“@DadThailand can you call Uncle?”
The breaking news alerts began to show up on my lock screen three or four hours before sunrise. Phone and internet cuts had already started rolling across Myanmar, and Facebook chats—Facebook is king in Myanmar—quickly migrated to Signal. The country’s top civilian leaders found themselves detained; the circle of arrests began expanding to activists, artists, journalists, and other potential opposition figures. Many banks and shops were closed in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, in response to reports of the internet shutdown. The generals had launched a coup.
Several time zones behind, my first thought was that my parents, living in Thailand, should get in touch with our family in Yangon. After his laconic “Ok” on WhatsApp, my dad tried several times and eventually got through later that morning. Uncle was fine, of course, and so too our cousins. Their main concern at that point was whether the shops would reopen for food. Otherwise they didn’t want to say too much.
My dad was less fine. His voice shook on the other end of the line—they’re dragging us back to the past, he said. For once, he had a lot—or at least, more than a little—to say. The past, I said? My dad and I have an ongoing disagreement. He always tells me that Myanmar is stuck in the dark ages; I always tell him he’s wrong. The past, he insisted. He was a teenager when the military seized power in 1962. I remember the tanks rolling through the streets, he said. A few months later, the generals dynamited the Rangoon University Student Union, killing hundreds of students inside. He was living nearby. I could hear that!, he stressed, and I believe him.
I don’t see this coup as a return to the past—not quite. But there was something else, too, in the tone of my dad’s voice. This was something that felt urgent, something burning, something that made itself felt across more words than usual. It was, I think, something worth attending to: an incitement to historical memory, a reminder of certain pasts that continue to haunt the present.
Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, aged 19. Wai Yan Tun, 16. Thet Naing Win, 36.
Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing was shot on February 9, 2021, two days shy of her twentieth birthday. She worked at a grocery store, and she was also a student. She was sheltering from water cannons at a protest in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, when a bullet pierced her motorcycle helmet. She died in the hospital after ten days on life support, the first casualty of the new regime.
Wai Yan Tun worked at a market. Thet Naing Win was a carpenter. They died on February 21, when security forces opened fire on protesters—protesters who had flocked to the Yadanabon shipyard in Mandalay to support striking shipyard workers. “It was like a warzone,” one witness said to Myanmar Now of the streets around the shipyard. Wai Yan Tun was shot in the head and died instantly. Thet Naing Win was shot in the chest and died on the way to the hospital.
“He never spoke about his parents,” said U Htoo, Wai Yan Tun’s caretaker and the father of one of his friends. He had no idea how to contact Wai Yan Tun’s mother or father. Thet Naing Win was married; he and his wife had a 7-year-old child. “We realized he was dead,” his mother-in-law said, “when some of our neighbors showed us a picture of an unclaimed body that was posted on Facebook.”
What brought Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, Wai Yan Tun, and Thet Naing Win into the streets? To read most of the coverage of the coup, you’d think they’d found themselves on one side of an old story: liberal democracy imperiled by authoritarianism. Yet Myanmar’s working classes had seethed under the previous National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s concessions to global capital; during five years of NLD rule, strike wave after strike wave convulsed Yangon’s industrial zones. It would be a mistake to read today’s resistance simply as an attempt to restore bourgeois democracy. Even so, it was the old story my dad turned to, which says that time should flow easily beyond authoritarian pasts. As February turned into March, and March into April—and as blood began to run freely, far too freely, in the cities and towns of Myanmar—I found myself wondering about scars past and present, about how they form and how they are carried. I found myself wondering what the old story can accommodate, and what it cannot.
According to the old story, history should work like clocks and calendars, simply marching forward from past to present. This is the temporality of bourgeois progress—what Benjamin called homogeneous, empty time. For him, this story about time was an object of critique, not a claim about how it really works.
But some of the leading scholars of Southeast Asia have upheld this understanding of time. Writing in the aftermath of colonial rule, they framed the region as locked in an existential struggle with the past. For them, the key question was how to liberate these new states from the grip of primal attachments—primitive notions of race and ethnicity, above all—and set them on a path toward liberal modernity. In Indonesia, Clifford Geertz called for an “integrative revolution” that would reconcile a “direct conflict between primordial and civil sentiments.” This was a version of his earlier attribution of economic involution to cultural traditions in Java. In Burma, Manning Nash sought a form of modernization that would overcome any inhibiting factors in Burmese society, culture, and politics. And Benedict Anderson celebrated anticolonial nationalisms for their appeals to what he saw, uncritically, as homogeneous, empty time. For him, Southeast Asian nationalists moved “calendrically” along a shared, progressive temporality that had its roots in European modernity. Later, he criticized ethnic politics for detracting from this universalist political horizon, for cutting against a properly progressive current of time.
