MAE SOT, THAILAND - When Myanmar’s military shocked the world by announcing a coup earlier this year, many people inside the country were stunned at the news. After decades under military rule, they had enjoyed 10 years of a developing democracy until the armed forces took back control.
Initially, most of the country merely looked on, hesitant to begin a rebellion given Myanmar’s violent past. But as the junta installed its own Cabinet and detained members of the National League for Democracy, including leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an uprising began brewing.
Residents banged pots and pans in anger in the first few days after the coup, signaling their disapproval of the military takeover. Major protests didn’t materialize until the influence of one doctor turned activist became apparent.
Dr. Ko Tayzar San, 33, from Mandalay, is largely credited with leading the first anti-coup demonstrations, a movement that is now known as the Spring Revolution. Today, he is on the run.
He recalls the first moments of the rebellion against the junta, officially the State Administrative Council (SAC).
Infuriated with the armed forces takeover, some people had planned an immediate backlash, but the swirling rumors of a coup could not be verified.
“On February 1, they (Myanmar military) turned off the mobile network in the whole country. At that moment, we didn’t confirm any information, what is going on and what is happening,” Tayzar San told VOA.
Three days later, he took to the streets of Mandalay to protest with friends and other demonstrators who resisted the military’s power grab. Four of his friends were arrested that day, and one has since been killed.
Soon after, the soldiers came for him. The activist knew then that his life would never be the same.
“As for me, the soldiers raided and destroyed my home, where my family lived before the coup. They knew my home address, so they came looking for me and smashed and break the whole house, confiscated everything and three cars.”
“I already know from that moment I decided to get involved. Anytime I can be arrested. Anytime I could be shot and killed, and life could be ruined. … That we already knew and accepted,” he said.
On the run
Speaking from an undisclosed location, Tayzar San said he misses his family the most. He added that it was recently his daughter’s second birthday, and he hadn’t seen her for over 120 days.
“I have been on the run for a long time. My arrest warrant has been issued since the third week of February. I have not been home since February 2,” he said.
But he believes the heightened security concerns are felt everywhere.
“If you live in your own home, you could be shot at any time. You can be arrested for no reason, (and) maybe threatened (with) your life. There is no security in the whole country right now.”
Until recently, Tayzar San hadn’t been known for his pro-democracy advocacy, especially when compared with other well-known activists who have risen to prominence in response to Myanmar’s deep-rooted political issues in recent years.
“Before the coup, my professional work was (as) executive director at Yone Kyi Yar Knowledge Propagation Society, a civil society organization in Mandalay. And I am also a doctor, so I do medical treatment in charity clinics.”
But ever since Myanmar’s anti-coup protests first erupted across the country, Tayzar San has been involved. Four and a half months on, he’s still at it, often seen roaring into a megaphone in protest.
And his efforts have recently been rewarded. Local media reported how he was the recipient of South Korea’s June Democratic Uprising award, named after the 1987 uprising that led to South Korea’s democratization.
“A lot has been given in these four months. Many people have fallen, and many lives have been lost, and people are in prison,” he said, adding that Myanmar is facing both socioeconomic and business crises.
“Today, Myanmar is in the darkest time. However, in the midst of so much suffering, the people are fully in the mood to reject the dictator,” he added.
Protests peaked during the first two months after the coup, but since then, mass demonstrations have waned, largely due to the military’s violent crackdown on the city. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a rights-monitoring group based in Thailand, at least 860 have been killed and thousands detained.
Tayzar San said demonstrators had been given no option but to respond with “guerrilla protests.”
“We will oppose this dictatorship any way we can,” he said.
As for international intervention, Tayzar San believes implementing an arms embargo would reduce the Myanmar military’s arsenal of weapons.
“I believe that the role of the international community will continue to support as long as the people of the country continue to fight,” he said.
New opposition movements and organizations have formed since the coup. The Civil Disobedience Movement has led to huge strikes across the country, while the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw includes ousted politicians of the democratic government. The National Unity Government is claiming to be Myanmar’s legitimate administration, with the People’s Defense Force as its armed wing. The junta has declared that illegal.
Yet challenges remain. Ethnic minority groups have been fighting for autonomy and land control for over 70 years, and deep historical animosities exist among them. But with the military’s coup so drastic and far-reaching, hopes are pinned on the country to unite against one common enemy.
“To make our country peaceful, where people are treated as human beings, it is very clear that this will only happen if we can create a federal democratic union,” Tayzar San said.
“For me, the new Myanmar (will be a) happy country that we want to pass on to the next generation,” he added.