Setting the Record Straight – What’s Actually Happening in Burma: An Interview with Zoya Phan

By Emma Waxlax

Amidst mounting violence inflicted by Burma’s military junta following their coup in February 2021, I spoke with democratic activist, author, and Geneva Summit alum Zoya Phan (GS’12). We discuss what has happened in the country over the past decade, its connection to the current plight faced by the people of Burma, and the international community’s involvement in Burma’s struggle for peace and democracy.

We last met in 2012 at the Geneva Summit, where you spoke on ethnic persecution in Burma by the military regime, which forced you to flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. It’s ten years later and we meet again. This time Burma is under military rule following a coup in February 2021. A lot has happened over the past ten years. But broadly speaking, the overarching narrative presented to the world was that Burma was on the route towards democracy. Could you briefly tell us what’s happened over the past decade. 

Burma, Myanmar, has never been on a genuine path to democracy. What we’ve seen in the past years was a combination of domestic and international pressure that forced the Burmese military to accept that it couldn’t carry on as it was. However, they didn’t want to give up their power and money, and their empire. Because of this, they instituted supposed democratic reforms that appeased the international community on paper but sustained their power in reality. In return, international sanctions were increasingly lifted, raising the military regime’s funding, which they in turn funnelled into new military equipment instead of helping their own people. They accomplished this in various ways.

One, the Burmese military brought in a new undemocratic Constitution in 2008. It was adopted through very rigged elections in 2010. And then they promised democratic transition and economic reforms, and they started to allow more freedom of speech and started to open up the country for a little bit. But the Constitution itself reserved key ministries and the power of the Burmese military, such as in home affairs, border affairs, and defence. And the military was not under control of the civilian government. They also reserved 25% of the seats of Parliament, giving them veto power over any constitutional reforms, which required more than 75% of the vote.

And the other thing is the so-called “reforms” that the military chose to implement. There were no genuine negotiations or compromises at all. The military imposed a new system. The international community pressured the democratic movement, including Aung San Suu Kyi and the ethnic political groups, to go along with it even though we were warning that there wasn’t a genuine peace process and reform in the country. That is what we saw in 2016 when the NLD were allowed to lead the civilian government in many authoritarian ways.

The stronger power of the military limited what Aung San Suu Kyi and the government could do. Even so, there was much more they could have done but they chose not to. For example, while a few repressive laws were repealed, some journalists and activists who criticized the NLD government or the military still faced arrest.

There was also a fake or so-called “peace process,” where the Burmese military had ceasefires in some ethnic areas but continued conflict and attack in other parts of the country. As a result, conflict only increased. Then there was genocide against the Rohingya but there wasn’t any effective international action on this. Meanwhile, the international community was prepared to lift sanctions and the military budget was also increasing at the same time. So the military felt that they could get away with all of their crimes and they even felt that they could get away with a coup.

Right before the coup, there were elections in November 2020, where the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won what many characterized as a landslide victory. The victory followed their resounding win in the 2015 elections. While seemingly positive, it is difficult to land on how we should reckon with Aung San Suu Kyi. Many applaud her for her activism and for spearheading Myanmar’s transition toward democracy as a Nobel Peace laureate and leader of the NLD. However, at the same time, she cooperated with the military regime and resisted criticizing them once she became state councillor in 2016. She also went as far as to defend the military at the International Criminal Court regarding the war crimes and genocide waged on the Rohingya population. What should we make of her and what is the current sentiment around her in Burma following her heavily-reported imprisonment by the military junta?

Many people in Burma have been very disappointed with Aung San Suu Kyi. Myself, as part of an ethnic group in Burma, I was very disappointed with her and her actions. Once she was in Parliament and in the government, her actions weren’t what we expected. Yes, of course she was constrained in some ways by the Burmese military. But there was nothing in the Constitution that forced her to go and defend the military attacks against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. She even had a flashing fake rape sign on her website and Facebook page amidst allegations of sexual violence inflicted by the military on ethnic minorities. There was nothing stopping her from speaking out about the military attacks on ethnic people. Her government had the power to repeal repressive laws but they kept them and used them, which is very disappointing. She had the power to free all political prisoners but she kept them. And she could have tried to challenge the prejudice against the Rohingya. Instead, she talked about the Rohingya in the context of illegal immigration. Everyone in Burma knew that by that she saw the Rohingya as illegal immigrants, not as part of the people in Burma.