Anderson was no cold warrior, but Geertz and Nash were. They wrote about Southeast Asia for the University of Chicago’s Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations, a cold war project heavily influenced by the American security state’s committed anti-communism. Infamously, it took Geertz decades to acknowledge the massacre of some half a million suspected communists in Indonesia during the period he was busy studying cockfights in Bali. His and his colleagues’ paeans to modernization claimed to bridge culture and politics, yet they remained silent on the violence of American foreign policy. Meanwhile, they held up liberal modernity as the telos of historical progress. But what progress is it that could prove so catastrophic? In postcolonial Southeast Asia, American liberalism pitched itself against communism with ruthless intent. As Vincent Bevins has shown, Indonesia’s mass killings of communists benefited from extensive American support for the Suharto regime. And the US initially supported the Burmese military after the coup my dad witnessed, as the generals were fighting Burma’s own communist insurgency. This is to say nothing of America’s monstrous war in Vietnam, which rippled across the Southeast Asian mainland.
This is one cut through the career of liberalism in Southeast Asia. It confounds any easy opposition between the brutality of authoritarianism—a past to be overcome—and a peaceable liberal modernity: that would-be, should-be present moving forward. Even the recent ethnic cleansing of Myanmar’s Rohingya—widely considered tantamount to genocide—took place not under military rule, but under the rule of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s liberal icon.
A certain amnesia is at stake. When observers frame Myanmar’s generals as dragging the country back in time, you can sense that casual amnesia. This is the amnesia that would plot historical progress from authoritarianism to liberalism, from dictatorship to democracy, from primordial attachments to liberal modernity, from extreme violence to peaceful coexistence, as if liberalism’s career does not run with the blood of millions in Southeast Asia. But the cruelty of the generals is not some vestige of a primordial past, a direct reversal of history’s calendrical movement. There are too many contemporary analogies and antecedents, not least in Myanmar, for the coup to be anything but modern—unspeakably, intolerably modern, as modern as the catastrophes of liberalism itself. This modernity demands another historical consciousness, an alternative incitement to historical memory. What would it mean to carry the past differently?
July 19—Azani Neh: Martyr’s Day. You can hear it in Yangon. A little after 10:30 AM, the city’s clogged streets erupt with the sound of drivers honking their horns. They’re paying tribute to the moment in 1947, only months before independence, when Aung San, seven other key members of the interim government, and a bodyguard were assassinated during a cabinet meeting at the government headquarters in Yangon.
Today, the remains of Aung San and several other azani killed that day rest at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum, located near the northern gate of Shwedagon Pagoda. For decades, high-ranking officials held annual commemorations of Martyr’s Day there, at least until Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s leading opposition figure after the uprising of 1988. At that point, the memory of Aung San, her father, became a matter of political sensitivity, and the mausoleum gates stood locked for years and years. They turned to rust until the post-2011 period, when the generals released Suu Kyi from house arrest and she entered parliamentary politics. Then she became the one leading somber tributes at her father’s tomb.
But they weren’t the first martyrs, of course, and Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, Wai Yan Tun, and Thet Naing Win were hardly the last to die since the coup. On one side of the old government headquarters, the same side as the office where Aung San and the others were killed, the road is called Bo Aung Kyaw Road, after a student killed by British colonial police during the third Rangoon University student boycott in 1938. Aung Kyaw is widely seen as the first student to die in Burma’s freedom struggle. Striking oil workers from central Burma had marched on Rangoon, linking up with student nationalists at their annual protest against colonial rule. The demonstration—a blockade of the colonial state’s headquarters—took place on the road that now bears Aung Kyaw’s name. Colonial police violently broke up the blockade, and Aung Kyaw died from head injuries sustained in the melee. Bo (leader) is a title bestowed upon him posthumously.
After Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing was shot, shrines sprang up at protest sites in Mandalay and Yangon. This was before she passed away—but here too already was an incitement to memory. Some seized upon her status as a student, remembering her in the lineage led by Bo Aung Kyaw. Others remembered her in a long line of murdered and missing women in Myanmar, such as Win Maw Oo, killed in the 1988 uprising. An iconic photograph captured her final moments, blood-soaked and borne along by two medical students; it is arguably the image bearing witness to the cruelty of military rule. Or Naw Chit Pandaing, a Karen activist and environmentalist. In 2016, she was stabbed to death in Dawei, in Myanmar’s south, while investigating land grabs and mining projects. Or Raysuana, a Rohingya woman found dead in a military camp in Rakhine State, also in 2016—the year before the military operations that killed thousands more Rohingyas. Still others remembered Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing as a teenager, connecting her killing to the deaths and injuries of youth especially in Myanmar’s minoritized ethnic borderlands. There, decades of counterinsurgency mean the military’s violence is hardly new.
These dead generations press upon the present, troubling any bourgeois history of progress. Naw Chit Pandaing and Raysuana died during Myanmar’s celebrated experiment with democracy. The brutalization of ethnic minorities continued—and in many places worsened—as counterinsurgencies persisted under NLD rule. Students and workers fought and died shoulder to shoulder in Burma’s freedom struggle. The old story cannot possibly accommodate this violence, these struggles. The 2021 coup is a new inflection point, a dark event with no upside, but to see it clearly is to see it within cycles of upheaval: of revolutions and reactions, of insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, of historical openings and closures—none of which countenance the old story’s telos.
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Marx famously wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire. Comparing his book to Victor Hugo’s Napoléon le petit, which focused on the same events, Marx wrote that Hugo explained far too much through the prism of one person, Louis Bonaparte himself, who simply arrives “like a bolt from the blue.” So too for much reporting on the coup in Myanmar, which has fixated on personal animus between the generals and Suu Kyi, while excluding wider dynamics of structural conflict.1 In the Eighteenth Brumaire Marx was concerned with how revolutions tend to take on styles and rhetoric drawn from the past: “Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternatively as the Roman republic and the Roman empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795.” The revolution Marx believed in would need a radical break from the past, letting the dead bury the dead—another of his aphorisms. “The social revolution of the 19th century,” he wrote, “cannot take its poetry from the past, but only from the future.”
This is the dominant reading, anyway—that for Marx, the social revolution of the future would ground itself in true historical rupture, not drape itself in the symbolism of the past. It’s the dominant reading for good reason. But we might also find, in Marx here, notwithstanding his critique, an attempt to address and take seriously the problem of historical memory—that past that weighs heavily on the revolutions of the present.
In Myanmar these days, those pasts are many. They push upon, and break apart, the old story told by Geertz, Nash, and Anderson, that story of calendrical movement through time. Those pasts flash up in the shrines and the tributes, the lineages reworked and remade. In candle-lit vigils and protests to honor the dead, in recent weeks those who have been killed have become widely known as martyrs, as azani who summon and restore to this revolutionary present the memory, among others, of Bo Aung Kyaw, Win Maw Oo, and so many more. Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing was only the first to extend this lineage.
This is different than the old story. It is a story of revolution that tears the fabric of historical time. In Southeast Asia, some of its most important authors have been not scholars or theorists, nor the elite nationalists at the helm of new states, but partisans of the communist movements that threatened bourgeois rule and its promise of progress. In Vietnam, Indonesia, and Burma, for instance, Ho Chi Minh, D.N. Aidit, and Thakin Than Tun all advanced revolutionary struggles with peasants at the forefront through tactical reinterpretations of Marx and Lenin. In South Asia, Naxalite Maoism spurred Subaltern Studies historians to rethink postcolonialism beyond elite nationalism. One such historian, Partha Chatterjee, argued that nations exist in heterogeneous time, riven with antagonisms along deep social divides—contra the homogeneous time imagined by Anderson.
Here, too, though are ordinary people across Myanmar. Some wear gas masks and helmets, bearing shields and Molotov cocktails. In recent weeks, they’ve learned how to build barricades, deal with smoke bombs, clean eyes stung by tear gas, and treat the wounded in battles with cops and soldiers. But not everyone is a frontliner. Others gather at shrines, remembering those who have died—or share images on social media, reworking those genealogies of azani. From the barricades to the shrine, these are practices that disrupt history’s continuum. They construct that revolutionary present that the old story can’t contain.
Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, Wai Yan Tun, and Thet Naing Win were only the first to die since the coup. By the end of February, security forces turned to violence as mass resistance electrified the cities, towns, and villages of Myanmar. One could feel the escalation coming.
