In This Episode
- It’s been over two months since the military first seized control of Myanmar. The coup was met with a massive protest movement in the streets, in workplaces, and on the internet. As a response, the military has become increasingly violent in their crackdown, killing over 500 people and jailing thousands more. We spoke to Aye Min Thant, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has been reporting on the coup since February about the country’s past, present, and future.
- And in headlines: An executive order on “ghost guns,” relief money for undocumented essential workers in New York state, and conflict at Mrs. Sri Lanka pageant.
Akilah Hughes: It’s Friday, April 9th, I’m Akilah Hughes
Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, the podcast they play at the White House when they need Joe Biden’s dog to calm down.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and based on news reports, they’re playing it 24/7. You know, this is their Jock Jams. They love it. [laughs] On today’s show, we give you an inside look at the military coup in Myanmar, and then some headlines
Gideon Resnick: As a reminder, that coup began on February 1st. On that day, the parliament was set to hold its first session since the fall elections, where the National League for Democracy, or NLD, won a majority of seats. But the military refused to accept the results and detained leaders of the party in addition to other officials, including the NLD’s president, Aung San Suu Kyi. From there, the military swiftly began to take control of infrastructure, the media, and also suspended phone access and flights.
Akilah Hughes: Then later the same month, what had been largely peaceful protests turned deadly when two unarmed protesters were killed by security forces, including a 16-year old boy. There was also a protest in the form of a general strike on February 22nd. But with each passing day, the military has become more violent towards civilians. The military has now killed over 550 people, and detained or tortured many thousands more, according to one human rights group. Among those dead, more than 40 children.
Gideon Resnick: And basic information has been hard to come by for the people in Myanmar. Under the military’s control, journalists have been arrested, non-state owned newspapers have stopped publishing, and Internet outages are frequent. But despite all that, Aye Min Thant has been able to report. Thant was there from the very beginning, giving an eyewitness account of what they were seeing on the streets. They’re a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and they had to flee the country two weeks ago, but have been meticulously covering the events. We spoke to them this week about Myanmar’s past, present and future. Here is that conversation.
Akilah Hughes: Aye, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. We really, really appreciate it.
Aye Min Thant: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Akilah Hughes: So first off, I just want to ask, you know, how are you doing? Because, you know, it’s been an incredibly intense and scary time from everything that we’re seeing online about it and the news reports that we are getting. You know, how are how are you feeling?
Aye Min Thant: I think every hour is a little bit different. You know, the coup, the dynamics of it changes day by day. And, you know, there are some days where, you know, 140 people get killed. And there’s some days where you count yourself lucky that it’s just one or two. And those are unfortunately now the good days.
Akilah Hughes: wow.
Aye Min Thant: So, you know, I think there’s a lot of grief and collective mourning that’s happening, as well as, you know, a fair bit of anger. And sometimes also—I think a lot of times, also—quite a lot of joy. You know, the first night when they started using, like sound grenades in Yangon, you know, you heard all these like very scary loud booms going off all over the city. And then out of the darkness, you hear someone yell Happy New Years! And people refusing to be cowed, and just really saying, you know, no matter what’s happening, we’re going to live our lives and we’re going to be happy and there’s going to be a future.
Akilah Hughes: Absolutely. I mean, we’re incredibly happy that you’re in a safe place and you’re even able to talk to us. But can you tell us a little bit more about the past couple of months? You know, like what did the day-to-day look like under the coup while you were still in Myanmar?
Aye Min Thant: You know, I think when you’re outside the country, it’s, it can seem like it’s just chaos and violence all the time everywhere, but the violence can get really localized in certain areas. So in Yangon, the main commercial city, the districts that are being focused on are where the majority of low-wage factory workers are working. Where, you know, they’re heavily unionized, are very organized, and they’ve been part of the leading force of the civil disobedience movement against the coup because, you know, they’re poorer, they’re probably less connected, and sort of violence against the poor is kind of just normalized, right, in a lot of ways. Where wealthier neighborhoods are not targeted the same way. You know, there are some neighborhoods where people are getting manicures and just going out for brunch.
Akilah Hughes: Wow.
Aye Min Thant: And there are other townships where in this very same city there’s essentially—not a war, because it’s not two groups of combatants—but, you know, just essentially massacres happening.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. And tens of thousands of people have been participating in what’s being called the Civil Disobedience Movement, or CDM. Can you talk a little bit more about the different ways that people are taking part?
