Myanmar: 900 Days of the Spring Revolution.

Podcast with Ma Thida

Myanmar seemed to be on a well-paved road to democracy, after political reforms had been initiated in 2011 and the first free elections had been held after 25 years in 2015. The military coup in 2021 ended it abruptly. Ever since, a civil war has been simmering, in which thousands have been arrested and killed. Among those arrested was the democratically elected leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi. She started out as one of the revolutionary icons in the democratic protests in 1988, known as the 8888 protests. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but was later on heavily criticized for her stance on the Rohingya genocide in 2017. 

Our guest, Ma Thida – surgeon, author, and fellow of the Martin Roth-Initiative – joined the prodemocratic movement behind Suu Kyi in the eighties. In 1993, she was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison for her political engagement and support of Suu Kyis party. After six years, she was released due to her health conditions and international pressure. In this episode of 'Die Kulturmittler:innen', Ma Thida talks about the role of icons in revolutions and literature as a tool for freedom and protest while giving us an insight on recent developments in her country.

An illustration shows a person with long hair and glasses. It is the MRI fellow, surgeon and author Ma Thida from Myanmar. Her name is written on a purple banner below her. Above her, in white lettering, is written: Die Kulturmittler:innen, next to her in an orange circle #54. It is a cover for the ifa podcast on foreign cultural policy.
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Transcript of this episode

Episode #54: 900 Days of the Spring Revolution. Mit Ma Thida

Amira El Ahl: Hello and welcome to 'Die Kulturmittler:innen' – the ifa podcast on foreign cultural policy. My name is Amira El Ahl, and I'm very happy that you are joining us again. After what seemed to be a democratic change in Myanmar starting with the election in 2011, Myanmar suffered a backlash on their democratic aspirations. On February 1st, 2021, when the newly elected parliament was to meet for the first time, the military initiated a coup d'etat. This coup resulted in multiple arrests, including the arrest of the democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Since then, a civil war has been simmering in Myanmar, leaving thousands of civilians killed and arrested. My guest today is Ma Thida. The surgeon, author and human rights activist was arrested in Myanmar in 1993 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The charges were "endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organisations, and distributing unlawful literature". After six years in prison, she was released due to her health condition and international pressure. Currently, Ma Thida is living in Berlin, where she was a scholarship holder of the Martin-Roth-Initiative, which enables artists to reside in Germany and other safe countries. And currently she is in a writer in residency program at the Freundeskreis Schloss Wiepersdorf. A warm welcome to 'Die Kulturmittler:innen', Ma Thida.

Ma Thida: Thank you.

Amira El Ahl: In 1988, a peaceful protest started in Myanmar due to the economic situation, the 8888 uprising, as it is called. During this time Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national figure. You also joined the movement behind Suu Kyi, and shortly after you were arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. When you compare the 8888 uprising to the situation today, what is different?

