* Yangon has been masked up and non-essential workers have stayed at home since August. Now, everybody is essential — but in the service of democracy
* Banks and businesses are shut down, ATMs empty, the local bus service is almost non-existent, and petrol prices have gone up by 20 per cent in less than a month
* One of the most-repeated slogans of the anti-coup protests is “You messed with the wrong generation” — referring to those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s
* For two weeks now the Tatmadaw sets my bedtime. Every night at 1 am the internet goes down to promptly return at 9 am. Since the coup, the junta has issued 12 directives to block IP addresses, websites, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and, for extended periods, the internet
A few months before she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi wrote: “The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.” Three decades later, the people of Myanmar have proved every day of the last month that they have taken her words to heart.
At the crack of dawn of February 1, Myanmar’s infamous military — the Tatmadaw — took over the country in a coup, arrested President Win Myint, Aung San Suu Kyi, and several of her key party leaders, and declared a year-long emergency. Once the initial shock wore off, mass protests started across the country under the umbrella of a leaderless civil disobedience movement (CDM). Across the world, as Valentine’s Day brought the overconsumption of roses, teddy bears, and hotel nights, Yangon saw a vastly different type of excess: Armoured vehicles, tanks and trucks filled with soldiers arrived to patrol the streets alongside the police.
Still, by February 17, the streets were again a sea of people — more than a million people marched for democracy across Myanmar. On February 22, one of the CDM slogans “Don’t go to office, break free” was taken up by seemingly the whole population. The country went on general strike. Not that many people have been going to office in the first place. The Covid-19 pandemic was a good preparation for the coup. Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, has been masked up and non-essential workers have stayed at home since August. Now, everybody is essential — but in the service of democracy.
Even compared to the limitations of movement we got used to under Covid-19, daily routines have become further disrupted since the coup. Banks and businesses are shut down, ATMs empty, the local bus service is almost non-existent, and petrol prices have gone up by 20 per cent in less than a month. The streets are visibly emptier, adding to the joy of children who can now run around freely, and listen to and often join in this adult ‘street party’ with red flags and shouting. Some things go on almost as usual — groceries are available though all shops have limited opening hours. And there is a new household chore for many of the stay-at-home protesters: Batch-cooking meals for those on the streets.
For anybody who spent 2020 under stay-at-home order in Yangon, the song of the year was a government-sponsored hit with the memorable refrain “Go away corona”. But from 2021 we will all remember the jugalbandi of rallying cries: “Our cause...” — “...must succeed!” and “Military dictator, fail, fail” and “Democracy, win, win.” The older generations in Myanmar had had their fair share of practice — they used the same lines in 1988 and during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Still, even well-versed protest rituals need upgrades and society absorbed the 21st-century guidebook to non-violent protest methods remarkably quickly.
The opening act was an old tradition: Yangonites started banging pots and pans at 8 pm on February 2 and since then the whole country has followed — every evening, for 15 mins, for a whole month now. The CDM was launched by doctors marching in Mandalay — and everybody else followed. People stopped going to work and started attending protests instead. Amidst the anger and heartbreak over the situation, there were also moments of levity — as if all creative energies suppressed by the pandemic exploded onto the streets in celebration of democracy.
My personal favourites were the half-naked bodybuilders (in mask, strictly no shirt). But everybody marched: Disney princesses, civil servants, couples in wedding dresses, air traffic controllers, drag queens, dog owners with their pets, ethnic youth with state flags, female textile workers who live on the outskirts of Yangon — an endless parade of all walks of Myanmar society. A group of Myanmar Hindu women dressed up in their finest saris to protest outside the Indian embassy. Modernity was visible beyond the colourful and often humorous display of group identities. Graphic designers created protest signs — mostly in English, often with hashtags, students set up Lennon Walls or “the wall of our voice” in Burmese, with colourful post-it messages. And everything ended up on Facebook and Twitter — the junta’s official ban on these platforms notwithstanding.
Social media has been key to the coordination of these activities. People distribute food and drinks to the protesters. Picture a pickup truck with a cargo bed full of Gatorade and bento boxes to honour the somewhat sacred lunch hour. Volunteers pick up trash at the end of the day so that main protest areas remain clean. On February 16, hundreds of drivers brought traffic to a standstill by a staged mass car breakdown in the middle of bridges and major roads. Many took up the ubiquitous pose of Yangon taxi drivers — relaxing in the open boot of their cars. Some displayed a sign: “This car is participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement”. The move was strategic: Police and military vehicles could not access key gathering places.
This festival-like spirit of the demonstrations is largely due to the energy of young people. One of the most-repeated slogans of the anti-coup protests is “You messed with the wrong generation” — referring to members of Generation Z born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s. Their parents are the heroes of the 8888 uprising and the victims of its failure. Many of them belong to the five million first-time voters who went to the ballot box in last November’s elections. And one of them is the first victim of the coup: 20-year-old Mya Thwet Thwet Khine was taken off life support on February 19, 10 days after being shot by riot police at a protest in the capital, Naypyidaw.