Aye Min Thant: Yeah, I think there’s been quite a lot of international focus on the street protests, which, you know, obviously visually it’s very striking. And some of the sort of main strategic goals of the civil disobedience movement are to try to deny the military regime legitimacy, funding and cooperation. So in terms of legitimacy, there is a huge push towards the international community to not associate with the regime, to not speak to them, to not in any way acknowledge them as the government of Myanmar. And then the move to starve the regime essentially of funding. There’s been push for sanctions. There’s been push for companies to not pay taxes as long as that money is going towards the military regime. And then there’s a movement of civil servants who are choosing not to go to work. Who, you know, are essentially risking not just their salaries, but also their homes. The government provides housing for most civil servants who choose to take it. These are all people who have all of their information in a government database, where they can just come and essentially arrest you.
Akilah Hughes: Geez.
Aye Min Thant: And we’ve seen that the regime is not picky about who they arrest. They were looking for one National League for Democracy member—the sort of party that won the most votes in the election—and because he wasn’t home, they took his 2-year old child.
Gideon Resnick: Oh.
Akilah Hughes: Wow. So you mentioned the military violence, which, you know, is really striking online—the videos that we’ve seen are horrible, the pictures are terrifying. And, you know, this is happening to protesters and regular civilians. So how has this affected the outlook or the general approach of the resistance movement?
Aye Min Thant: There’s definitely a significant portion of protesters and anti-coup activists who believe that, you know, either self-defense or active engagement is the way forward. You know, Myanmar has one of the world’s longest-running civil wars: they’re 70 years deep into these wars in certain areas of the country. And so there are these many groups of small armies and militias around the country that, for now, we mostly see them accompanying protesters in the regions that they’re active in in order to ensure that these protesters don’t get shot. And that’s in part why we see more shootings in places like Yangon, where these armed groups are not active. But as more and more engagement happens, it’s becoming more and more likely that we will see more violence at a sort of—much more dispersed violence throughout the country from multiple angles.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. And we had talked about this earlier, but, you know, you had to flee the country—what was the point that made you think that it was best to get out, and what have thing’s been like for journalists as of late?
Aye Min Thant: I decided to get out when I thought that was sort of my privileges as a U.S. passport holder would essentially provide no more protection. You know, being a foreign national in Myanmar you have quite a lot of privileges. I mean, I look Burmese and so there’s visually there’s usually a little less protection.
Akilah Hughes: [laughs] Yeah.
Aye Min Thant: Like if I was a blond white lady, you know, maybe less likely to get accidentally shot. But I decided when they began to target journalists specifically, and began to arrest foreign journalists, that I would be leaving there. Essentially the week I made that decision, another Burmese-American journalist had actually gotten arrested. And, you know, I am too soft for jail. And what else—
Akilah Hughes: That’s what I always say. Yeah [laughs] Couldn’t be me.
Aye Min Thant: I decided to leave before it was too late for me to leave.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah.
Aye Min Thant: The situation for journalism is fairly bleak. Although I think there’s also hope, in that Myanmar people are very creative, and they, you know, they’ve lived under dictatorship for a very long time and have found ways to be subversive. And so even with all of these Internet shut-downs and cutting mobile data, news is still getting out. And there’s also been a few essentially newsletters that are starting up now. Now, the newspapers have essentially stopped printing if they’re not military-run, but there are these sort of like one- to two-page pamphlets that people are just passing out in the streets, and just going really low-tech in the face of these sort of more high-tech suppression efforts.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. How do you feel about how Western or international coverage has been about the unrest? You know, what are these outlets getting right? What are they getting wrong? You know, what’s your, what’s your sense of it?
Aye Min Thant: I think there’s been a little bit too much focus on the street protests. Like especially what television news. Like, you know, it’s, like street protests are sexy. They look good on camera.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, exactly. There’s lots of people there. You can get a lot of angles.
Aye Min Thant: And like violence is attention-grabbing. But that’s not, the street protests are not where this movement is going to succeed or fail. You know, this is a fight for legitimacy, right, within the country, but also on the international stage. And I really wish there was more conversation about that, and sort of what is happening there, and a deeper exploration of the actors at play in Myanmar. I think when we talk about Myanmar coverage, there’s just so much focus on how is the U.S. reacting? China? But I think in a moment where we’re seeing like a people-led revolution, and people-led movements all throughout the world, including in the US, it’s really frustrating that a lot of sort of mass media is really focused on like who are—like what are like the leaders doing? The like, the people who are not sort of living with the daily consequences.