Ma Thida: Well, indeed, this current situation is not a separate one. It's the continuation of the 8888 protests. It's a big movement. The 8888 movement is the foundation of the revolutions towards democracy. In the 8888 movement, there was the so-called socialist government, and the movement was very genuine. And it makes, I might say, the generations of the rebellion throughout since '88 until now. Because from the eyes of the international community and the others, it sounded like the past decades from 2010/11 to 2021, it's like we were already on the road of democracy. But the 2008 constitution was indeed undemocratic and very much a big trap. So the past decade doesn't necessarily mean we were on the right track to democracy. Us having gone through all these obstacles and the problems, whether it is in the negative situations or positive situations, we were still far from democracy. So the current revolution is not a separate one. It's like the continuation of the 8888 revolution. And the other difference I might see, is the more violent crackdown from the military. It's not even violent. The way the military regime is acting against its own people is like a terrorist organisation. The violence and the terror are very different. The way the military regime is practicing is more terroristic, it's not just simple violent actions. So, the way it has handled the peaceful protester is aiming at the protesters heads to deliberately kill them, not just controlling them. They literally want to kill people and they use over 100 airstrikes to the civilians. And they also use arsons, they’re burning villages and people alive as a weapon to crack down the revolution. So, the way the military has been acting is more on the terror side right now. In 1988, of course, the people were not that much determined to protest because there was no chance to learn about basic human rights. But because of this past decade’s experience, which was a little glimpse at the freedom and the understanding about what their rights are, people are now determined against the military regime. That's why the reaction was pretty strong. Our revolution started in February 2021, but until now, every single day there was a fight. Either as a peaceful protest or as an armed conflict. So, this is the biggest difference. And another big difference is: In 1988, for the civilians, for the people, there was no legitimacy whatsoever. It was directly from the so-called socialist regime to the military takeover. But right now, in November 2020 there was a general election, and the elected members of parliament and the legitimacy is still vividly going on. But they try to undermine or they try to vanish the result of the 2020 election. That's why, right now, for the civilian side, for the revolution side, they have full legitimacy. They have their own elected people to govern the country. There was the coup attempt. In '88, deliberately we can say there was a coup. Right now it's just a coup attempt. They violated their own 2008 constitution.

Amira el Ahl: UN experts are describing the developments in Myanmar nowadays as a civil war. And you have armed resistance, peaceful protests, and civil disobedience at the moment. You would say that's very different to what happened in 1988? If I understand correctly.

Ma Thida: Yes, of course. Very different.

Amira el Ahl: In 2016, you published your book "Prisoner of Conscience". It's the story about your journey of survival in the Insein prison. You talk a lot about self-determined freedom and that even in prison, one can choose to be free. Could you elaborate on that and explain to us how this self-determined freedom could look like for the Burmese people nowadays in this situation that is so difficult?

Ma Thida: I always say freedom is not by chance, it's by choice. So, right now, another difference is, in 1988, people didn't say enough and they didn't understand their perfect role in the decision making for the present and future of the country. But right now, the essence of understanding these things makes them very much determined not to be governed by the military. So, this is another way of self-determined freedom they choose. They say, okay, you can try to make the coup attempt, but we are already determined not to be governed by military dictatorship. That's why even though they lost their loved ones, they lost their properties, they lost their everything, they are determined not to give up. They claim, we have full authority over ourselves. We have freedom to choose, to be governed or not to be governed. So, this is how I really believe that self-determined freedom is still there, as someone who believes in democracy and freedom of choice.

Amira el Ahl: And as a writer, I suppose you always had a special bond to literature. Also, a way of finding freedom is in literature, right? Reading. You stated in multiple interviews that you see writing and literature as a form of protest and even a platform of the revolution. This revolution, however, takes place in a world where literature has been taken over by other forms of media, and people may not have such a strong bond to literature anymore as maybe you have. What role does literature play in Myanmar today? Is it also a tool for freedom?

Ma Thida: Right now, it's very difficult because of the very big surveillance system, but not just the surveillance system. After 2021, they tried to arrest not only someone who committed the protests or the revolution or the resistance. But also, if they cannot find someone, they even arrest the elderly persons, the father, the parents or their kids, the underaged kids. Recently a News Journal editor, he just changed his profile picture to black, expressing his mourn for noticing the airstrikes killing more than a dozen little kids. Then he was arrested and he was charged for defaming the state, for showing his sorrow. This kind of pressure makes a lot of the writers and the people who can create literature not create nor show the public something like that. So this is a very difficult situation right now. And I just want to say, the literature, the creativity, I don't believe it is just the protest. It is beyond that. It's just expressing ourselves in free form. Maybe the way a lot of people interpret expressing ourselves in pretty free form might be the protest against the one who wants to control us. So, for me, literature is more about the freedom, not just the protest. But it can be interpreted by someone who wants to restrict our freedom as a protest.

Amira el Ahl: So, you say, today literature does not affect the protests in Myanmar? Because it's too dangerous to write and it's too dangerous to state your opinions even if it is through literature.

