Opinion & Analysis

The power of protest: supporting Myanmar from afar

I attended the very first protest in my life this year.

The May Day Rally in Aotea Square was hosted by UnionAid and the Democracy for Myanmar group, to send a message of support to people in Myanmar.

It was a small event, with people giving speeches of solidarity with the people of Myanmar and holding banners calling for support for the National Unity Government and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH).

An image from the May Day protest in Aotea Square. Image: Supplied/Liyun Wendy Choo

What really captivated me was the protestors singing the revolutionary song, Blood Oath with such gusto and commitment that I could feel my skin tingling. One author translated the lyrics of Blood Oath as such:

It’s a crucial time, brothers,

Let’s unite and march together.

We wrote our new history with our blood,

Here we keep blood oath.

We give our lives for the nation,

We will march together with the peacock’s blood.

For our freedom and peace,

we must fight the last battle.

The event then ended with a small, short march along Queen Street, with the organizers shouting “we want” and supporters responding with “democracy”.

The following weekend I participated in another protest.

This time, it was to protest the excessive use of military force on protestors in Colombia who were brutally slaughtered because they took to the streets to oppose the health, education and tax reforms the government implemented.

Placards from a similar but different protest on events in Colombia. Image: Supplied/Liyun Wendy Choo

These reforms sought to further privatise public healthcare and education in Colombia and placed excessive burden on the poor, who had already lost their jobs and were struggling financially under the pandemic.

I participated in the protest because my flatmates were university lecturers in Colombia and it pained them so much to see the injustice their people suffer from.

They cried reading and hearing about news of what was happening in Colombia and I witnessed their grief firsthand. They were middle-class Colombians and not directly affected by the reforms and strikes in Colombia, but their grief and pain were real and no less than any other Colombian back home.

These two seemingly disconnected protests are linked by the oppressive behaviour of the authoritarian regimes the protestors have back in their home countries.

Instead of using the soldiers and police to defend and protect citizens from harm, these regimes drew on the many state resources they have at hand, including their control of physical and symbolic violence, to impose their “reforms” and will on the people.

The military government's Embassy in Canberra covers New Zealand, and in the last few days Myanmar migrants here have been contacted and asked to assure the regime that they had not participated in any protests in New Zealand

Two weeks of anti-government protests in Colombia saw 42 people killed from police violence and 168 missing. In Myanmar, a hundred days of junta rule with protests and strikes saw more than 700 protestors slaughtered, including at least 43 children.

Protestors in New Zealand gathered to show support for democracy in Myanmar. Image: Supplied/Liyun Wendy Choo

In Myanmar and Colombia, citizen-protestors not only endured physical coercion, but also symbolic violence. Using their control of the media, these authoritarian regimes attempted to translate their power into symbolic forms that legitimize their brutality against the very citizens they were supposed to protect.

The symbolic violence they exert on the protestors include popularising the belief that the citizen-protestors were violent and disruptive terrorists seeking to destroy the “peace “and “stability” the regime sought to bring about.

For example, the official newspaper in Myanmar, the "Global New Light of Myanmar", offered little sense of the political protests and upheavals that were actually happening in the country.

Instead, it reported prices of mangoes and summer crops, and news of military hospitals providing healthcare to citizens. It published photographs and news of celebrities, medical doctors and teachers supportive of the civil disobedience movement charged for attempting to “deteriorate peace and stability” and “intentionally committing incitement”. It labelled the CRPH, formed by the deposed elected representatives in the November 2020 elections, as an “illegal parallel government”.

Despite the fact that there were many peaceful and creative protests all over the country, the Global New Light of Myanmar’s limited coverage of the portrayed the civil disobedience movement as “rioters”, “terrorists” and “violent thugs” bent on “acts of sabotage in accordance with the methods of terrorist groups”, such as using homemade bombs and petrol bottles to attack public buildings, police stations and even monasteries.

At the same time, the Myanmar and the Colombian regimes tried to keep their brutality under wraps by silencing citizens who attempt to circulate and share information and videos on social media through “strategic” internet disruptions that saw heightened police repression when the internet was disrupted and clamping down on people’s social media accounts.

Images from the May Day protest. Photo: Supplied/ Liyun Wendy Choo

What the two authoritarian regimes are attempting to do is to use their symbolic capital and resources to transform people’s perceptions of the protests and to re-define history.

Naming the protestors as terrorists, rioters and thugs discredits the individuals and groups that participated in the protests and legitimizes the regime’s use of violence. It also justifies the many young people and children the regime killed as necessary collateral damage.

Will the protests by Myanmar and Colombian migrants in New Zealand change the situation in Myanmar and Colombia, or lead to the immediate downfall of the two repressive regimes?

Probably not,but it will at least allow the rest of the world to hear the suppressed voices of the protestors in Myanmar and Colombia, and to know what is really happening in these two countries, not just what the regime wants the world to know.

I urge all New Zealanders to support Myanmar and Colombian citizens in their symbolic struggle against the repressive regimes by sharing news about what is really happening in the two countries and to help fund their cause. To support Myanmar’s democracy, you can donate here: Myanmar Fight Back for Democracy – UnionAID.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author

- Asia Media Centre