Akilah Hughes: This is kind of a big picture question, but, you know, what outcomes and changes are you hoping to see after, you know, hopefully this coup ends and hopefully soon? You know, like what do you really want to see included in a post-coup constitution?
Aye Min Thant: Myanmar needs a reset, essentially. You know, I think a lot of the problems we’re seeing in Myanmar are based on the fact that everything has such a sort of deep historical roots. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now being held by the military and being tried, is being tried under a number of different charges.—but the biggest one is the Official Secrets Act, which is a law from the colonial era where essentially possessing information that could potentially be harmful to the state is a crime. Which, you know, the leader of a nation would have that information.
Gideon Resnick: Right. Right.
Akilah Hughes: Exactly. If they don’t have it, who does? [laughs]
Aye Min Thant: But yeah, like essentially a reimagining of Myanmar that includes people and centers people, based on civic and community engagement and participation as the main way in which we decide who belongs to a country. A constitution where the rights and heritage of ethnic minorities and religious minorities are respected. So, yeah, I would want to see a constitution that redistributes power more to individuals and communities, and really grapples with Myanmar’s diversity and includes protections for that in a just way.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah.
Akilah Hughes: I hope for that, too.
Gideon Resnick: We hope for it as well. Well, Aye, thank you so much again for taking the time to speak with us today. Really just unbelievable conversation. Thank you.
Aye Min Thant: Yeah. Thank you for having me and for covering the story.
Akilah Hughes: That was, Aye Min Thant, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s been covering the coup in Myanmar since Day 1. We’ll link to their Twitter account so you can continue to follow the story through their own reporting. And that’s the latest for now.
Akilah Hughes: It’s Friday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we’re talking about a brand new type of document forgery. Hundreds of people on places like Etsy and Facebook are now selling fake CDC vaccination cards.
Gideon Resnick: Ugh.
Akilah Hughes: These are the cards you get after your shot, and the idea is to sell to anti-vaxxers who want to do things like get free Krispy Kreme or fly on a plane, but don’t want to actually protect themselves or the people around them. 45 state attorneys general got together last week to demand that Twitter, Shopify and eBay block the sale of fake cards. If you see them being sold, keep your finger on the “block and report” button. Giddy, what is your take on this?
Gideon Resnick: This is a disaster. I mean, in all kinds of ways. First of all, if you are a person that didn’t want some sort of formalized vaccine passport to happen, this is the exact kind of thing that would make that happen. Because if people are going to try to figure out who is and is not vaccinated to keep people safe in various settings, if you have a fake one that you’re presenting, buddy: you’ve earned yourself an annoying phone app, you’ve earned yourself some other thing that is going to ask for more information. And second, why would you pay for a thing that is free? The vaccine is free!
Akilah Hughes: Right. [laughs] Exactly. The vaccine is free and helps you, but I guess you’ll have this piece of paper that ultimately probably won’t, and is you know, I don’t know how expensive they are, but I can’t imagine spending more than 50 cents on a piece of paper. Like, I don’t really understand. But, you know, these vultures saw a market for it and decided that, you know, it was their time.
Gideon Resnick: And also, you can’t insulate yourself from the pandemic. What is Step 2 after you purchase one of these and then go to one of the places where you’d be faking to get in? You get sick? Because you’re not vaccinated? What is Step 2?
Akilah Hughes: [laughs] right. You played yourself.
Gideon Resnick: I don’t understand.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, right. It doesn’t make any sense at all. And I think that, like, for me, the biggest thing is like, if you truly don’t want to get the vaccine, you should own that. Like, I am owning very loudly that I got the vaccine. I’m happy to have it. But like, if you’re a person who’s like: I don’t want the vaccine—why lie? Why lie? I think you just have to own your choices. And it’s really cowardly to opt out of just like getting something that honestly isn’t even that big of a friggin deal.
Gideon Resnick: Right. Right.