The messages from friends and family I received in early February were relatively tame in retrospect. Friends in Dawei sent pictures from marches across town, and occupations of key intersections. There was one friend, mic in hand, fist raised, rallying the crowd as demos kept growing in size. A cousin in Yangon, Uncle’s son, had never expressed any interest in politics, but here he was sending selfies from protests. He looked a little like a Burmese Hunter S. Thompson, with aviators and a bucket hat—just add the Covid-era face mask. The mood was tense but defiant, with a festive atmosphere often prevailing in the streets.
The shift came gradually, then all at once. Reports mounted of night-time raids by security forces to detain protesters, so some neighborhoods began closing themselves off to outsiders. My cousin said he started joining night-time security patrols to protect his neighbors. One such “night guard” in an industrial zone was shot dead—a warning from the military, my cousin said. Friends in Dawei sent reports of attempted arrests. A group of activists was eating lunch at a teashop when cops moved in to arrest them, but within minutes the place was surrounded. The crowd demanded the cops disperse, and they did. A sharper turn came at the end of February, as the festive mood retreated amid mounting rumors of violence. On the eve of a call for massive street demos on February 28, my cousin and I found ourselves trading crowdsourced images that were, by then, all over social media. They explained in Burmese what so many frontliners now know—how to build barricades, wash away tear gas, and tend gunshot wounds.
I thought again of Myanmar’s azani. Sacrifice, intentionality, decisiveness, knowledge: these are the qualities that define the martyr in Myanmar political thought. They appear and reappear in public discourse every year as those annual tributes take place at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum. Aung San sacrificed his life for the nation—so the thinking goes—but death alone is not enough. A bystander killed by a bomb is no azani; one must seek the confluence of politics and sacrifice knowingly. An azani must choose a political path knowing that to do so is to risk everything. An azani is also one who can boldly—and quickly—“discriminate the proper from the improper,” being in essence “one who knows” (from the Pali janiya, or in Burmese, zaniya).2
Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing, 23, was shot and killed by security forces in Yangon on February 28. The night before, he’d posted a picture of himself on Facebook with a handwritten sign: How many dead bodies needed for UN to take action? Ko Lwin Lwin Oo, 33, died the same day, shot dead by cops during street confrontations in Dawei. Hundreds would join his funeral procession through town to the crematorium. Ko Than Win—a youth, age unknown—was also killed by cops that day in Dawei. He was laid to rest in a quieter ceremony, at the Islamic Garden near Zaha Village in Dawei. Here again, incitements to memory: shrines emerged lit by candles at night, where mourners gathered to remember those killed.
Within a few days, the body count broke 50. It is now over 500. One weighed especially heavily. Ma Kyal Sin, who also went by Angel, was 19. She was into dancing and taekwondo. In her last moments, in Mandalay on March 3, she kicked open a water pipe so her friends could wash tear gas from their eyes—and then hurled a tear gas canister back across the front line. As the cops moved in, a recording caught her voice—“We won’t run!” she shouted. “Blood must not be shed!” They shot her in the neck; she died in the street. “She cared for and protected others as a comrade,” her friend said. She too had posted a picture of herself on Facebook—hers with her dad, who tied a ribbon around her wrist. She added her medical details, her blood type, and her wish to donate her organs if she didn’t survive. The message on her T-shirt went viral: Everything will be okay.
My dad keeps a pretty low profile on the family WhatsApp group. He tends to pop up when he comes across some really quality fried noodles at the street market—which reliably gets the rest of us, hemispheres away, complaining about how much we miss proper street food. Lately he’s contributed some non-noodle content, though. He sent a selfie of himself with a mask on, holding up three fingers—the Hunger Games–derived salute adopted by protesters in Thailand and Myanmar. Hitting the streets? I typed. Myanmar migrants and exiles had been staging demos against the coup in Bangkok, a few hours north. Not before I get to see San San, he said—his granddaughter, born during the pandemic.
As the weeks ticked by in March, the military’s violence continued to escalate. On March 14, cops and soldiers moved in on a series of massive street demos in Hlaingtharyar, a Yangon industrial zone with Myanmar’s largest concentration of workers and factories. First-person accounts described factory workers armed only with makeshift shields rushing police lines as live rounds split the air. Some fifty people died. This concentrated bloodshed was far more than anything seen, for instance, in crackdowns in Yangon’s middle-class neighborhoods. To some of us, it suggested that the military had recognized something crucial: that the backbone of Yangon’s urban resistance was the industrial workforce, with major trade unions having swelled the largest demos since the earliest days following the coup.
