In the early hours of 1 February 2021 a military coup took place in Myanmar (formerly Burma), on the day that the newly elected government was due to take up office. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, and others were arrested, and a one-year state of emergency was announced. These events were horribly reminiscent of previous military coups in 1962 and 1988. This time the military justified the coup by claiming “voter fraud”, though no evidence has been produced.
Civil disobedience movement
Many young people in Myanmar voted for the first time in the November 2020 election. They feel betrayed by the coup that overturned their democratic voice and fear the return of military rule. They, and other Myanmar (Burmese) people, have been demonstrating since the coup: first cautiously and quietly; then through the symbolic banging of pots and pans to drive out the oppressors; and finally by thronging the streets of Myanmar’s cities and towns in numbers not seen since the demonstrations of 1988. This growing civil disobedience movement has been remarkable in attracting hundreds of thousands of people to daily protest marches, characterised by the use of the three-fingered Hunger Games salute, previously used by demonstrators in Thailand.
Social media and mobilising protests
When I first had contact with Myanmar in 2013, the country was still under military rule, with nightly curfews and limited access to goods and services. Since then, and especially since elections in 2015, the country has opened up dramatically, with huge investment from China, Japan and other (largely) Asian countries. High-rise blocks now fill the skyline of Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, while shopping malls, cinemas and cafés have started to introduce a more consumer lifestyle alongside the traditional open markets and street stalls.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the advent of the internet and social media, largely accessed through mobile phones. This is the main way in which young people and others have mobilised protests and communicate what is happening to the rest of the world. Photos and videos of demonstrations are posted daily on Myanmar Facebook sites, gathering hundreds of supportive messages and comments.
The military tried to clamp down on this by cutting the internet, TV channels and phone lines after they seized power. No such curbs were introduced when online hate speech fuelled the army’s atrocities against the Rohingya in 2017. Now internet shut-downs have been repeated regularly over the past two weeks. To evade these restrictions, instructions for downloading virtual private networks were quickly posted on Facebook and Twitter.
“You messed with the wrong generation”
Schools and universities have been closed for nearly a year because of Covid-19, so young people have been free to gather daily at protest points in Yangon and other cities. These gatherings have been striking for their creativity and at times carnival-like atmosphere. Music students have brought instruments to play revolutionary songs, young women have paraded in evening dress, while others have dressed as super-heroes and entertained the crowds with acrobatics. But behind these apparently light-hearted events, there is anger and despair. University students have started a “Lennon Wall”, a method used by Hong Kong protesters, using coloured notes to spread their messages and ask for help.
“You messed with the wrong generation” has become one of the slogans of the protests. One young woman told The Irrawaddy: “Our parents had to suffer under the [former] dictatorship. We won’t let them ruin our future as well.” Although the military have announced plans to reopen schools, teachers have cast doubts on this, given the current situation, and students are reluctant to return while the military are in charge and elected leaders and activists are still being held.
Many young protesters blame China for encouraging the coup. They demonstrate outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon and have started online campaigns to boycott Chinese goods. Student leaders from 18 universities across Myanmar have written to the Chinese government, urging them not to cooperate with the Myanmar military, and to help restore the elected government. This is probably a vain hope.
What does the future hold for Myanmar?
It is easy to be pessimistic about how events in Myanmar will unfold in the coming weeks and months, especially as previous uprisings ended in bloodshed. Some high school students who demonstrated in the capital, Naypyidaw, have been arrested, and leading activists are being rounded up in night-time raids in Yangon and elsewhere. The army has already used water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition against protesters in Naypyidaw and the northern city of Mandalay, and one young woman and two young male protesters have been killed.
Some semblance of normality may return to the streets of Yangon, but the military are enormously powerful and arguably kept the reins of power in Myanmar beneath a veneer of democracy in recent years.
However, some commentators think the generals have miscalculated, underestimating the strength of “Generation Z” and their ability to mobilise opposition to the coup. Young people’s use of social media to ensure global coverage of the demonstrations may give some measure of protection. Foreign diplomats from 14 embassies in Myanmar, including the UK and EU, have warned the military: “The world is watching.”
The UN human rights committee has also condemned the military action, though the UN statement was watered down by China and Russia. Joe Biden acted swiftly and imposed sanctions directly targeted at the generals and their financial interests. The West should now work together with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and persuade China to help bring about an urgent resolution to this crisis.
The young people who are opposing the coup so bravely deserve no less to have their future freedoms protected.