Ma Thida: Yes, not that much. It's just trying to reflect some feelings and trying to make the documentation. Right now, it's more on the journalism side, less on the literature side because the literature people cannot do much, but we don't know. They might just write and keep it in their decks so that at one point, we can see it. Right now, there won't be much. But still, for example my prison memoir: In the prison, after they were arrested and sentenced in the prisons, I believe after 2014/15, there were a couple of libraries in prisons. And some prisons that allowed to read my prison memoirs. Some activists who were sentenced to such and such who were in prisons read it and they told me, after they were released, they were encouraged by reading it. That they could keep their protests or the rebellious resistance even inside the prison with the help of reading this kind of literature.

Amira el Ahl: Very interesting. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the ASEAN, decided not to invite the Burmese military representative to their summit this year, but they also didn't invite the representative of the national unity government. Firstly, could you explain to our listeners what the NUG is?

Ma Thida: The National Unity Government has been formed mainly by the elected members of Parliament, plus representatives from the ethnic revolutionary organisations and civil society organisations. So, it is like the government with both, de facto and de jure. It is like a revolution front. It's not just the simple government, but also, it's a revolutionary front. So, the problem is not with the NUG. I think the ASEAN always has this kind of non-interference policy. For that reason, whether it's in Myanmar or the other parts of ASEAN, they try not to interfere that much. So that's why I think they try not to invite either side. That's a very easy solution, but not the real solution.

Amira el Ahl: I find it interesting because the EU has recognized the NUG as the legitimate government of Myanmar. So, what does this negation by the ASEAN or this attempt to stay neutral mean for the protests in Myanmar? What does it mean for the NUG and for the civil society there?

Ma Thida: Of course, the NUG cannot run as a proper government from inside the country. After the coup attempt, the Committee of Representatives from the General Assembly, they are all elected members of parliament according to the result of the 2020 election. And they thought it's a wise decision to make this revolution front together with other representatives from other groups, including the civil society and the ethnic armed forces. So, for the general population NUG has been recognised very well as a revolutionary government. But I can see almost all countries, like EU countries and some other countries, they still don't give the official full recognition to the NUG yet because their embassies are still inside the country. There might be some kind of diplomatic problem between their embassies and the military regime, even though they know military took over the power and make this coup attempt without any legitimate basis. But for having some unnecessary things, they still want to maintain the status quo. And then they try not to recognise NUG as the one and only government from Myanmar. That's my view.

Amira el Ahl: But how important are international recognition or reactions in a revolution? I guess for both sides, on the one side for the Junta, but on the other side also for the people of the revolution?

Ma Thida: People have high hopes for the international community. They cannot do much. But what they believe is that the international communities have a very clear vision and a more shared approach and shared determinations on how to deal with the military and how to deal with the revolutionary fronts in order to protect their lives. That's why they have been calling the responsibility to protect. But after some time, they noticed no one is willing, so they don't have high hopes for the international community right now. It's pretty sad and tragic because the injustice and the very brutal atrocities against its own civilians has been going on. And without any doubt, the military and what they are doing right now is very self-damaging to its own people, own country, own natural resources, everything. But there is not enough action from the international community, making the military regime have more confidence in what they are doing. On top of that, there are a couple of other giant powers in the war begging for other countries not having to face this. That's why I think the international - it's hard to say international community - every country has its own interests and own concern. That's making the people from Myanmar pretty much sorry to learn about that. But the international community and the majority of giant powers should have shared concerns and clear visions and should be working together. They should not just see ASEAN as a sole responsible and feasible stakeholder to handle the Myanmar issue that can leverage the process. Right now, the military cannot control the ground very well. They have been failing in so many battles, on so many fronts, dealing with the People's Defence Forces and the Ethnic Armed Resistance Forces. So, in that case, the pressure, especially the political pressure or the diplomatic pressure, can work more than ever. They have been failing in the operational things on the ground. Not just the economic sanctions, but also political, diplomatic, and more practical ways to protect the people of Myanmar on the ground can leverage the process to end the military dictatorship.

