This Is No Ordinary Coup
Since the Myanmar army staged a coup on February 1, Myanmar Now’s Chief Editor Swe Win has intensified communication with the journalists on the ground from his refuge in Australia to keep the world updated of what is happening in Myanmar. He said rumors of a coup had been swirling when the military made several political maneuvers to discredit the November 2020 general election results. Myanmar has now plunged into a crisis as the coup sparked nationwide protests and civil disobedient movement. Clashes between protesters and security forces have left scores of deaths and sent hundreds of protesters, activists and journalists behind bars.
FROM Australia where he has been taking refuge for the past year, Myanmar Now’s Editor-in-Chief Swe Win keeps monitoring his colleagues covering the nationwide protests against the military coup in Myanmar. They routinely communicate via Zoom and Signal. “I try to manage the newsroom as usual or even more than usual in these days,” said Swe Win, 41, in a special interview with Tempo on February 23.
Swe Win never thought that he and his family would be staying long in the land of the kangaroos. He just wanted a temporary escape from Yangon after being bullied and attacked in the past five years by a group he believes has ties to the military intelligence. As the chief of an independent media which reports sensitive and critical issues, Swe Win was often a target of intimidation. One his outlet’s notable investigative reports is about the murder of Ko Ni, a legal advisor for the National League for Democracy (NLD) who was gunned down at the airport on his return from Aceh on January 29, 2017. He was also sued for defamation over the article about Ashin Wirathu, a radical monk who publicly praised Ko Ni’s murderers. The terror attacks against him reached a climax when he was shot during a vacation with his family and colleagues to the Rakhine State in December 2019.
Swe Win actually planned to return home with his family after the general elections last December. He predicted unstable political situations in the country prior to the elections. But then he was caught in the pandemic lockdown. Later, after his prediction of post-election chaos came true, he felt he no longer had the reason to return to Myanmar. “We once made an analysis about a possible coup d’état by the military,” he said.
Mass rallies and civil disobedience acts that began on February 2, one day after the coup, continued to intensify in Myanmar. The junta responded peaceful protests with an iron fist. Security personnel beat and shot unarmed protesters with live rounds killing dozens. Violent confrontations broke out all over the country. The security forces also detained hundreds of demonstrators, activists as well as journalists. The bloodiest crackdown occurred on March 3. At least 38 people died at the hands of the security forces. “The military is desperately trying to instill fear among the people,” added Swe Win who has 35 journalists working on the ground.
Swe Win gave insight to Tempo about how the military junta plotted the coup to overthrow the Aung San Suu Kyi-led civilian government. NLD’s popularity that continued to grow following the elections incensed Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Swe Win said that the coup will drag Myanmar which is undergoing a democratic transition back to the dark dictatorship.
Why did the military launched the coup?
Based on our analysis, there are three reasons. First, although it still holds power in both politic and economic sectors, it has already lost the ‘respect’, influence and privilege it enjoyed tremendously in the past. Before the political transition, people are fearful of the army. Now we can criticize them. And they want that status back.
What are the other reasons?
Second, the current junta leader did not get his position through the coup. He merely inherited power from his predecessor who is also another dictator. He doesn’t have a full control over the entire country. Third and perhaps the main reason is a strong influence from outside, suspected to be from China because no general could pull off a coup on his own.
Does the junta also have relations with China?
China’s has a huge influence on the generals because they are doing business together. China protects the generals at the international front. It always takes the general’s side at the United Nations Security Council. It doesn’t care if gross human rights violations are committed. Without China’s support, no general could launch the coup.
(The UN Security Council failed to reach a consensus on issuing a statement to condemn the coup on February 2 because China blocked it. As one of five permanent UN Security Council members, China has the right to veto).
How strong is Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s motive to gain power?
All the military leaders want to be king. They don’t want to share power with other groups. According to the law, the current leader is due for retirement when he turns 65 (in July this year) but he doesn’t want to retire and fade into oblivion. So this coup is about his personal ego and ambition.
