myint says labor groups were uniquely positioned to help kick-start the protest movement, since they were one of the few groups that never stopped protesting under the NLD.
“Laborers have always been actively fighting for justice. The military dictatorship is based on an unjust system and we laborers have a powerful spirit to fight against any injustice,” she says, adding that the unions were already much more organized than other civilian groups.
A feminist activist says workers are “the only political force with a mass base” and agrees that they were able to organize much more effectively and much more quickly. She asked to comment anonymously for safety reasons, as security forces increasingly kill and arrest activists.
“The majority of the workers are also women, who are as young as 16 years old, coming from different parts of the country. … On Feb. 6, those who came out on the street in the fight against the military junta were those young women factory workers,” she says.
“Sadly” the general population and media did not give them enough credit, she says. “No one acknowledged that the factory workers later catalyzed the mass protests on the streets of Yangon.”
She says this reflects the “lack of class consciousness” in Myanmar, which she believes needs to be addressed if the country desires “true emancipation, not a sugarcoated democracy.”
While there was no violent crackdown on Feb. 6, subsequent protests have become bloodbaths. Security forces have killed 250 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local human rights organization founded by former political prisoners.
The worst massacre by far occurred in Hlaing Tharya township, an area with over 850 factories and a huge worker population. More than 50 people are believed to have been killed there on March 14 alone, prompting a mass exodus of thousands fleeing the area.
AAPP says 2,665 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced in relation to the coup and subsequent protests.
While protests have dwindled in the face of this onslaught of violence, many in Myanmar have long believed the true path to defeating the junta is not on the streets.
The nationwide strike of civil servants, dubbed the Civil Disobedience Movement, launched the day after the coup in Mandalay, the nation’s second biggest city, by activists closely affiliated with the NLD.
The movement began with doctors refusing to work and quickly spread to all facets of the government, grounding many of its functions to a halt.
A doctor from Mandalay, speaking anonymously from hiding, says she joined the movement on Feb. 3, the day after it was launched. “Almost all doctors joined CDM. And then we said all government staff in all sectors should join CDM with us. In a few days, almost all sectors were involved in CDM,” she says.
In addition to health care workers, teachers, railway workers, diplomats and various officials from all ministries have gone on strike across the country. The movement has drawn an increasingly harsh response from authorities, reinforcing the belief that it’s working.
The doctor in Mandalay says some of her striking colleagues have been arrested in late-night raids.
“I don’t dare to live in my house. We don’t get sound sleep at night. They come at midnight and arrest us for no reason,” she says.
Her primary motivation for joining the resistance was her desire for democracy and her love of Aung San Suu Kyi, the state counsellor deposed in the coup.
“We don’t like the military coup. They only look for their benefits, not for us. We want democracy and we love our mother Aung San Suu Kyi, she gave the light for Myanmar,” she says.
While the military claimed it intervened in order to save democracy, this message has not convinced the general public.
“They always say that they are doing it for democracy, but where and how?” she says. “They never say the truth.”