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Activist in Myanmar: living under constant threat

Het Actiefonds supported various protest groups in Myanmar at the time of the coup. An activist tells anonymously about her experiences. Born in Kachin State, she currently works part-time at a small think tank organization in Yangon. Both through her work and on a personal level, she is connected to the protest movements.

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“You could describe the currrent period in Myanmar as very hopeful, but at the same time most grim. Never have I witnessed my country in such a united front against the military. Only now do I really understand the struggle of ethnic people and their grievances. It was only when the country was shattered to pieces by the military for the third time in history that we finally found the unity we need to build a federal union.”

Strength of a young generation
Despite a glimmer of hope, the future remains hugely uncertain: “I am very concerned about how the situation will unfold in the coming months. The war that the NUG (National Unity Government of Myanmar) declared on the Myanmar military might not lead to a fullblown war, but it will make life very difficult for Myanmar’s working people. There is already a civil war on a large scale in the countryside. Hundreds of people are displaced without receiving any aid. At the same time, the military is breaking down the PDF movement (People’s Defense Force) in urban areas very rapidly. The situation resembles that of David and Goliath; it is amazing to see the unbroken spirit of young people who are sustaining the movement.

Long struggle
When asked what it is like to be an activist in such an environment, she emphasizes the importance of cautiousness: “You have to be very careful, both with online and offline activities. It’s going to be a long struggle. Most importantly, you don’t get arrested or killed. I don’t think you can be an overt activist in Myanmar right now – not if you live in the country itself. Every movement is tracked, your telephone communication, your online activities, your mobility, your bank transitions…

Het Actiefonds continues to support the protest movement in Myanmar and maintains close contact with activists. “I think we are all traumatized in one way or another. I really hope the young generation finds peace very soon. I hope we can all heal.”

“The spirit of resistance is unbreakable”

More than half a year ago a coup attempt sparked a wave of protests throughout the whole of Myanmar. We spoke to human rights activist Igor Blaževič about the situation in Myanmar, where has worked and lived for five years. Igor was leading the Educational Initiatives, an educational training program for activists.

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So what is your connection to Myanmar?

“When the coup started, I immediately reconnected with friends and former students in Myanmar. I lived and worked there from 2011 to 2016; about three hundred activists took part in courses I organized on transition to democracy. They are all in action now, organizing protests and other actions, risking their own lives.”

“Among Educational Initiatives participants were activists who spent half an hour on a demonstration and then spent ten years in prison for that. They never received normal education at that time; others, coming from ethnic minority areas, are the children of ethnic cleansing, young people who saw their villages looted and destroyed. The main aim of Educational Initiatives was to bring people together from different political and ethnic backgrounds. Building bridges, making connections, that’s what it was all about.”

Can you describe what exactly happened during the coup? Why did people take to the streets so en masse?

“It is actually very simple and at the same time very tragic. What happened in short: General Min Aung Hlaing was supposed to retire this year: yet he wanted to become president at all costs. The elections showed that the incumbent NLD party would win again and that USDP, the military proxy party doesn’t stand a chance. In response, the general staged this coup.”

“But Min Aung Hlaing made a mistake. He never expected this huge nationwide wave of protests. The entire population revolted and the army responded with extreme violence. Nonviolent protests were brutally crushed. However, nonviolent protest flashmobs still happen every day, again and again, for six months already. The coup and the brutal violence still did not manage to break the spirit of resistance.”

And now?

“The military uses violence and power to extract any available economic assets. They have plundered all natural resources. From their stronghold, they continue to attack the population, hoping they can break their morale. The other side – the protesters – keep holding on. They continue to resist in every way possible: flash mobs, boycotts, refusal to pay for electricity, noise demonstrations, jungle guerrillas. The economy has collapsed and a civil war is imminent. There is no extra oxygen for people with COVID-19.”

What can you tell about the social movements in Myanmar? Is it even possible for activists to organize themselves?

“At the moment there are many different active groups. Large and small streams forming one strong river current of resistance. The younger people are perhaps the most important, generation Z. They are currently organizing a lot of flash mobs. Many activists are hiding, but they have good networks and use Telegram, Signal and social media to announce and mobilize for actions. They also take a lot of photos and videos and send them out into the world as much as possible. And then there is the neighborhood movement: local residents organize night vigils, walk marches during the day, organize street theater and they too document as much as they can. In very remote villages, the villagers are taking action by crossing rivers with boats and banners. Even Buddhist monks are involved in the resistance. A good example of creative direct action is the coconut protest: streets strewn with coconuts with various cries of resistance.”