You made an analysis and predicted that the military will stage a coup. What are the indicators?
It has clearly indicated its intention to carry out a coup even before the elections. For example, in August 2020, for the first time ever, the military chief held a meeting with the leaders of 43 political parties. The constitution gives the military 25 percent of seats in the parliament but they apparently wanted more. That’s why they tried to elicit support from the parties. General Min Aung Hlaing even made an overt threat that there was nothing he couldn’t do. It was a clear signal that he was going to do something bad.
What happened in the meeting?
Party leaders asked the military chief to intervene if the results were not credible. So they were already making a scenario of vote fraud three months before the elections took place.
Were NLD leaders also present?
No, popular parties were not invited. Most of the attending parties were the army’s proxy parties. So, these are the signs that the military had been concocting an excuse to justify the coup. They also made dozens of statements about how fraudulent the election process was. That’s when we realized that there was 70 percent chance of a coup.
Did you also get information about when the military might launch the coup?
We got a tip-off from someone inside the military three to four days before the coup. The military chief had reportedly sent a letter to Aung San Suu Kyi telling the winning party NLD to postpone the first parliament session scheduled for the morning of February 1. If she did not comply with the request, the commander would take all measures necessary. Aung San Suu Kyi did not comply.
What did you do with that information?
We got news of a possible coup on January 28. We published on our website that there had been a political deadlock in Naypyidaw (Myanmar’s capital). The journalist association criticized us for fabricating news. They questioned why we reported the coup which wasn’t happening.
How did you and your Myanmar Now colleagues respond that time?
It wasn’t a casual news reporting as we carefully looked at the evidence. We made an analysis of the situation until we got that letter that led us to the conclusion. But we couldn’t reveal the source of the leaked information. Besides, who openly dared to reveal the planned coup d’état? So we had credible information that the coup would take place within 72 hours. We wrote that Aung San Suu Kyi could be detained within 72 hours. We were the only media that published the story. Consequently, we were criticized.
It turned out the coup actually happened that Monday morning.
In the same night following the coup, dozens of people were already arrested. Since then, not a single night has passed without arrests. Security forces raided houses in the middle of the night and loaded people into military trucks.
From the communication with your colleagues at Myanmar Now, how was the situation in Myanmar that time?
The military used three strategies to quell coup opponents. Midnight arrest is one of them. Their aim is to strike fear into the heart of the people. For example, they used 20 soldiers just to arrest one person. They also carried weapons and machine guns and stormed into houses en masse.
Has anyone of your colleagues been arrested?
Not yet. They were evacuated after we published the prediction of a coup. We also shut down our office two days before the coup.
(At least eight journalists, including Myanmar Now reporter Kay Zon Nway was charged on March 2 after being arrested during the anti-coup protests in Sanchung, Yangon on February 28. She is being held at Insein prison where she will remain until March 12.)
How do your colleagues do their journalistic work?
Most of the editorial crew work in secret. I tried to provide safe houses for them. We marked several areas that were not under the military’s control. As you know, our country had gone through a civil war. There are grey areas scattered around the borders in the east and the west along the borders with China and India. We sent some of our colleagues there so they can work without fear of being arrested in the middle of the night.
How do you manage to be able to keep reporting?
We must keep providing live coverage of the ongoing protests. We must give news reports that focus on the background, the complex situation surrounding various topics—from political, economic, to many others including military strategies. I divided my editorial team into two: the first group works away from the frenzy of protests so they could focus on compiling insight reports. At the same time, we deploy journalists who can report real-time coverage on the ground. The military has already taken over the Internet. We don’t have privacy any more. We can’t access the Internet from 1am till 9am.
Swe Win at a press statement in Myanmar. https://www.facebook.com/supportkoswewin
The junta said that they would hold a new free and fair election. Are you optimistic that they will eventually do?
