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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Myanmar Activist Leader Vows to Resist Military Coup

By Tommy Walker February 11, 2021

As Myanmar is left reeling after a military coup rocked the Southeast Asian country at the beginning of February, one activist leader is determined to make sure that his nation's future will lie in the hands of the people.

Maung Saungkha, a veteran activist and poet, is a name that is well known around Myanmar. The 28-year-old is one of the founders of Athan, an activist group that advocates for the promotion of freedom of expression. Athan means "voice" in Burmese.

But the human rights organization might not have been where it is today if the activist hadn't had a previous brush with the law.

Back in 2016, Saungkha was sent to jail for defamation, after writing a poem that included a line that he had a tattoo on his genitals of the former President Thein Sein. He spent six months in prison.

But his time behind bars inspired Saungkha to co-found Athan in 2018. Today, at a time when Myanmar is going through a political crisis, Saungkha and his group are leading protests seeking a return to democracy.

The group describes itself on its website as "a reliable source for up-to-date information about freedom of expression in Myanmar."

"We must disrupt the military government machinery. When their machinery breaks down, the people's power will have to be returned to us. That is our main focus," Saungkha told local media in a video interview posted to his social media accounts.

Saungkha wants the country to scrap the 2008 constitution, which by law allows the military to hold 25% of seats in the country's parliament.

"We need to make the main target decisive, (that) is to completely repeal the 2008 Constitution, which are my messages to the public," he added.

Military coup

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled by armed forces from 1962 until 2011 when democratic reforms led by Aung San Suu Kyi ended the military rule. In 2015, her National League of Democracy (NLD) party won the country's first open democratic election.

In the Myanmar general elections in November 2020, the military-backed opposition, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), lost heavily to Suu Kyi's democracy party. The opposition claimed there was widespread electoral fraud.

On February 1, the military seized power and detained Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. The military announced a one-year-long state of emergency with commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing taking power and later announcing a "free and fair general election" would be held.

Since then, widespread protests have taken place across Myanmar, with tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding an end to the coup.

For Saungkha, his activism within Myanmar's strict boundaries has found him recently in court. Last year, he faced accusations for organizing an unlawful protest that demanded an end to internet blackouts in Rakhine and Chin — two of the poorest states in Myanmar.

Saungkha told VOA that this case was "dropped with fines," but as a leader of daily protests against today's coup, any future charges might be more severe.

Violent crackdowns

On first contacting Saungkha, he told VOA he and a group of young ethnic minorities had just finished a march toward the U.S. embassy in Yangon.

"My job is to lead those protests," Saungkha told VOA. "I lead these protests and marches daily," he later added.

Yangon hasn't witnessed a violent crackdown, unlike other states in Myanmar. The military has responded to protests by firing live rounds, as well as deploying tear gas and water cannon. A woman was shot in the head during protests in capital Nay Pyi Taw and is hospitalized in critical condition.

Saungkha knows his efforts are under threat.

"The police have been raiding my house since the day of the coup. Looking in the office and where I was. Democracy and freedom of expression are no longer guaranteed under a military coup. Not everyone involved in the protests is safe," he said.

"I try to live as hard as I can, not to get caught because after being arrested, I cannot do anything," Saungkha acknowledged.

Myanmar has been through notable uprisings before. The 8-8-88 revolutions in 1988 saw nationwide pro-democracy protests against the country's totalitarian one-party state, leading to a violent crackdown with thousands of deaths. It was the revolution that saw the emergence of Suu Kyi and her party.

And in 2007 during what was known as the Saffron Revolution, economic and political demonstrations saw at least a dozen deaths and thousands detained. The result was political reform and the election of a new government.

Saungkha believes this time the uprising is different.

"The current uprising is led by young people. Instead of just taking to the streets, new ways of protesting are emerging. The young people were able to make it difficult for the military to do anything," he said.

Zin Thu Aung contributed to this report.



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