But those protesters risk their own lives by taking to the streets. How do they deal with that constant threat?

“Min Aung Hlaing has done something from the ‘cookbook’ of terrorist dictatorial regimes: the military deliberately organizes extremely brutal killings to break morals. It is ensured that these murders are extra visible; this is a tactic, it’s part of a strategic plan. They are aware that the most brutal images will circulate on social media. The goal is to instill fear.”

“But the movement cannot be suppressed. Activists, meanwhile, are aware of this manipulative tactic and have stopped sharing horrific images. Instead, they turn the victims into heroes and spread their story. To encourage fellow activists, not to spread fear and panic.”

What are the effects of grassroots activism in the region?

“I see two amazing results. The first is: mobilization. An entire nation rises. The general may have expected a few protest movements, but we see that the courage of a few people has finally mobilized an entire community. The second is that a protest movement has risen against military power. And for six months (!) the army could not break this resistance!”

“Still, they cannot prevail over the military and armed forces. They need help. From neighboring countries and from the international community. But this urgent assistance is not coming, except from organizations such as Het Actiefonds. We need major international players to end this power game.”

How do you see the future for Myanmar; politically but also specifically for the protest movement?

“There are a few scenarios. One is that the some big international players like Russia and China continue to stand behind Min Aung Hlaing, and other international players like US and EU do too little. Regional players like ASEAN remain passive and ineffective. Then the entire protest movement could be stopped in the end… More probable is the entire collapse of the state. A third scenario is that neighboring countries – along with key international players such as the US and the UK as well as China and India – realize that Min Aung Hlaing is not the solution for the country. Then there might be enough pressure to trigger a counter coup. Maybe then there will be a chance to breathe new life into the country, because change is possible!”

“A cynical outlook is that the military will always win over the people. On the other hand, there is still hope. True, Goliath often prevails, but not always. David also wins, sometimes. And as long as that David is there, there is hope. It is now important that we stay in touch with the people of Myanmar, those who risk their lives and continue to struggle. Networking is so important! Get to know each other, keep talking to each other. Building and coordinating an international network is indispensable. We must unite!”

Igor Blaževič is a human rights activist and founder of Europe’s largest human rights film festival. He was born in Bosnia in 1963. When the war broke out he was already living in Prague, but this event changed his way of thinking. He became an activist, focusing on helping activists in dictatorships. Currently he is a program director at Prague Civil Society. 


On Europe’s painful silence – testimony of a Belarusian activist

Great unrest broke out in Belarus last year. A revolution seemed imminent. After President Alexander Lukashenko won the elections again, people took to the streets en masse to protest. The population demanded his resignation: never before have so many people protested in this 26-year-long regime.

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Het Actiefonds supported various action groups that continued to fight at the risk of their own lives against the oppressive regime of this dictatorial leader. We spoke to an activist who wishes to remain anonymous, from a small town in eastern Belarus.

Can you briefly describe the situation in Belarus before the elections in 2020?

“Even before the 2020 presidential elections, the situation in Belarus was very tense. Society practically choked on the anti-Belarusian politics of Alexander Lukashenko! All his actions are directed against Belarus; he is only concerned with the interests of Russia. Both in Minsk and in my own province, in an extremely remote and isolated part of the country, there were demonstrations in support of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.[1] All residents wanted change.”

“We saw the whole country straightening its shoulders, as it were, to shake off the Russian tyranny. And the epitome of that is the bloody dictator Lukashenko. The society of my region finally realized that we have the opportunity to change the situation. We all went to the barricades!”

“It is difficult to say why the situation was so different now from previous elections. After all, all the previous ones were kept in the same way: literally all protocols (from district committees to the CEC[2]) were forged in the most incredible ways.”

Can you tell us about your activism?

“‘Group of Likeminded Initiatives’ is an organization of like-minded people committed to positive change in communities in the region and its suburbs. The main target group consists of young people and local residents whose human rights are being violated. Main activities are activating and mobilizing young people, protecting human rights, providing information and various local cultural projects.”

When the election results were out, how did you feel?

“The election results in August 2020 were not much of a surprise to us. The results have always been falsified: not a single stage of the election has been fair since 1996. All members of the Election Commissions are appointed in Belarus by government authorities. The commissions therefore work on behalf of the government and falsify everything, always, for the full 100 percent.”

“But what did come as a shock was the unprecedented beatings and torture of protesters and opposition supporters by the Interior Ministry and other security forces immediately after the results were announced.”