I think that is just a political maneuver. For instance, they have formed a new cabinet. The ministers are the leaders of political parties who never won in any election. They actually lost heavily in the 2020 elections. Looking at that, who would be convinced that the military would hold a free and fair election? The military has dissolved the election commission and created its own commission to supervise the election. Who would have faith in an election commission which has no credibility? Besides, all the leaders of popular parties have been thrown into jail.
Doesn’t the NLD still have huge support from the people?
The NLD has actually been crushed effectively. Many of the leaders are in jail. It is like a soccer game, let’s say between Indonesia and Myanmar. All the Indonesian team members are not Indonesian but Myanmar players (chuckles). So, you can imagine what the results will look like. They will hold new elections but only their parties will be contesting and the public will not have any party they support. The coup is a proof that the military will never allow a free and fair election. This is no ordinary coup d’état. This is a coup staged after the elections because they couldn’t accept the results of the free and fair elections. They cannot accept the will of the majority of the people.
Myanmar has a lot of minority ethnic groups. Do they support the coup?
There is strong opposition in the ethnic minority areas against the coup. But the ethnic political parties that traditionally oppose the military, which are never proud of the military, have been silent. They are facing their own political dilemma because they don’t like the military, but they also don’t like Aung San Suu Kyi.
She took a political stance to reconcile with the military. There are groups including several ethnic parties that did not agree with her attitude. I myself did not agree with it. We can’t collude with the generals. For example, when 100,000 of Rohingya Muslims were persecuted in the western Myanmar, the ruling party and also the majority of the people kept silent. I disagreed with that. The military is mostly responsible for all these atrocities. We need to criticize them. The ruling party had to criticize the military. We cannot appease the monster. No. If we have a dangerous monster, we’ve got to fight it out.
Protestors are mostly young people. Why?
We’ve lived under five decades of military dictatorship. Then over the past 10 years, we enjoyed limited democracy. The people value this change. People in their 40s and 50s could tolerate the unstable political system but not the young people who are leading the protests. They have not suffered under the dictatorship. Meanwhile, in this political transition, the military is keeping a very tight control over the society. For the young generation, it is a new thing. They couldn’t tolerate, for example, the Internet blackout. They grew up with the Internet and now they have no Internet.
Myanmar’s young generation is the one most angered by the military coup?
Yes, because it is their future that is going to be destroyed. Not the future of us who are in the 40s or 50s. We will be gone first. Actually, I lost seven years of my youth from the age of 20 to 27 because I was imprisoned. I don’t need to complain about it but the youths have a lot to lose from this coup. I think the same could be said of Indonesia’s young generation in their 20s or 30s. They will not tolerate dictatorship. They will be the first to revolt if the Indonesian army declares a coup.
To what extent do you think the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) can play a role in mitigating the crisis in Myanmar?
ASEAN as a whole must stand with the will of the Myanmar people. They have to persuade the military to restore democracy, to honor the 2020 election results and transfer the power back to the legitimately elected civilian government. Otherwise, the (Myanmar) people will condemn ASEAN.
Are the diplomatic steps taken by Indonesia already appropriate?
Indonesia has become democratic country for the last two decades. Indonesia should be the strongest voice representing ASEAN to call for the restoration of democracy in our country. If ASEAN or Indonesia say that they are trying to persuade the military hold another election and honor the election result, the military will be very happy. That will be the validation of their justification for the coup.
SWE WIN ∗ Place and Date of Birth: Yangon, June 4, 1978 ∗ Education: Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, Dagon University, Yangon (1998), Master of Journalism, University of Hong Kong (2009) ∗ Career: Senior Reporter, Irrawaddy News Website (November 2009-May 2012), Freelance Journalist, Myanmar (April 2012-December 2013), Senior Correspondent, Myanmar Now (February 2015-May 2016), Editor-in-Chief, Myanmar Now (March 2016-now) ∗ Awards: The Society of Publishers in Asia Award (2016), President's Certificate of Honor for Social Service (2016), The European Union's Schuman Award for Human Rights (2017), Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership (2019)