“In 1998, I went to Myanmar to protest.”
My mouth dropped open in surprise when Mr. Jaran Ditapichai spoke about his trips to Yangon 23 years ago. As far as I remember, 1998 was a year Myanmar was still under darkness, heavily oppressed by the military leadership. Following a brief student uprising in 1996, the junta shut down all universities across the country for more than three years since December of 1996. Campus which used to be the breeding ground for activism were emptied while the military intelligence was strongly equipped to smash down any sign of resistance from society. In those days, no political activism was possible in broad daylight. Let alone demanding the ending the military rule, it was even very difficult for Myanmar people to get information on the news of social movements and activism around the world.
Jaran was among 18 activists- who entered the country to commemorate, the 10th anniversary of the August 8, 1988 (Four Eights Day) people’s uprising to show their solidarity with Myanmar people. Apart from Jaran, the group, most of them holding dual identities as scholar and activist comprised of six Americans, three Indonesians, three Malaysians, two Filipinos, an Australian and two other Thais. This group called themselves Multinational Peacemaking Team under the umbrella of Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma. Although they managed distributing around 10,000 leaflets printed on red paper in the downtown Yangon, the military government of those days, the State Peace and Development Council arrested all of them by charging “inciting unrest”. Thanks to the effort of diplomatic missions, they were released by the junta right after a court hearing that forced them pleaded guilty to the charge of making an attempt for inciting civil unrest under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act. As stated by back then the Philippine’s Foreign Undersecretary, Lauro Baja, the junta tried very hard to “satisfy their legal process to prove their point” in spite of outcry from international media and diplomatic communities for the immediate release of those detainees.
An old broadcast from the State-owned TV channel, MRTV displayed the leaflets, T-shirts and documents seized from those detained in the press conference with the diplomats and international media. At that time, the Lt. Col. Hla Min, the Directorate of Defense Intelligence Service of Myanmar told the international media in a press conference that Jaran Ditapichai, a professor at the Rangsit University of Thailand, allegedly led the group. When we met in September 2021, with a big smile on his face, Jaran told me that, “They (Myanmar officials) thought I was the leader because I was the oldest member of the group. Actually, we worked together as a team”.
Being political activists, a scholar and a former member of Thailand’s Human Rights Commission, Jaran still in love with activism. He has been exiled since 2014 after Thai police had issued an arrest warrant on a charge of lèse-majesté, which might carry up to 15 years prison term. As he was then granted political asylum in France, he and his fellow comrades in exile are well positioned to organize the commemoration of military coup in Thailand 2006 in Paris.
Groups of Thai people who object the rule of the military government of Prayuth Chan-O-Cha arrived in Paris from different parts of Europe to denounce a convenient marriage of military-monarchy forming the privileged position of ruling class in Thai society. Since his time as a student leader in 1976, when the massacre happened in Thammasat University, to the European coordinator of the Organization of Free Thai for Human Rights and Democracy, his commitment for democracy has been inspiringly long-lasting.
When I looked at him in the old media reports of Yangon protest of 1998, he was wearing a black T-shirt with printed word on the front, “Don’t forget, don’t give up 8888”. T-Shirts that carried symbol of resistance against dictatorship has been a part of Jaran’s life of activism. Now when I meet him in 2021, this 74 years old man who used to be a communist rebel in the jungle of Northern Thailand was wearing a white T-shirt with letters that calls for the dictatorship in both Thailand and Myanmar. The word “Down with dictators” was interpreted in Burmese “အာဏာရှင်တွေကျဆုံးပါစေ” and in French ” à bas les dictateurs” forging transboundary solidarity among the people of ASEAN, the Free Thai Movement in France also invited the representative from “La Communauté Birmane de France”: The Burmese Community of France. A part of the Milk Tea Alliance which started as a digital platform in April 2020, has been developing as a the real-world group in the fight against authoritarianism. One week earlier, the General Strike Committee in Myanmar and 418 Myanmar organizations signed a statement to show that Myanmar people are standing together with Thai in fighting against dictatorship. The statement that comes with a slogan “Unite the International Oppressed in Solidarity” stressed for
“Only when the oppressed of our two countries unite in the face of victory and eradicate unjust dictatorship systems, we can achieve the society built for democracy, human rights and the well-being of the people that we dreamed for our whole life. We stand in solidarity with the pro-democracy people of Thailand.”
In the statement, Myanmar civil society demands for the release of arrested students, activists, and all political prisoners unconditionally, the reparation and justice for the victims, ending the military and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth holding free and fair elections and hand over power to a civilian government, amendment of unjust laws and constitutions to ensure true democracy and guarantee the rights of the people, and last but not the least, reform of the monarchy and aristocratic system which is now existing as a privileged class in Thai society.
The call of Myanmar civil society in fact tried to echo the voices of the Thai pro-democracy movements at home and abroad, especially in the time of commemoration of the military coup in Thailand 2006. The slogans coming with music, posters and speeches in multiple languages related to the issues of Thailand and Myanmar from the public demonstration at Place de la bastille in Paris, France showed the possibility of forming a greater solidarity among diaspora communities of both countries.
Together with Thai rapping, dance and other performances, the speeches from representatives from Thai communities explained to local and international audience how the authoritarian leaders are ruling as parasite in the Asian setting and how the grievance against the ruling class has been accumulating across the years since 2006. Thai people coming from many parts of Europe including Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and UK tried to draw the international attention on the struggle of Thailand against the military rule. Tin Tin Htar Myint, the President of Myanmar community from Paris, also stressed the importance of closer alliance among the people for democratic futures.
As a Myanmar citizen, I am thankful for the generous support of Thai people for Myanmar democracy movement and sharing the spotlights on Myanmar struggle in international setting. When Jaran came to Myanmar with a group of his academic friends, the leaflet they distributed reached a number of people in the Buddhist temple, buses and markets. It carried the message that “We are your friends from around the world. We have not forgotten you. We support your hopes for human rights and democracy.” In those days, Myanmar people were too oppressed even to make a move for getting international attention ourselves. Little was known inside of enthusiasm shared by democratic alliances from other countries while the junta bombarded propaganda from the State-owned media with a framing that those democratic activists were merely destructive elements from foreign countries.
For many generations, both Thailand and Myanmar faced crackdown of the successive military regimes that followed every coup. These days, thanks to transnational movement of people and technological changes, more interactions between civil society of the two countries becomes possible. Unlike in 1998, distributing a message in the age of digital progress can be done a thousand time faster and we, citizens are more committed to support each other in a class struggle and share the dream of a more equal and democratic future.
The three fingers salute that represents anti-coup message is the most significant among symbols that foster unity in Thailand, Myanmar and other Milk Tea Alliance members. This symbol might have other meanings in the original context of popular novels and movies, including a gesture of giving thanks and saying good-bye. But for the people who fight against the dictatorship, it becomes a symbol of solidarity and here we all come waving three fingers.