How did Het Actiefonds help you?

“Immediately after the elections, we were greatly helped by Het Actiefonds. In the support of  Het Actiefonds we saw the face of European solidarity! And not only in our own region, but also surrounding communities received support for their activism. So yes, the help we received from Het Actiefonds at the time was incredibly significant for our protests.”

We know that a few weeks after the protests, people started to lose their strength and courage. Can you describe what happened? What was the repression you faced?

“It is very difficult for people outside the former Soviet Union to understand what real repression means. But here are a few examples:

1. Losing your job. This is a terrible consequence, especially in small villages where it is almost impossible to find a job. Teachers, workers… Suddenly they can no longer provide for their livelihood. In my own region as many as 150 people lost their jobs. They are on special lists of the Ministry of the Interior or the KGB. Many of them were forced to leave for Russia. Why Russia? Because it is impossible for them to go to Poland or Lithuania. These and other Eastern European countries do not welcome oppressed Belarusians.

2. Suspension of universities and other higher education institutions. This is often followed by forced military service of 1.5 years. In my village, 27 villagers were suspended and sent to the army.

3. Fines. And the amount exceeds your wildest fantasies… An example: the fine for participating in a protest can be up to 1.500 euros. A monthly salary in the city is 250 to 300 euros at most.

4. Deprivation of liberty. The maximum prison sentence ‘to pay for freedom’ in Belarus has now risen to 18 years. I think no further comment is needed here.”

How are you now? And how is the rest of the situation now for you and your fellow activists? Are people still planning new actions?

“How am I now? I have been arrested twice for 10 days since August 2020. I was beaten up by KGB agents. I am currently under criminal investigation under Article 342 part 1 of the Criminal Code (‘organization or preparation of actions seriously violating public order, or participation therein’). I have no idea what my status is. My house has been searched and I am now awaiting arrest.”

“My citizen passport was taken by the KGB. I’ve been out of a job for a long time – I’m a history and socio-political studies teacher (in the past). I used to be an entrepreneur too. However, in the early 2000s, three of my businesses were ruined by the authorities. My wife was also fired because of me…”

“Now my whole family (my wife, son and daughter and myself) makes a living from my nighttime security and unofficial construction work. My wife, a former school principal, does cleaning work for wealthy residents in the village. What can I say about other activists? Their situation is about the same. Many of them have lost the ability to feed their families. There is a massive migration to Russia. And I haven’t even mentioned the people who have lost their freedom…”

Do you often experience a feeling of powerlessness? And what do you do then, how do you keep up the courage?

“I actually feel powerless all the time. I returned to my hometown in the late 1990s. My goal was to make the life of the villagers better, more organic. But since my return, I started to feel more and more powerless. I was always aware of what was happening in Belarus. Lukashenko’s inhumane, anti-Belarusian activities were clear to me. Everything he did was in the interest of Russia. My beloved Belarus slowly turned into Russia… What did I do then? Everything I mention above! And how do I keep up the courage? Lately I can’t do it anymore. My friends and I are all in a state of panic. We now see the consequences of what is happening: Russia is swallowing our country. As a historian I must say that this has of course happened before Austria, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and so on. And as then, Europe is again doing nothing to save Belarus.”

How do you see the future for Belarus? And the future for action groups there?

“Fighting the dictatorship in Belarus is not exactly a rewarding activity. But of course we will continue our work, we will continue to fight against the bloodthirsty Russia and her bloodthirsty personification, Lukashenko… I am sure that ‘Luka’ would have been overthrown by the Belaruss long ago, had it not been for the Russian dictator standing squarely behind him . I am afraid that the situation in Belarus can only be changed if we change the situation in Russia.”

 Het Actiefonds remains in close contact with activists in Belarus and stands in solidarity with protest movements worldwide that are suffering from repression.


 [1] Svetlana Tikhanovskaya is a political activist and opposition leader. She lost the election, but continued to call for mass peaceful protests from Lithuania. In her own words, she never aspired to the presidency; its goal was to achieve fair elections and a free democracy.

[2] Central Economic Commission

Black Lives Matter: call and statement

Het Actiefonds stands in full solidarity with the protests against racism and police violence in the U.S,, the Netherlands and other countries. We need fundamental change. Institutional racism must be dismantled, everywhere in the world. 

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We call on everybody to show their solidarity by joining the protests in whatever way they’re able.

Het Actiefonds supports social movements and activists all over the world. At this moment we want to finance as many anti-racist direct actions as possible. Apply now via our website. You have our support.

No justice, no peace.