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The military is in charge. Aung San Suu Kyi is a prisoner. Her supporters are protesting in the streets. Myanmar has been here before. Can it find its way out again?

A demonstrator flashes a three-fingered salute in Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city, on Feb. 11, as Aung San Suu Kyi's face adorns flyers on a public notice board. Ms. Suu Kyi's supporters have defied the military junta's ban on demonstrations to demand the return of her quasi-civilian government.The Associated Press

It has been almost a decade since I put the question directly to Aung San Suu Kyi: Why didn’t her people rise up against Myanmar’s military dictatorship to demand democracy?

Because, she told me, the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s army is known, had shown time and time again that they were willing to shoot their own people. They had done so in 1988, during student-led protests, and again in 2007 during the monk-led uprising known as the Saffron Revolution. “But on the other hand,” Ms. Suu Kyi added hopefully, speaking over a crackly phone line from her family home in Yangon, “one cannot say that the Burmese army is always going to shoot at the people.”

In the years since that conversation, everything seemed to change in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. The military loosened its grip on power, Ms. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won the country’s first free elections five years later – though it still had to share power with the generals under the country’s military-drafted constitution.

In Myanmar’s protests, ethnic majorities and minorities stand united against a military coup, but divided on much else

Now, in the wake of a coup d’état on Feb. 1, the country is right back where it was when I spoke with Ms. Suu Kyi. The generals are again in charge, and she, now 75, is once more their most famous prisoner, held incommunicado at an unknown location.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s international reputation has been sullied by her defence of the military’s campaign against the country’s Rohingya population, but at home she remains as popular as ever. Every day for the past week, tens of thousands of her supporters have been protesting in the streets – and the country’s fate once more turns on whether the army will always shoot at its own people.

A Myanmarese soldier keeps watch in front of a Hindu temple in Yangon on Feb. 2, the day after the coup was declared.REUTERS

“We’re back to square one. The political crisis in Myanmar has come full circle,” said Aung Zaw, a prominent student activist in 1988 who was arrested and tortured by the previous junta. Two years later he founded The Irrawaddy, an independent news website that helped break the military’s stranglehold on information. Now 52, Mr. Aung Zaw said he is impressed by today’s generation of protesters, particularly their creativity and persistence – and how connected they are to the outside world. But he said he is worried that, if the generals are pushed into a corner, they will respond as they have in every previous crisis: with deadly violence.

The country’s security forces have already deployed water cannons and rubber bullets to suppress demonstrations, and soldiers have been seen openly brandishing automatic weapons at protesters. Live ammunition appears to have been used at least once, when a 19-year-old woman was shot and critically wounded during a Wednesday demonstration in the capital, Naypyidaw.

Amid swelling international concern, the United States slapped economic sanctions on 10 coup leaders Thursday, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. On Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Council held an emergency session on Myanmar.

Veterans of the previous struggles say they already know how this will end. “We’re watching a slow-motion train wreck. We know the ending. We know the inevitable. Sadly, it’s bloodshed and confrontation and a military crackdown like 1988,” Mr. Aung Zaw said.

Yangon, then and now: At top, a former student activist visits a memorial in 2018 for the 30th anniversary of the '8888' revolution, so named because it began on Aug. 8, 1988, before a military junta took power. At bottom, demonstrators hold posters of Ms. Suu Kyi in 2021.AFP/Getty Images, The Associated Press

The country has, of course, changed dramatically since then – especially over the past decade, as the introduction of democracy and the opening of the economy brought about a rapid improvement in living standards.

Incomes have risen more than 60 per cent, according to the World Bank, and the average lifespan has increased by more than three years.

Those economic and social gains contributed to the NLD’s overwhelming victory in a Nov. 8 election, with the party winning more than 80 per cent of the seats it was allowed to contest.

One group that did not share in that progress has been the country’s mostly Muslim Rohingyas. At least 10,000 were killed and more than 700,000 were driven from their homes in a 2016-17 military offensive that a UN report called a genocide – but which Ms. Suu Kyi defended all the way to The Hague, where she represented the country at the International Court of Justice.

Her defence of the massacre led Canada to revoke the honorary citizenship it bestowed on her in 2007.

“I think a lot of Westerners were down on Suu Kyi because she wasn’t making the decisions that they had hoped. … Now we understand she was walking a very, very fine line,” said a staff member at a non-governmental organization in Yangon. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person or the organization out of concern for their safety.

A girl holds a sign calling for the removal of Ms. Suu Kyi's honourary Canadian citizenship at a 2017 demonstration in Ottawa.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Despite Ms. Suu Kyi’s willingness to back the campaign against the Rohingya, she refused to give Gen. Min Aung Hlaing – who will reach the Tatmadaw’s mandatory retirement age of 65 this summer – what he desired most: the presidency. (The Oxford-educated Ms. Suu Kyi herself is prevented from taking up the post because of a constitutional prohibition – her two sons have British passports; she has led the civilian government from her post as State Counsellor, with her ally U Win Myint, who has also been detained, serving as President.)

When the NLD’s sweeping election win dashed Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s hopes of gaining enough seats in parliament to claim the presidency, he declared the election a fraud and seized power. He appears to have the backing of China, which has described the takeover as “a major cabinet reshuffle,” while Western governments have condemned the coup and called for a restoration of democracy.

“Once more it is the military versus Aung San Suu Kyi, with Aung San Suu Kyi representing the hopes for democracy in the country,” said Thomas Kean, a Yangon-based consultant for the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “Once again, it’s a simpler narrative, where she is once more the heroine – albeit a more diminished heroine than she was five years ago.”


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