Akilah Hughes: It’s just, it’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed and I think like, yeah, it’s only going to make the record-keeping much more intense because like: yeah, thanks a lot, you’ve introduced this new, this new variable—people who are bored on Etsy and want to make a few bucks. But just like that, we’ve checked our temps. Stay safe, and by that I mean just get the vaccine! Like, I don’t know why we’re out here doing everything but doing that, just give the vaccine if you can. And we’ll be back after some ads.
Akilah Hughes: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Gideon Resnick: President Biden unveiled new executive actions to address gun violence, yesterday. One action, aimed to restrict access to so-called “ghost guns” which are guns built using parts and instructions bought online—meaning the buyer doesn’t need to have a background check and the gun won’t have a serial number. Another rule targets stabilizing braces, which can transform pistols into more dangerous short-barreled rifles. This device was used by the gunman in the Boulder, Colorado, shooting just last month. And lastly, President Biden announced that the Justice Department would publish “Red Flag” legislation for states to model their own rules after. Red Flag laws, allow officers or family members to petition to take a person’s firearms away if they are at risk to themselves or others. Biden admitted that much more needs to be done, and pressed Congress to take more aggressive action.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, Joe Manchin, step aside. New York State will start offering relief payments to undocumented immigrants who lost their jobs during the pandemic. The state legislature approved a new budget, including a $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund, which will provide one-time payments of up to $15,000 per person. An estimated 300,000 people in the state will finally get the relief they’ve been needing. Undocumented workers across the country were not eligible for essential federal aid, such as stimulus checks or unemployment benefits, during the pandemic. And many of them came out to protest for relief in the weeks leading up to the budget deadlines, with some even participating in a three-week long hunger strike that ended this week. The pandemic relief fund is one of the largest of its kind to date, even beating out a similar program passed in California last year, which only offered a one-time $500 payment.
Gideon Resnick: There is hope that one of Trump’s first acts of presidential earth destruction can be undone, as Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is visiting Bears Ears’ National Monument in Utah this week. So Trump shrank the monument by 85% in 2017, despite its great historical and religious significance to the Navajo and four other tribes. Navajo Nation has asked Haaland to help restore the monument to its original boundaries, or expand it beyond them. Utah’s Republican governor and other state leaders don’t want that, saying they’d rather manage land locally—no D.C. elite is going to tell them that they have to respect native cultures in their own backyard! To get a sense of how the hands-off approach is going, guides say that the 1000-year old cliff dwellings in Bears Ears are frequently vandalized, while fossils and pottery fragments are looted—if you’re doing that, you are a monster in my book. Secretary Haaland is expected to recommend that the monument be restored to the 1.35 million acres that Obama designated in 2016.
Akilah Hughes: It’s kind of weird that the Republican governor is so upset about it, even though Donald Trump was not local when he made that choice. [laugh] So, yeah, I think you all don’t mind D.C. meddling. Quick update in international pageant news: there was a major controversy during the televised Mrs. Sri Lanka competition this weekend, where a former winner and current Mrs. World took the crown off her successor’s head and allegedly caused injuries. This happened during the televised awards ceremony. Mrs. World winner Caroline Jury came on stage and announced that the 2021 Mrs. Sri Lanka winner, Pushpika de Silva, was ineligible for the prize because she had been divorced. That rule does actually exist because every beauty pageant has its own bad quirks, but De Silva later clarified that she hadn’t violated it: she and her husband were separated but still married. Thank God. That wasn’t communicated in the heat of the moment, and the crown was briefly given to the runner-up. Following the Moonlight versus La La Land moment on stage, Mrs. World was arrested yesterday and later released on bail. This all could have been avoided if Sandra Bullock had been there undercover.
Gideon Resnick: Where is Miss Congeniality? We’ve been asking.
Akilah Hughes: I mean . Congeniality is who they really needed. And those are the headlines. One more thing before we go, remind your elected officials that they work for you, with our new line of “Hold Elected Officials Accountable” merch. As always, a portion of every order in the Crooked Store goes to support VoteRiders. Shop now at Crooked.com/store.
Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, get a real CDC vaccination card, and tell your friends to listen.
Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just pageant rules like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Akilah Hughes
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And protect Bears Ears!
Akilah Hughes: The real ones, and the name of the park. You know, bears who have ears need to be protected just as much.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, if there are any bears are listening with their ears: thank you.
Akilah Hughes: What a day is a production of Crooked Media.
Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.
Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon is our assistant producer.
Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes, and me.
Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.