The streets of Burma, also called Myanmar, look very different today than they did only a month ago. Countless protesters now fill them in defiance of the recent military coup and human rights violations. Military control is certainly not new for Burma, but it is up against a stronger force this time, with a new generation of young people who want democracy, respect for human rights, and a more inclusive future for the country.
“A social cohesion is being propelled throughout the country faster than ever before,” says Aung Kyaw Moe, the founder and executive director of the Center for Social Integrity, a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity and inclusion in Burma. “Young people are calling in democracy and are resolved to do so through unity, dignity, and nonviolence.”
After many years of progress, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, Burma is once more under the thumb of a regime launching more threats and restrictions against its opponents. Support for the people of Burma could not be more critical right now. The United States and all allies of democracy carry a moral obligation to back such efforts in Burma to restore its fledgling democracy.
In the last seven years, the George Bush Institute has engaged with nearly 80 diverse young leaders all across Burma, including Aung Kyaw Moe. His group now delivers urgent support for more than 24,000 people a month who are affected by the crisis surrounding the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority that has faced an ethnic cleansing and genocide by the military that has been condemned by the international observers.
Young activists like Aung Kyaw Moe are using their technological skills to advocate for democracy and promote freedom of speech, in ways unlike anything seen before in the country. They are joining online social media platforms to reach audiences faster and more effectively.
The horrors these young people are conveying are chilling, including new deaths of at least 50 people and more than 1,000 arrests. The military has warned that people “will suffer the loss of life” if the protests continue. But plenty of the young people in Burma have said they would rather risk their lives for democracy than watch the military coup prevail.
“When we look at the civil demonstrations and protests carried out now in Burma, it is clear that the fabric for unity and social cohesion is very much present,” Aung Kyaw Moe says. “Within a city like Yangon, where different religious communities cohabit in such tight quarters, the needs of safety and protection have fully erased religious considerations.”
Progress under this elected civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, was not perfect by any means as both she and the party faced harsh international criticism even before the coup over the treatment of the Rohingya. But we are all reminded that the civilian government was far better than the military junta.
“As people come to realize that they face a common enemy, they become a lot more empathetic toward the ethnic and religious minorities that they used to distrust,” Aung Kyaw Moe says. “All over social media, we view the images of young people apologizing to minorities and to the Rohingya for not condemning several previous military persecutions.”
The future of Burma is at a crossroads. Democracy and human rights are at stake. Those of the new generation, like Aung Kyaw Moe, will set their lives on the line to peacefully show that country achieves success when all people are represented and valued equally. “The people of Burma are incredibly diverse,” he says. “With the past, different ethnic and religious communities lived side by side peacefully as one nation.”
I remain confident that change can happen in Burma. The United States and all allies of democracy must stand with those young leaders who so boldly demonstrate this common cause today. Support for Burma is not just the moral thing to do. It is the right thing for us to do.
Michael Bailey serves as a program manager at the George Bush Institute.