Protestors on the streets of Yangon are creative, passionate, aware, and in no mood to go home.
Yangon, Myanmar – “We want democracy.” “Respect our vote.”
It’s been seven days of protests in Myanmar now. There’s a sea of people coming from every street in Yangon and heading towards Hleden centre and from there they walk towards Sule – which has turned into a pedestrian zone. The tens of thousands of people come out onto the streets every day to show their support to the state chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, seeking an end to the military rule after the coup.
The civil disobedience movement started by medical officers and nurses in Mandalay has been joined by trade unions, teachers, journalists, monks, nuns and government officials in civil services.
“I joined my queens to show my resistance towards the military coup. We walked in high heels from Tamwe to Sule (around 7-8 km),” said Thandar who was dressed to the nines and looked tired, but happy. Her group was walking with the mock funeral services for General Min Aung Hlaing. Several of these mock funerals were seen across Yangon.
A big chunk of protestors on the roads are the youth of Myanmar. They identify as Generation Z, are well organised and well prepared. Each day they have a new strategy to deal with the fear. There are volunteers with each group that’s joining the bigger groups to clean up after themselves.
Eco warriors, punk musicians and Instagram influencers have joined the force. A couple dressed up as bride and groom showed up in front of the UN holding placards “My wedding can wait, not this movement.”
A Rebel Bat inspired by Batman on a big black SUV without a number plate was seen standing on the roof of the jeep with a new slogan every day “Everything is impossible until somebody does it.”
Thiri is wearing her favourite red saree and protesting in front of the Indian Embassy. She said she has never visited India but her ID card states she is Indian-Myanmar. Her great grandfather came to Yangon from Surat, a city in Gujarat. “We want India to support us. They are friends of Aung San Suu Kyi and democracy.”
The Indian government hasn’t issued any statement in support at the time of publishing.
Commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing has formed his new cabinet. He is insisting that his act is constitutional and it is just a cabinet ‘reshuffle’. State Chancellor Aung San Suu Kyi is facing charges over the illegal import of walkie talkies.
An official document was circulating that shows that the military is also bringing its own cyber security bill. We have seen in other countries in Asia how cyber security bills are used to suppress and punish voices of dissent. Myanmar ICT for Development Organisation (MIDO) tweeted:
The military gov had sent out a request for consultation to the “cyber security bill” dated yesterday to the telcos with many clauses which will legalise them to order shutdowns, website bans, content take downs and interceptions. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar #myanmarcoup #KeepItOn pic.twitter.com/aF0ilUl9O8— MIDO (@myanmarido) February 10, 2021
The proposed law was rejected by 31 civil society organisations in a signed statement. The statement said the proposed cyber security law by the new military junta is to safeguard dictatorship. It will allow it to ban content it dislikes, restrict internet providers and intercept data – in short, it would violate human rights.
One possible trigger for bringing people into the streets was the 20-hour, and in some areas, 36-hour, internet blackout across the country last Saturday. Experts said it was counter-productive.
“You can’t expect people to stay home without the internet which is a basic necessity in 2021,” says Ma Thin who works closely with right activists.
Local activists and youth bought VPN serial numbers in bulk and were giving it out for free. “We want Myanmar's youth to stay connected to the world. We want the world to see what is happening. It is not 1988. They can’t get away with this. They messed with the wrong generation,” said one protestor dressed up in cat onesie.
In 1988, Myanmar's military junta cracked down on anti-military government demonstrations. Hundreds of protestors were killed and Aung San Suu Kyi was thrown into house arrest by 1989 – which lasted until 1995. Suu Kyi spent 15 of the 21 years between 1989 and 2010 under house arrest.
The dark days of 1988 are still imprinted in people's minds and the memories of those brutal events are passed on from one generation to another.
“This is different times. We have the internet. Our Generation Z knows what they are doing. In 1988, we still don’t know who started the demonstrations. Today we know the exact date and time the coup happened and a bullet used against protestors,” Ko Min, a youth leader who spent 15 years in prison under false charges by the military junta. He is one of those activists who was pardoned after the NLD came to power.
The atmosphere on the streets is jubilant. Covid-19 restrictions have suddenly disappeared. Families are coming out dressed to the hilt with food baskets and placards, taking breaks during their walks from one gathering point to another.
The military leadership is reluctant to hold talks with the protestors. There is confirmed news that they have reached out to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who came to power initially through a coup in 2014. He told the media that he has received a letter from the Myanmar military to ‘support democracy’ in Myanmar. Asking a coup-installed leader to support democracy is an 'oxymoron' said one youth activist in Yangon.
Non-violent civil disobedience
The 8pm pot-banging on balconies and streets is getting louder with every passing day. The military issued shoot-on-sight orders on the third day of civil disobedience but it hasn’t stopped people and they are seen defying the orders.
In Myanmar it is believed that banging pots wards off evil.
“We are showing our stance by beating and warding off these evil generals. We are not going on the streets. We are not going to do violence on the streets. We are going to remain calm and fight this evil dictator,” said Thant Sen. Images of senior citizens banging pots and crossing out the picture of General Min Aung Laing are still going viral. Celebrities and artists have also joined the movement.
Dr Cho Yu Mon, the headmistress of a high school in Hpa-an city (Kayin State) was arrested Friday afternoon and later released after participating in the civil disobedience campaign. She was charged under Penal Code 505 (b) for causing “fear or alarm to the public.” It is the first known instance of a civil disobedience campaigner arrested.
Students of the Government Technical Institute and students and alumni of the Myanmar Mercantile Marine College protested in front of their universities. In Mandalay, red balloons were released in support of NLD leaders who were arrested.
The NLD issued a statement showing support for the supporters participating in the “Iron Bucket Campaign” and “Civil disobedience Campaign”. They also pledged to help and support those who were arrested or dismissed for participating in those campaigns.
A huge number of Myanmar's citizens have moved from Facebook to Twitter and from WhatsApp to Signal. Local and international support is pouring in and many online donation campaigns have emerged to help protestors. There was a rumour about a blanket ban on Facebook, which the Ministry of Communication Information said were "spreading fake news misinformation causing misunderstanding." It was debunked. Credible news reports are being debunked by MRTV's (state-run) Twitter account.
The protests are now a week old, and it doesn't seem like Myanmar's youth is going to give up any time soon.