In many ways what she embodied and seemingly advocated for in the beginning, dating back to the 90s, never came to fruition. Even so, Aung San Suu Kyi was subsequently re-elected in 2020, a win the Junta alleged was fraudulent. They subsequently used it as justification for their coup, at least publicly. Is this why the coup happened or is there more behind this?

There are lots of theories. But of course, only the leadership of the military junta knows exactly why they decided on a coup. Some people think it was because economic reforms threatened their economic interests and the business empire run by the generals. Other people think it was because General Min Aung Hlaing, the head of the Burmese military, was facing forced retirement under the Constitution but he wasn’t ready to give up power. One of the first things the military did after the coup was change the retirement age rule.

Of course some always suspected a coup was going to happen but others were surprised because all of the reforms were happening on the military’s terms. Sanctions had been lifted and there were no longer protests and uprisings against the military. Their budget increased and they spent millions on new jets and other military equipment, especially modern equipment. Many people thought that they had too much to lose to hold a coup. But now almost two years on, and the coup has still not succeeded.

Apparently, there were suspected constitutional changes the NLD were seeking to introduce that would hinder the military’s power by abolishing the rule that guaranteed the military 25% of Parliament. Was this a tangible threat to the military? 

I think the resistance from the opposition and the NLD were trying to get civilian rule back in the country. But of course the military were not prepared to cede to popular power.

Source: NPR

As you said, we’re almost two years since the coup. Initially, the military junta said that they were only going to be in power for one year. Do you suspect their rule will end anytime soon?

In terms of the one-year promise, no one paid any attention to that. The military obviously massively miscalculated how the people in Burma would respond to the coup. Maybe the military thought they could go back to the early years, where they had their military-backed government, where sanctions were lifted, and hoping that things would carry on like before. Now they are talking about a new election in 2023. Because of this, it is very important that the international community understand that this election the Burmese military are talking about will not be free and fair. And it will not bring real change for the people in Burma. Everyone should therefore reject it and ignore it.

The military rule will end. Not because the military are going to reform or change; they will never change and they will never reform. Change will come only because of the resistance of the people in Burma and the support we get from the international community. That is why it is so important for us to get support.

People in Burma are doing everything they can to resist this attempted coup. From taking up arms, to peaceful protests, to not paying electricity bills because the energy ministry is controlled by the Burmese military.

“There is unprecedented resistance to the Burmese military and the military is now fighting for their survival.”

Throughout Burma there are various resistance groups, people’s defence forces (PDFs), and ethnic militias. Some believe that the country is on the brink of civil war as these groups develop and become more powerful. How effective are they at countering the junta’s military power and have they gained any traction recently?

Many ethnic groups in Burma, especially the political resistance groups, took up arms decades ago to protect their people against attacks by the Burmese military. And now, many of them have been joined by people’s defence forces, activists, and students who face violence and arrest across the country. This has really changed the situation on the ground. Because in the past, the Burmese military always chose where and when to fight and for how long. Now they have lost control of the conflict agenda. They are on the defensive and they are not used to being in this situation, which is very important for us to understand. They have responded with a very brutal and indiscriminate use of air power, air strikes, against civilians and resistance.

They are using their new fighter jets, helicopters they bought during the so-called “reform process.” They are also using long-range artillery against civilians. At the moment, there is no place where it is safe for the people in different parts of country and we have more than 1.2 million people who are being forced to flee from their homes since the coup.

Immediately after the coup, the country saw massive protests. Since then, the junta has arrested over 13,000 civilians, particularly democracy activists and dissidents. They have also carried out death sentences, marking Myanmar’s first executions in 30 years. There’s no doubt that the military junta has imposed an incredibly violent crackdown on its civilians. Yet, they recently carried out a mass amnesty, releasing 6000 prisoners and four foreigners, who were gaining a lot of media attention because of their imprisonment. Why did they grant this? Were they facing mass international pressure and criticism? Are they seeking international legitimization?

International pressure has played a very important role in what is going on in Burma. However, of the 6000 prisoners who were released recently by the Burmese military, there were only 100 political prisoners among them. General amnesties of prisoners like this are not new. It is very common in Burma on any key important national date. In part, its because the Burmese military wants to clear the overcrowded jails. Also, it’s clear that the number of political prisoners is already back up to more than before the mass amnesty took place. In fact, there have never been so many political prisoners in the country. Under the old military dictatorship, there were usually around 2100 political prisoners. Now there are more than 13,000. This shows the scale of the resistance the Burmese military are facing and also the desperation and fear felt by them in locking up so many people they see as threats to their rule.

