By Anusha Arumugam
On 19 January the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma (AAPP) reported that since the 1 February 2021 Myanmar military coup, 2,750 people, including pro-democracy activists and civilians, have been killed in military crackdowns against pro-democracy movements.
A further 13,613 are currently detained, including 2,148 who are serving sentences.
These numbers are testament to the perseverance of the people of Myanmar.
The Myanmar armed forces (Tatmadaw) coup catalysed historically unparalleled unity among those opposing military rule, spawning the largest resistance movement since the pro-democracy uprising in 1988.
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While the Tatmadaw tolerated the anti-coup resistance movements for the initial few weeks, it then launched a violent crackdown, sparking an acute human rights crisis.
The Tatmadaw-triggered violence intensified previous conflicts between the military and multiple ethnic armed organisations, some of which were aligning themselves with the National Unity Government.
So far, at least 6,000 anti-coup demonstrations have erupted throughout the country (see Map 1 below).
Map 1: Resistance movements in Myanmar (1 February 2021—30 June 2021)
Map 2: Post-coup map of Myanmar illustrating various event types (1 February 2021-10 June 2022)
These maps reveal a lot about the dynamics between the Tatmadaw’s assaults and the people’s resistance movements.
For one, you can tell from the different sizes of baubles in Map 1 that the resistance movements are not evenly spread across the country— but why?
In resisting military repression, why do some townships in Myanmar show more resistance movements than others?
This question is important; it sheds light on the factors that prompt the diffusion of social movements and, ultimately, what shapes the dynamics of political resistance within repressive states.
Considering AAPP’s information records, what appears as temporally correlated large-scale resistance movements, following episodes of state repression, are basically observations of aggregated data on both fronts.
When disaggregated, clearly, resistance movements are not evenly distributed across space. So why does military violence result in the apparent acquiescence of the people in some townships while triggering backlashes in others?
One explanation is that mass arrests, as a political process, can partly reveal why some townships demonstrate more resistance movements than others.
But what constitutes mass arrests? Defining mass arrests is problematic. Specifically, numerically defining mass arrests would involve two things:
- disaggregating arrests to the townships in which they occurred and
- identifying a numerical value beyond which the number of arrests would be defined as a mass arrest, ie when effected, it would become a binary assessment (mass arrests = 1; no mass arrests = 0)
However, few townships were recording incidences of mass arrests when nationally, it was obvious the Tatmadaw was conducting large-scale arrests across the country.
For example, in Katha district of Sagaing region, 126 people were arrested within the six-month period. However, when disaggregated to its six townships (Banmauk, Indaw, Katha, Kawlain, Pinlebu and Tigyaing), Banmauk and Tigyaing recorded only two and three arrests respectively, despite recording numerous resistance movements.
It is thus difficult to investigate if mass arrests motivated resistance movements when they were recording zero mass arrests. For the sake of argument, it is therefore pragmatic to regard the whole post-coup period as a period of mass arrests and consequently assess if more arrests led to more protests.
Qualitative analyses tell us that in the face of severe repression, the likelihood that people actualise, participate in and strengthen social movements against the regime hinges on a catalyst of violence, which converts passive civilians into active political actors. This would explain why townships with mass arrests fomented more resistance movements than other townships without mass arrests.
Quantitative analyses also suggest that there is a correlation between the number of arrests and the number of resistance movements across townships, and that mass arrests across Myanmar led to resistance movements in some townships but not others.
Below is a graph of the arrests and resistance movements in Myanmar in the first few months after the coup.
Frequency histograms of the number of arrests and resistance movements in Burma from 1 February 2021 to 31 July 2021, overlaid
Nonetheless, these findings should be interpreted in the context of Myanmar’s complex political history. The Myanmar people’s response to mass arrests is a process which takes place within a larger political frame.
As the Tatmadaw deprives civilians of civil and political rights, the relationship between state and civilian corrodes, and ordinary people are increasingly culturalised to resist. They form and strengthen horizontal solidarity bonds between each other. Even where they are not directly repressed, they internalise the effects of repression by extension of spatial and social kinship with other repressed.
Beyond a particular threshold of suffering, these initial passive bonds of solidarity propel civilians into active political actors to choose between acquiescing or resisting the Tatmadaw. By choosing to resist, they actualise their solidarity networks into resistance movements.
Mass arrests, therefore, are one catalyst that can partly explain why some townships record more resistance movements than others. Of course, mass arrests do not always catalyse resistance movements. There are multiple possible explanations and multiple endogenous factors that further influence the decision to join resistance movements.
The Myanmar people’s extraordinary perseverance in resisting the Tatmadaw is an important account to any citizenry faced with a repressive regime, and likewise, to a regime in the business of repressing: acute state violence will more likely spark prolonged resistance.
Anusha Arumugam, an Aliran member, is a Tunku Abdul Rahman scholar at the University of Cambridge who works at the university’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights. Her research focuses on Malaysia’s Orang Asli ancestral lands. She previously did a master of law and a master of philosophy in politics and international studies at the university, researching on ethnic armed conflicts