The Struggle for Freedom: Lin Htet Naing (“James”) seeks to build the foundation for a post-military Burma

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute

Burmese democracy leader Lin Htet Naing, who goes by the name James, emerged from several months of hiding in June 2022, stepping out with one of his two small sons in Rangoon, Burma’s former capital and commercial center. A short while later, James’s wife, Phyoe Phyoe Aung, also a prominent democracy leader, received a phone call telling her James had been arrested.

“Military intelligence called and asked me to come to the station,” she told me. If she did, they said, they would hand over her young son. Recognizing this as a trap, she refused and has since escaped Burma with both of the couple’s children.

Lin Htet Naing, who adopted the name James for his democracy work, had been lying low for several months while organizing peaceful strikes resisting the military coup that unseated the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government and jailed its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Feb. 1, 2021.

James was sentenced to three years in prison in December with an additional five years tacked on in February. He is serving them in Rangoon’s notoriously brutal Insein prison. Torture there is routine. In a devastating blow, his mother, Daw Gyee Myint, was killed in a bombing at Insein prison in October as she was dropping off coconut noodles to supplement James’s meager prison rations. Despite his treatment at the hands of the military, James remains staunchly nonviolent in his beliefs.

But the coup and its aftermath have also had unforeseen consequences which might ultimately help end Burma’s seemingly perpetual cycle of repression and resistance.

The military takeover ended roughly a decade of political opening in Burma and spurred unprecedented defiance from its people.

“Young people in their 20s and 30s grew up in relative freedom,” Kelley Currie, a Burma expert and former State Department official, told me. “Burma was becoming more like a normal country. The coup crushed all of that, and they’re fighting for it.”

Furthermore, the viciousness of the crackdown led many Burmese to flee urban centers for the relative safely of remote ethnic areas. There they are dependent on ethnic minority groups persecuted by the military for decades. As a result, many Burmese have experienced a profound change in their thinking about what is required for a future, democratic Burma.

National reconciliation as the basis for lasting democracy

James, 35, was an infant during the watershed 1988 uprising against the military that challenged the regime and propelled Aung San Suu Kyi into the leadership of the democracy movement. The military crushed the protests, sent thousands to prison and confined Aung San Suu Kyi to house arrest. She spent most of the next 20 years there or in prison, during which time she and the NLD continued to dominate the democracy movement and command support abroad.

With its chief rival out of the way, the military was confident it could win an election it staged in 1990. The NLD won resoundingly, but the military refused to honor the results.

Growing up under military rule, James began to participate in the democracy movement. At East Rangoon University, he met his wife, and both became leaders of the influential All Burma Federation of Student Unions. He joined the 2007-2008 protest movement, named the Saffron Revolution for the color of the robes worn by monks at its forefront, and he was imprisoned for three years.

By 2010, with the economy and people exhausted, Burma’s military leader, General Thein Sein, moved to lessen Burma’s international isolation and freed Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD won a series of by- and national elections in 2012, 2015, and 2020. For a time, Burma seemed to have entered a new era, with much greater latitude for speech, association, and the press.

However, the military remained in ultimate control through the constitution it drafted which guaranteed the military seats in the legislature – enabling it to thwart reforms – and preserved the military’s control over security ministries.

According to people who know him, James’s thinking began to evolve during this time. Crucially, James – a member of the Buddhist Burman majority, some 68% of the population and dominant in the military, government, and NLD – recognized his alienation from Burma’s ethnic minorities, a revelation that many of his peers in the democracy movement would only experience after the coup of 2021.

Burma’s many ethnic groups experienced discrimination and abuse under military rule. Notably, members of Burma’s military committed genocide against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya. The NLD was also tainted by majority Burman chauvinism. Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense of the military’s abuses against the Rohingya, including during an appearance at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, greatly diminished her international standing.

James came to believe that democracy in Burma couldn’t succeed without a new foundation of national reconciliation and respect for the rights of Burma’s ethnic minorities. He was deeply influenced by a leadership training program at the George W. Bush Institute he and his wife attended in 2015 – the Liberty and Leadership Program. Young Burmese from different ethnic groups studied the foundational principles of democracy, learning from the experiences of different models like the American system – including its history and ideals as well as its mistakes and imperfections.

“They read the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King’s `Letter From Birmingham Jail,’” Currie said of James and Phyoe Phyoe Aung. “Their thinking was very much influenced by the Civil Rights Movement,” of the 1960s. “They saw parallels to Burma’s situation in both the treatment and discrimination of minorities. It was transformative.”

Back in Burma, James and Phyoe Phyoe Aung promoted national reconciliation with programs at their Wings Institute, a civil society organization which brought together majority Burman youth and their peers from other ethnic groups. At the same time, they were active in the movement for education reform which sought devolution of authority to the local level, and especially allowed education in ethnic, or “mother tongue,” languages.

Efforts to address these deeply embedded problems had unmistakable political implications which the military, still in overall control, couldn’t tolerate. James and Phyoe Phyoe Aung were arrested again for several months. While in prison, they received a letter of support from President and Mrs. George W. Bush.

The coup and its aftermath

The military takeover in 2021 didn’t go according to its plan. Burma’s people resisted as they always did, but this time with a higher degree of unity and cooperation. Striking government workers, educators, doctors, and nurses formed the Civil Disobedience Movement. The unseated NLD spearheaded the formation of a National Unity Government and a wide array of Peoples Defense Forces sprung up around the country.

The military responded with greater violence, including mass killings of civilians, aerial bombardments in areas where it was losing control, sexual violence, and torture. In July 2022, the regime staged executions – the first in decades – killing four men, including a member of the former elected government and a democracy activist.

If anything, violence is escalating. Recently, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners warned of the disappearance and apparent extrajudicial killing of political prisoners. “Current oppression is worse than ever before, for political prisoners and everyday civilians,” according to Ko Bo Kyi, AAPP’s co-founder and joint secretary and a former political prisoner. The group’s July 2023 report, The Flow of Injustice, chronicles the experience of political prisoners from arrest to torture and interrogation through trial and imprisonment and includes disturbing testimonies of sexual and other abuse in prison.

Such tactics have also proved counterproductive within the military. Troops are defecting and deserting the military, distressed by the increasing violence against fellow citizens. One expert asserts the military has contracted by as much as half. Another sees political setbacks to the military in the erosion of support from regional allies and the military’s postponement of elections, planned for this year, which were intended to legitimize its rule.

Washington has the capacity to weaken Burma’s military further. So far, however, the U.S. response to the appalling situation on the ground remains inadequate. The Biden Administration should take overdue steps to recognize the National Unity Government, sanction the military-controlled oil and gas industry, and block the military’s acquisition of aviation fuel, which is used to bomb civilians.

Although still far off, it is possible to imagine a democratic Burma based on justice and reconciliation among ethnic groups and under a civilian government that serves all of Burma’s people. That is the vision that James has worked for and for which he has been jailed. Its achievement depends on his freedom and the freedom of others like him.