Alongside the junta, there are various pro-junta militias operating across Burma made up of former military personnel, police, and other junta supporters. They are carrying out mass killings on opposition voices and civilians, particularly on ethnic minorities. Reports indicate that the junta is funding and equipping them. Can you speak further on these militias and how they’re operating in Burma?

The existence of pro-junta militias as proxies of the Burmese military is a very old common tactic used by the military and they have used it against ethnic minorities for decades. They used them to try to kill Aung San Suu Kyi in 2003. They also used these kinds of proxies during the military offensive against the Rohingya in 2016 and 2017. The purpose of these criminal gangs being used by the Burmese military is terror; it’s the same purpose behind the mass arrests across the country.

“They are using every tactic they can to terrorize the population into submission. It isn’t working.”

You can see it very clearly. So now the military is becoming more discreet and more brutal, using these militias against resistance and against the people of Burma.

Map of Burma. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

Beyond Burma’s borders, Russia and China have historically been key supporters of the country’s military regime. In 2007, they vetoed the US resolution at the UN Security Council urging Burma to stop persecuting minorities and opposition groups. Similarly in 2021, they blocked a UN resolution condemning the recent coup. In addition to this, reports indicate that China and Russia are supplying weapons, surveillance equipment and fighter jets to the junta, which are then used to attack opponents, including civilians. How critical is their support to the military junta?

Both Russia and China provide critical support to the Burmese military both in terms of arms and money, and diplomatic power. In the next few days there may be another attempt at the UN Security Council for a resolution on Burma and it has been massively watered down and it will still face a likely veto by Russia and China, which is very disappointing. Russia especially has seen the attempted coup in Burma as a big opportunity. There are many visits by Russian officials. Back-and-forth meetings between the Burmese officials and the Russian government, with lots of agreements being signed. Without Russian and Chinese arms, equipment, and financial support, the Burmese military would face an even greater struggle to survive.

“The military is boasting about nationalism and independence but they are ultimately dependent on Russia and China for their survival.”

At the same time, you have to remember Western countries are still helping the Burmese military. For example, British, American and European companies are still involved in the supply chain in bringing aviation fuel to Burma. Such fuel is then used by the military to bomb our homes, schools, hospitals, and religious sites through air strikes. Apple still hosts apps from the Burmese military-owned Mytel, a company that subsequently funds the military and its generals. And America still has not sanctioned gas revenue, one of the biggest sources of funding for the Burmese military. The military receives more support from the international community than the democracy movement.

What benefit do Russia and China derive from supporting the junta’s power? Is it merely ideological, in support of authoritarianism? Or, are there economic benefits at play here? 

I think both China and Russia see Burma, specifically the military, as their friend and they have common interests in terms of political ideology and authoritarianism. This is very important for us to understand and to make sure that we reduce the international support of the Burmese military as much as we can to bring back our freedom in Burma.

Burma is composed of over 130 ethnic groups. Even so, the persecution of ethnic minorities has always been present in the country. You yourself were a victim of this, the Rohingya genocide is evidence of it. And most recently, we saw the October airstrike on the concert in Kachin. Can you provide some insight on how and why the military junta is persecuting ethnic minorities, not just today but as a historical phenomenon?

Ethnic people in Burma have been under attack by the central government, including the Burmese military, for decades. The Burmese military indiscriminately attacks civilians, breaking international refugee law and the Geneva Convention. But there hasn’t been any effective and concrete action taken against the Burmese military.

Regarding ethnic diversity, the 130 figure was actually made up by the Burmese military. There hasn’t been any discussion or genuine impartial assessment of different ethnic groups in the country. The number could be more. We don’t know exactly.

The important thing here is the root cause of conflict and dictatorship in the country, which comes down to Burma’s ethnic identity. Historically and even today, the central government refuses to accept Burma as a multi-ethnic and a multi-religious country. One central question about Burma is whether it’s a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country or a Burman Buddhist country with minorities. For the Burmese military, which is dominated by Burman Buddhists, it’s the latter.

“They see ethnic and religious diversity as a threat and foreign.”

