The Debate | Opinion | Southeast Asia

How the Movement for Black Lives Can Help Myanmar Activists

As Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

How the Movement for Black Lives Can Help Myanmar Activists

In this June 4, 2020, file photo, demonstrators protest near the White House in Washington, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis.

Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File

On February 1 of this year, the army seized power once again in Myanmar. The crackdown against the anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement has been relentless ever since. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimates that the military regime killed more than 1,000 civilians since the coup.

In mid-July, amid the most difficult moment of the COVID-19 crisis in Myanmar, a picture of a handwritten message went viral on social networks. It read: “‘I can’t breathe,’ said George Floyd, and the whole world was shaken. ‘We can’t breathe,’ said Myanmar People, and the whole world keeps silent!”

The message prompted a series of controversies. Some asked whether the message minimized George Floyd’s murder and the importance of the Movement for Black Lives. Others asked whether it made sense to compare Black America to post-coup Myanmar, and whether doing so ran the risk of dangerously neglecting the historical specificity and political context of each.

In a critical response to the message, Myanmar activist Winnie Thaw compellingly argued that Burmese lives “will never matter until Black Lives Matter.” If so, however, the reciprocal must be true: Black lives will never matter until Burmese lives matter. And although I agree with Thet-Htar Thet when she points out that “countless Black comrades spoke out for us, championed our cause and became allies in our revolution” since and before the coup, I did expect, as an activist of a transnational movement such as #BlackLivesMatter, more – and more incisive – gestures of Black solidarity toward Myanmar since the coup.

Founded in 2013, #BlackLivesMatter is a relatively new movement. However, it is part of a long tradition. As Keisha Blain has argued, the “fight against racism has always been global.” There is a long tradition of Black internationalism dating to the nineteenth century, a tradition that considers injustice and oppression as phenomena with global dimensions and as problems that must be fought against globally.

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The possibility of Afro-Asian solidarity has been, for this tradition, a key political question, one that has marked foreign relations since the early years of the Cold War. Debates about Black-Myanmar solidarity are not new in this regard. Myanmar participated in the Bandung Conference of 1955, and as Su Lin Lewis has recently shown, even before Bandung, Asa Philip Randolph, a prominent African American civil rights leader, sought to forge socialist alliances with Myanmar labor movements in 1952. Articulated around anticolonial, antiimperialist, and anticapitalistic ideals, these encounters have given form to global conceptions of politics that still resonate in the discourse of many activists today.

In the historical process by which Black internationalism has increasingly permeated global politics, it has become common for activists worldwide to connect, as Blain argues, “their own struggles to those of African Americans.” And it is against this background that we must assess the anonymous message that has been circulating on social media since July.

Although the comparison with George Floyd’s murder is controversial and can with good reasons be considered an inapt and even dangerous one, it points to the ways in which Myanmar’s activists have articulated global visions of freedom by connecting their struggle against militarized violence and government neglect to the struggle of Black Americans. It’s an effort to remind the international community and transnational activists that Burmese lives also matter – that the Burmese, too, cannot breathe – by mobilizing the universalistic semantics and grammar that have characterized Black internationalism and brought #BlackLivesMatter to life.

Hence, although the comparison may be unfair, its implicit political claim isn’t: Comparatively, much more attention has been given to our struggle in comparison to theirs. And, in this sense, our silence is disappointing to say the least.

In June, I came across a tweet by Hkun Htoi Layang, the general secretary of the Kachin National Council, in which he lamented that #BurmeseLives “do not seem to matter to #BlackLivesMatter activists,” as we have not shown extensive solidarity for Myanmar since the coup. In a conversation with him, I have had the opportunity to ask what #BlackLivesMatter activists could do to help and support Myanmar activists today. And I agree with his answer: #BlackLivesMatter activists are part of global networks of influence and grassroots power that can (and, I add, must) be used to bring international awareness to the current situation in Myanmar.

In her reflections about the coup, Nicole Tu-Maung has developed, in this regard, an insightful conception of solidarity. For her, solidarity consists in acknowledging our positionality, identifying our leverage, and using our privilege in order to support others. We must first identify how we “relate to events and people” in Myanmar. Before acting, we must hence recognize that we are above all outsiders. The second step is to identify the leverages we have: our “networks,” the “resources” at our disposal, and our “skills.” Finally, we must use “our privilege to support, not oppress.” And as Tu-Maung importantly underscores, we must “avoid making claims, analyses, or assertions that distract from voices in Myanmar.”

In this sense, what could #BlackLivesMatter activists do today? We can help to empower Myanmar activists by sharing and supporting their calls, demands, and messages, by organizing events and participating in the events they organize, and by pressing the international community to support their movement more actively. Depending on our skills, we can, as Tu-Maung suggests, “translate, make connections, raise awareness, fundraise, write letters, create art.” Despite the oppression Black people endure across the globe, we are an important and strong voice in world politics. Our help is especially important in the decisive moments that will follow the National Unity Government’s recent call for a nationwide uprising against the military junta.

To be sure, activists have good reasons to avoid taking stances on political conflicts and movements with which they are not familiar. But this is a challenge that characterizes all forms of global solidarity and, as members of a transnational movement, we have the responsibility to actively learn about what is currently happening around the world. Since the coup, activists have produced a variety of materials in English that shed light on the history of and the current situation in Myanmar, materials that can help us in the task of educating ourselves. The hashtag #WhatIsHappeninginMyanmar is also a key source for those wishing to familiarize themselves with the post-coup scenario in the country.

In his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” #BlackLivesMatter activists have taken this idea seriously since the founding of the movement, and it is time for us to show more solidarity with the people of Myanmar.