Amira el Ahl: I would like to go back to the role of the democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2016, the Rohingya genocide caused a very big international reaction, and the Nobel Peace Prize winner and democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi was back then heavily criticised by Western media for positioning herself not strongly enough against the genocide of the Muslim minority. Just recently, she was granted partial pardon for her 33-year long prison sentence, which actually means six years less. What role do you believe did and does Suu Kyi play in the revolution and for the civilians in Myanmar?

Ma Thida: Our political issues and the situation is very complicated and it has a very long history. That's why a lot of people, especially the international media, cannot understand it deeply and thoroughly. Then they try to oversimplify and end up not making the perfect judgment, I might say. In the past, what has happened is directly linked to the 2008 constitution. According to this 2008 constitution, the civilian part of the government cannot do much. And especially in terms of handling the military operation, it is totally out of hand of the civilian part of the government. The military operation is solely responsible and mainly manoeuvred by the Commander in Chief. This is only according to the constitution. So, for that reason, even for us, we have been very disappointed with her decisions to make a deal with the military. But indeed, there was no deal. It's because of the restrictions of the 2008 constitution and because of her overconfidence about her being able to convince the military to make a change. But she could not. Unbelievably, she didn't have any plan beyond the coup. She could predict that there would be the coup attempt, but she didn't give any strong detailed instructions on how to combat it. The way she made her own resistance is to not cooperate with the military, especially with the Commander in Chief. Three days before the coup, there was a serious meeting and the negotiation was convincing her to nominate him as the president and not to call the parliament and then solve the bargaining. But she decided not to deal with him. She decided not to give him any power. So, this is the one strong resistance from her side. When she was the State Counsellor, she took her responsibility. Whether it was directly her own fault or not, she was happy to take responsibility to face the criticisms and everything. But she couldn't let the military take over the whole country's future without having any legitimacy. So, this is the only one resistance she did.

Amira el Ahl: So, she is kind of leading as an example not to cooperate, she was kind of an example to the people. Do you think that revolutions in general need an idol like she is, someone to lay their hopes upon? I was thinking of the revolutions in the Arab world around 2011, the so-called Arab Spring. In many of these countries, there was no idol, no leader or somebody to follow. And in most countries, the revolutions failed. So, do you think it is important to have an idol, that you have somebody who is a leader in a revolution like she is?

Ma Thida: Indeed, she's not an idol for this Spring Revolution. There was a saying that every single wagon has its own driving seats. Everybody should just lead themself. So, in this spring revolution, obviously, she is not the idol. Nobody recognizes her as the idol for the Spring Revolution. She just contributed simply with her resistance, showing that she cannot comply with it. But the current revolution is very much multi-centered, I might say. No more focusing on one and only, even for the National Unity Government. Right now, the National Unity Government is the revolution front. But at the same time, there are other strong resistance groups still leading in their own territory. So, it's more of a decentralised revolution. That's why you can notice there are so many other revolutions, that happened more or less at the same time as in Myanmar. For example, Belarus, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Iran. All these revolutions are now very weak and have gone. But in my country, since February 2021, it's still going on. It has been more than 900 days already and the revolution is even having the momentum of controlling administrations on the ground. The National Unity Government tried to fulfil the gap of the administrative halo. For example, the education and health services. Because of the civil disobedience movement and the poor management from the military regime, there is not enough education and health services on the ground. The NUG is not just using the People's Defence Forces to fight against the military, but also having its resources and making up the most plausible way to provide these services to the people in need. For that reason, it's totally not an idol-based revolution. The Spring Revolution is pretty much decentralised and the funding itself is also pretty much decentralised. It's not just from the international community's contribution. It's simply from the people, especially from the diaspora of Myanmar.

