‘I can’t betray our people at this age’ — Elderly Karen politician takes up arms against the junta

September 1st, 2021  •  Author:   Mahn Johnny (Kyonpyaw Township)  •  7 minute read
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The Spring Revolution signifies a ‘knockout fight’ between the people and the military, says Mahn Johnny, who, at nearly 80 years old is still committed to winning

By Myanmar Now

Former Ayeyarwady Region Chief Minister Mahn Johnny represented the National League for Democracy (NLD) in four elections, from 1990 until 2020. He won a parliamentary seat every time.

On Saturday, the Dawkalu Network Facebook page published photos of Mahn Johnny wearing army fatigues and holding a loaded rifle, stating that he had joined others across the country in taking up arms against the junta that seized power in the February 1 military coup.

Myanmar Now spoke with the nearly 80-year-old ethnic Karen politician about his thoughts on the anti-dictatorship movement. Following this interview and the earlier release of the photos, Mahn Johnny’s home was raided on Sunday by around 20 junta soldiers, who briefly detained his son and allegedly seized property including a car.

Myanmar Now: Almost seven months after the military coup, we are seeing a photo of you holding a gun. What is your role in the movement?

Mahn Johnny: We cannot accept the coup because it is a heinous crime. I will openly and boldly say that I will continue fighting against this injustice, because that is what I believe in.

MN: Do you believe the movement will succeed?

MJ: I believe that we will achieve 100 percent success, because we are on the right side. They have seized power unjustly.

Since the day of the military coup, the people have been protesting to express how much they are suffering, but the junta shot them dead. In the past, the 1988 pro-democracy uprising ended in failure because people could not see video footage of the crackdowns until one or two weeks after it had happened. Now we can see it almost immediately.

I am a representative of the Upper House, elected by the citizens. I am 80 years old now. I cannot betray our people at this age. Even if the military does not kill me, I will die. I always meditate on the fact that I could die at any time. They [the military leaders] will also die—they are mortal, too. If they earned the people’s respect, adoration and love, they might be elected to government, too.

Mahn Johnny has won four elections while running on behalf of the NLD (Supplied)

MN: How do you keep up your morale at this age? 

MJ: It’s strange. I was not in good enough health in February to go to Parliament [as planned]. At that time, people had to help me even to get out of bed. When I arrived in Naypyitaw [before the coup], I needed to fill out a form, but I could not even hold a pen. Yet now, because I exercise regularly, I can run again. All of those previous illnesses seem to be gone. I do not know what happened. I am not even taking any medication.

During my tenure as Chief Minister, I was in three car accidents, but I did not die. I suffered from one disease after another. Now I am very healthy. I can run—anyone who is the same age as me who wants to race me can come and try!

MN: PDFs—People’s Defence Forces—have been formed. We have heard that they have links to ethnic armed organisations. How connected are these revolutionary forces in their struggle to overthrow the military dictatorship? 

MJ: The links between groups are not new. The connections have been established since the [anti-coup] strike began.

I will continue my fight whether we win or lose. Even if they do not kill us, many people have died from Covid-19, suffering. Some people will die in battle. Every mortal will die. So we have to work for the people every day. Now, I am 80, so it is near the end of my life. I have already chosen how I will live during the last days of my life. I will never betray the people because it is the people who have elected me.

Mahn Johnny (front right) talks with Aung San Suu Kyi in 2019 (Mahn Johnny’s Facebook page)

MN: The NLD often spoke of the principle of national reconciliation, but the military staged a coup. Has national reconciliation been damaged?

MJ: There must be an army, but we do not want a military dictatorship. We must get rid of it. Frankly, this is a knockout fight. They will attack us and we will attack them. If they win, they will take it all. If we win, we will take it. They have one of the most powerful armies in Southeast Asia. But the people are revolting against that powerful army. Are they able to control us now? Have they won? Think about it.

Who gave birth to these soldiers? Farmers and workers—the citizens gave birth to them. So, why are they killing their people? That’s what we cannot accept.

MN: Is the coup going to lead to an unfortunate end for the military leaders? As a veteran politician and former chief minister, what do you think?

MJ: That’s a very good question. The people need to be involved. If the people are involved, we will be able to get rid of [the junta]. They are shooting at anyone, so the people now feel that they are just unruly gunmen. They can no longer win the hearts of the people. They are losing.

The military should treat the citizens as if the citizens were their father and mother. If they would accept that they must serve the people, everything would be all right. But now we are in a boxing ring. We will have to knock them out.

MN: What would you like to say about the pretext of electoral fraud that the military coup was based on?

MJ: We do not accept it at all. In the electoral commissions, there are a lot of people from [the military’s] side, including secretaries. They told us to check the voter lists. We checked the voter lists three times, carefully. If they were not satisfied with the lists, they could have cancelled the voter lists [before the election]. They could have called off the election by saying that some areas were unstable. But they did not. Only when we had won the election did they seize power and say it was because the voter lists were incorrect.

After the election results were announced to the world, it was ridiculous to say that the election was rigged.

MN: What message do you want to give to the people involved in the Spring Revolution?

MJ: I was a student who participated in the July 7 Uprising [in 1962]. In 1988, I was an assistant township education officer. Looking back on all of this, were my 80 years of life full of thorns? We can see clearly who planted those thorns, so I will continue doing what I need to do. Citizens, please support us because we will continue working for you. We must win.

MN: Is there anything else you would like to say? 

MJ: I want to tell the citizens that with their cooperation, we can win it all. They have a key role. They are our father and mother. If the citizens are involved [in the pro-democracy movement], we will win. This is a knockout fight. If [the military] does not lose, we will lose. If we do not lose, they will lose.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. 

Original Post: Myanmar Now