By early April, certain patterns had taken shape. Security forces had claimed the central areas of most of Myanmar’s major urban centers, pushing smaller recurring demos into tighter, residential neighborhoods, as well as industrial districts on urban peripheries—like North Okkalapa in Yangon, long a stronghold of working-class resistance to Myanmar’s generals. Repression followed. Some of the bloodiest confrontations took place in these areas, with over a hundred civilians killed in one day on March 27.3 But these new locations also afforded opportunities. Frontliners could build more effective barricades on narrower streets. They could also maintain more disciplined formations, with shield-bearers at the very front and another group tasked with smothering tear gas behind them. They fought cops and soldiers to a standstill in some places, creating tense cycles of confrontation.
Elsewhere, rural areas loomed large. They became important sites for maintaining mass resistance—as state repression spread unevenly beyond urban centers. In the south, for instance, Dawei town is now relatively quiet, but surrounding villages have seen an upsurge of marches, demonstrations, and strikes. In Myanmar’s east, meanwhile, the military carried out airstrikes in territory held by the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic armed group that has fought the generals for generations. The KNU says over 12,000 civilians have been displaced, as Thai security forces used fencing to prevent refugees from crossing the border. Protestors have also fled from urban areas to KNU territory, where—in an echo of uprisings past, namely 1988—they are now receiving training on things like firearms, hand grenades, and tactical strikes on military facilities. This is guerrilla training, as armed struggle beckons.
In the family chat, I copy-pasted a Facebook post that had been circulating widely. The author, a doctor, describes rushing to Hlaingtharyar upon reports of mass casualties, where he immediately starts operating on victims of gunshot wounds. The narrative hovers between life and death. One patient arrives with a detached skull, the doctor writes; he tried to run but collapsed on the floor. Another, he wrote, was shot in the chest. He was bleeding like water running from a tap. He overhears a mother, pleading during an operation—son, be strong, I’m right here. The doctor alternates between exhaustion and anger, detachment and fury. As he closes his post, he nods towards a subject that had become more and more prominent as March dragged on into April: that possibility of armed struggle. Maybe I should drop my surgical knives, he writes, and pick up a gun to fight the junta.
The old story promises that everything will be okay. Historical time is homogeneous and empty; it should always march forward. But the azani has a different intuition. For her, the message—everything will be okay—is not quite a promise, even less a guarantee. It is more like a possibility, a wager; it requires action, intervention, perhaps even sacrifice. She posts her blood type. She knows she risks everything.
Ma Kyal Sin is now part of a past we must learn how to carry. So too Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, Wai Yan Tun, Thet Naing Win, those who died in Hlaingtharyar, and so many others. Marx teaches that this generation, like those who died before—like Bo Aung Kyaw, like Win Maw Oo—will weigh upon us like a nightmare. And so they will. So, indeed, they already do, even if they do so unevenly. Win Maw Oo is widely known; Raysuana is not. Still, the shrines and the tributes, the incitements to memory—these also teach us that these dead generations will never simply be past, as if history could just move ahead. No, these are memories that will flash up in moments of danger, signifying not the inertia of the past but the urgency, the gravity, of struggles that continue.
To seize on such pasts, moreover—as incitements to memory become incitements to struggle—is to shatter the continuity of historical time. This is how Benjamin grasped Marx’s thought of revolution in The 18th Brumaire—a departure from the dominant reading. Robespierre’s appeal to Rome was a “tiger’s leap into the past” that blasted history open. “The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one,” Benjamin writes, “which is how Marx understood the revolution.” In fact, “(t)he awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.”
A series of photographs captures Ma Kyal Sin’s last moments. There she is in the streets—ripped jeans, goggles, the black T-shirt with its message. She is crouched, ready, and facing the front line. In another, she is sheltering behind a banner, looking backwards now, and reaching out—telling others to stay down. The cops had opened fire. Friends and comrades crouch in formation, decked out with fluorescent vests, gas masks, helmets, shields. In another, she is on the ground behind the same banner, lower now, and looking backwards again. And there she is in another, the last I’ve seen. She is running, eyes wide open. Over her shoulder, a cloud of tear gas rises, engulfing the street. The message on her shirt is super visible, but remember: it is a wager, not a promise—something to fight for. Everything will be okay.
See Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1999), 242. ↩
That was Armed Forces Day, once known as Resistance Day, a day that—a painful irony—recognized the military’s birth in anti-fascist resistance during World War II. ↩