Amira el Ahl: It's very interesting that you say it's so decentralised and multi-centered, because that brings me to my next question. Myanmar is a country consisting of a lot of different ethnicities and religions. It's very multifaceted, which is also a very big factor of identification among the Burmese people. In the history of the civilian uprisings of Myanmar, it is, however, remarkable that these ethnicities seem to lay their differences aside and fight together. These tendencies can also be seen now in the current conflict. Could this be the start of the downfall of religious nationalism, or does that have more of a symbolic or pragmatic character seeing the urgency of the situation on the ground?

Ma Thida: All these religious aspects that you mentioned is not because of the people's simple decisions. It has been well-planned magic by the military. For that reason, people don't pay much attention to that issue. They know, of course, they have been misled by the military's black magic, but now they understand. That's why the revolution aims not just to get rid of the military dictatorship, but also the other aspects, for example, the Burmenisation or the religious domination. Everything. So, people in Myanmar, they believe the revolution's not just physical, but also kind of conceptual. For that reason, the current movement is a very integrated movement, I might say. More than ever, people on the ground are very much integrated with each other, appreciate each other and the role of each other. Of course, they are still fighting against their identity, their territory, each other, the idea of how to build the federal democracy. But still, a pretty healthy debate is going on and they are very open and ready to make the decisions later. Right now, their aim and objective is to get rid of the military dictatorship first.

Amira el Ahl: I find that very interesting because as we just discussed, this is not the first time that the people in Myanmar are standing up against the regime. Yet the situation always seems to go back to war and revolution and coup d'état and counter revolution. Do you think that lasting change in Myanmar is possible? Do you feel like there is right now a moment that is pivotal?

Ma Thida: Yes, of course. The problem is: This military since 1962 is the generation of the very much toxic mindset of the military. It has been carrying all this black magic and very bad atrocities against its own people from '62 until now. But in between, they made some kind of misleading relaxations, and the international community and a lot of people have been misled. They even have been appreciative to ex-military guys in the civilian government, saying that they were doing great things. That they were on the right track. Indeed, it was not, to be frank. Everybody should make the clear observation that the real reason why we keep doing this revolution, the rebellion attitude, etc., is simply because of this very militant terror military right now. So that's why people of Myanmar are thinking of having a new army instead of this very corrupted one. The way they recruit is similar to human trafficking. Either the quality and the quantity of this current army is corrupted. There is so much evidence on how badly they do all the corruption even for their own institution.

Amira el Ahl: At the moment you are a writer in residence at the Freundeskreis Schloss Wiepersdorf and you were a fellow at the Martin Roth-Initiative in Berlin that protects artists, writers and cultural workers by giving them shelter in Germany. You stated, though, in multiple interviews that you reject the concept of exile. Do you see yourself as being in exile right now?

Ma Thida: It's hard to believe I'm in exile. I'm still dedicated. I can just say I keep myself away from my beloved country for some period, that's all. I believe I'm still connected to my beloved country. Yes, it's hard to accept being exiled, still.

Amira el Ahl: And how does your activism and your engagement here in Germany differ from working directly from Myanmar? How different is it?

Ma Thida: It's different, very different. But I think we need to be grateful to the IT-technology that's making it easier to be in touch with my country, my people. So, in that sense I'm still not away from my country.

Amira el Ahl: You're still there and you're still participating.

Ma Thida: Yes.

Amira el Ahl: Thank you so much, Ma Thida, for being with us for your time and for the interview.

Ma Thida: Thank you.

Amira el Ahl: That leads us to the end of this episode. If you enjoyed it, please feel free to recommend 'Die Kulturmittler:innen' to others. If you'd like to learn more about foreign cultural policy, you can listen to our previous episodes. They are available on all common streaming platforms like Spotify, Deezer and Apple Podcast. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to email us at podcast(at) For more information on our organization ifa – Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen –, visit With that, I say goodbye. My name is Amira El Ahl. Thank you for listening.


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