They want to destroy it and they want to “Burmanise” the whole country. Unfortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi also sees Burma as a Burman Buddhist country with minorities. When our directors went to meet Aung San Suu Kyi they got a very strong impression that she didn’t see the Muslims in Burma as truly Burmese. What we need is a change in this mindset of Burma as a country that is multi-ethnic and multi-religious, not a Burman Buddhist country. We want everyone in Burma to enjoy the same rights, the same freedoms, regardless of race, ethnicity, background and our gender.

Following your speech at the Geneva Summit in 2012, you spoke about your secret return to the country and speaking to locals. What was the return like and what was the news you received from those still there?

When I went back to Burma and I crossed the border into Karen state and also visited refugee camps, it was very sad to see that the situation hadn’t changed. There was still extreme poverty and attacks by the Burmese military in different part of the region. People in refugee camps had their support cut because the international community thought Burma had changed and wanted to support the so-called “reform process” in the country. For people in internally-displaced areas and refugee camps, they became more desperate as a result because of the cuts on international humanitarian aid.

“It is very sad to see that the international community thought there was change and lifted sanctions and engaged with the Burmese military, which was for nothing really. Just look at the situation on the ground today.”

Since Covid, I have been unable to return to the country but I’ve been in touch with people in Burma on a daily basis: activists, humanitarian workers, community leaders, and students. At the moment, in different ethnic areas, especially in the Karen state where I come from, the Burmese military uses air strikes and long-range artillery to attack civilians on a daily basis. Many people are being forced to flee from their homes. They’re hiding in the jungle without proper food and shelter. People died from treatable diseases and could have been saved from humanitarian aid. They so desperately need aid and a stop to the constant air strikes waged by the Burmese military.

Zoya Phan speaking at the Geneva Summit in 2012.

Your activism and devotion to democracy and peace in Burma is unwavering. You’re the author of your autobiography “Undaunted: My Struggle for Freedom and Survival in Burma.” You are also the founder and director of the Phan Foundation, which promotes education, human rights, and the culture of the Karen ethnic minority in Burma, in addition to being the coordinator of the European Karen Network, and secretary of the Karen Community Association in the UK. You are also the campaign manager for the Burma Campaign UK. Can you tell us more about the work you’re doing now and the campaign’s latest projects? 

Broadly speaking, the campaign’s main job is to raise awareness about the human rights situation in the country; to promote human rights, democracy, and development and to support activists and community leaders who are struggling and fighting for freedom in the country. Additionally, we also aim to mobilize the international community to put maximum pressure on the military and to end impunity. The Burmese military must know that they can’t always get away with their crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. We try to persuade governments across the globe to take stronger action to address the root causes of the crisis in Burma, starting with cutting international support to the military.

At the moment, our top priority is to stop the supply of aviation fuel to Burma because of the human rights and humanitarian crisis and the disaster caused by Burmese military airstrikes. The second is to assist those in crisis and those who have fled attacks by the Burmese military with humanitarian aid. We are also supporting activists across the country in their capacities to effect change in civil society in Burma at large. We would like to see more humanitarian aid going to the people of Burma through cross-border assistance in order to reach different parts of the country otherwise difficult to access because of the military’s attacks.

Lastly, For our readers who want to support the people of Burma, do you have any words of advice, or tangible actions that should be taken in addition to attending conferences like the Geneva Summit?

We really appreciate the support we get from our friends and some international communities but it’s not enough. We need to see a lot more support and action to help our struggle.The fact that the military receives more international support than the democracy movement in Burma is something that must change.

The people of Burma are working very hard to rebuild their lives and we know that we can win our freedom. But it is going to be longer and harder and it can cost more lives and suffering as long as the military receives immense international support as they do now. That’s why it’s very important to cut their supply of arms, revenue and aviation fuel. How can American companies still be allowed to pay millions of dollars to the Burmese military knowing that that money will be used to attack civilians on the ground? Like I said, we really need the international community cut their supply of arms and money to the Burmese military. The international community needs to further deny the Burmese military legitimacy and we need humanitarian aid to go through civil society and community-based organizations so that the Burmese military don’t get a say in who does and does not receive it. We have to make sure the military stops blocking aid to civilians who need it. There need to more and stronger actions in terms of justice and accountability.

On our website,, there are several actions people can take to make a difference, including signing petitions for the release of all political prisoners and to cut off the financial lifeline of the Burmese military. We rely on our supporters and we need more support across the international community.

“One thing we understand is that there is not a shortage of things the international community can do to help us. But there is only a shortage of political will to help.”

That’s why we need to mobilize international public support to get governments to take effective actions against the Burmese military.

Thank you.