Yangon is “convulsed”, one observer told me from Myanmar as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country as the fractured nation reverted to military rule.
So much has changed, yet so little, in the years since I first visited Yangon covertly before the 2010 election that was boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Back then there was pessimism among ordinary people that any change was imminent for once arguably the richest, then the poorest, country in Southeast Asia, having been brutally repressed by the military since 1962.
In late 2010, then-freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi had spent almost 15 of the previous 20 years under house arrest at her dilapidated mansion on the shores of Inya Lake in Yangon. She’d been held since the NLD, at the time more a movement than a political party, had won democratic elections in 1990.
However, despite the pessimism that I encountered while quietly interviewing ordinary people, dissidents and political figures in 2010, what subsequently unfolded became a joyous period to witness.
Carrying the hopes of the nation and the world, Aung San Suu Kyi was soon released, telling me that historic day on ABC Radio, “We would like to engage with the military junta. We would like to engage with everybody who we think could help the democratic process”.
Later, when we sat down together in her home that had for so long been her prison she said “…of course if you ask me when would I like democracy, I would have said tomorrow or even yesterday, but in terms of the history of a country, 20 years is not that long, in terms of the history of a far-reaching movement, 20 years is not that long”.
It’s a statement that’s now telling.
While Aung San Suu Kyi enjoys deity status in much of Myanmar, the NLD’s political dominance continues to marginalise more than 130 ethnic minority groups amid a perception that it represents only the Bamar majority of which she is one.
And predictably, her shine has worn off internationally since she entered parliament and chose to negotiate with and participate in a hybrid military government, cementing her decline from heroine status by backing its deadly crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
Progress towards democratic change is not only slow, sometimes it goes backwards.
With Aung San Suu Kyi once again detained, protesters are back on the streets.
General Min Aung Hlaing who was supposed to retire from the military this July has been appointed leader, the ruling military having adopted the Trumpian tactic of alleging widespread fraud led to the NLD’s landslide election victory in November 2020.
No evidence of such fraud has been uncovered, with international and domestic observers declaring the poll legitimate.
“The doors just opened to a very different future. I have a sinking feeling that no one will really be able to control what comes next. And remember Myanmar’s a country awash in weapons, with deep divisions across ethnic & religious lines, where millions can barely feed themselves,” tweeted Burmese writer and historian Thant Myint-U after the military took control.
But those actions may prove a gross miscalculation. Winding progress all the way back to the dark days of democratic oppression won’t be easy after more than 10 years of slow, but notable progress.
A decade ago, cars in Yangon were aged jalopies, roads were crumbling and buildings were falling down. There was barely a telecommunications network to speak of, or on.
A measure of political reform has brought economic development, jobs and some degree of prosperity and freedom for many. New western sanctions will deeply injure the military’s cause both among the general population and those within their own ranks who have made a fortune in the new era.
Renewed restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom of assembly will escalate frustrations. Harsh responses to peaceful protests, including banging kitchen pots, won’t help the military’s cause either as observers in Myanmar accuse them of lacing water cannons with chemicals and fatally injuring demonstrators.
Yet the masses of protesters are so far undeterred. They’re energetic, well organised and, in many cases, young enough that they’ve seen more freedom than repression.
They won’t give up their liberty easily in a world that’s vastly more connected than it was in 2010, enabling them to organise locally and communicate globally. Shutting down social media will only serve to inflame their anger.
The military has declared a state of emergency and taken control of the country for 12 months, but as foreign investment begins to slide, sanctions are inevitably imposed and the population pushes back, that may prove difficult to sustain.
Ten years ago, I was in the crowd after the NLD won a series of key by-elections that finally resulted in the elevation of Aung San Suu Kyi and several other party members to the parliament.
It was a key turning point and the atmosphere was jubilant as people celebrated in the streets, singing and dancing. Memories of that moment remain fresh.
As one old friend told me from Yangon this week, “this is the end game … we won’t stop until we get our freedom back.”
Zoe Daniel is a three-time foreign correspondent for ABC News and was Southeast Asia correspondent, covering Myanmar, for four years from 2010-2013. Her new book Greetings from Trumpland, co-written with Roscoe Whalan, is based on four years as ABC News US Bureau Chief and will be in stores in mid-February