The protests have claimed 23 more lives so far . The police and military have used water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades and live ammunition. There have been no mass arrests on the streets. Those detained are often released the next day, but violence has been escalating — February 28 was a bloody Sunday with at least 18 protesters shot dead on the streets. Still, the stakes are too high for the young to back down. They have no future under the junta; the regime itself would be their prison.
Big brother is watching you
Up until a few days ago, Eric Arthur Blair was the most famous policeman of Myanmar. Better known by his pen name George Orwell, he served in Burma as an assistant district superintendent in the Indian Imperial Police between 1922 and 1927. The title now goes to Police Lieutenant Khun Aung Ko Ko of the Anti-Narcotics Task Force, the first policeman — now imprisoned — to publicly join the protesters. Nevertheless, the old Burmese anecdote about Orwell remains true: He did not write just one book about the country (his first novel Burmese Days ) but three. The “trilogy” includes Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four .
Since General Min Aung Hlaing seized power as the head of the newly created State Administrative Council made up of 8 soldiers and 8 civilians, the regime has introduced a steady stream of legislations to curtail democratic freedoms. The legal veneer is thin, but meticulously applied. Suu Kyi was charged with possessing unregistered walkie-talkies found in her home, and breaking Covid-19 restrictions — thereby violating the Export and Import Law, and Natural Disaster Management Law. Several chief ministers were accused of incitement against the regime, for speaking out against the coup. In court today, the military regime has added sedition under section 505(b) of the Penal Code to the charges faced by Suu Kyi and Win Myint.
Even more sinister and Orwellian are the night raids to arrest protest leaders. As of February 28, 1,132 people have been arrested, including the entire leadership of the National League for Democracy, civil servants and high school students. The arrests are legalised by the suspension of laws that restrain security forces from detaining suspects or searching private property without a warrant.
Another move that spread fear and mistrust in society was the release of 23,000 prisoners on February 12, Union Day. Such mass amnesty is common on national holidays, but this time it aroused suspicions and decreased the sense of public safety. There are neighbourhood watches armed with lathis to guard the streets at night. Their fears are not unfounded: The first victim of the coup in Yangon was a neighbourhood vigilante, Ko Tin Htut Hein, who was allegedly shot dead by police in a civilian van. The deceased had stopped the vehicle to ask why it was breaking the night curfew.
For two weeks now the Tatmadaw sets my bedtime. Every night at 1 am the internet goes down to promptly return at 9 am. Since the coup, the junta has issued 12 directives to block IP addresses, websites, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and, for extended periods, the internet. Regardless of the ban, people find a way. Tech-savvy protesters use Thai SIM cards for roaming, VPNs for continued access to banned apps, and many shifted to messaging apps Signal and Silence for encrypted communications. Facebook remains the main platform for sharing emotionally heightened messages, photos that are uplifting and at times quirky, and — unavoidably — rumours and disinformation that spread like wildfire. The diaspora and the international community keep on posting, as well — their frustration, solidarity, and encouragement an amplifier for people on the ground.
As a final bow to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four , the army’s True News Information Unit acts out the role of the Ministry of Truth — spreading untruth or staying mum about the increasingly bloody crackdown.
On February 21, the Unit’s page was removed by Facebook for repeated violations of the platform’s Community Standards prohibiting incitement of violence and coordinating harm. The same day, Myanmar’s largest bilingual newspaper, The Myanmar Times , suspended operations for three months after dozens of its journalists left their jobs in the face of new restrictions that threaten media freedom. Their colleagues at the official government newspaper, the Global New Light of Myanmar , seem to have fewer qualms. They extensively reported about dragon fruit farming the day after two people were shot dead in Mandalay. Still, key independent media outlets remain free and are instrumental in verifying news and keeping the public informed. While we all fear that bans and arrests will soon make journalists’ life difficult, for now they defy official ‘guidance’ with cheeky articles such as ‘Myanmar Junta Leader Warns Media Against Using ‘Junta’ or ‘Regime’’. Never a braver repetition.
Who controls the past controls the future
Two days before the coup, Kyaw Zwa Moe, senior editor of The Irrawaddy news portal and a political prisoner from 1991 to 1999, wrote that “political ghosts come back to haunt Myanmar”. Sadly, these ghosts are now flesh and blood, and this time they have drones and firewalls. The question on everyone’s mind is: Are they going to stay?
By now, the month since the coup has become history — marked by peaceful resistance and a complete defiance on the junta’s ban on gatherings. But how long can the CDM last?
Foreign powers follow their usual scripts. The UN expresses concern (already an allowance by China and Russia), the West condemns and sanctions the generals, ASEAN stays out of internal affairs. Burma Campaign UK’s ‘Dirty List’ names dozens of companies that do business with the military and its vast economic empire — India’s Tata and Infosys among them. While thousands of protesters camped out in front of embassies, nobody really expects a solution from the outside. And even amidst the temporary unity brought about by the protests, the country remains divided internally.
The 2008 Constitution ensures the continued influence of the military and at least from the Tatmadaw’s perspective provides the legal basis for their current “intervention”. Ethnic minorities do not see a stark difference between military dictatorship and democratic governance — they have suffered under both. The Rohingyas — some of its members protesting in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh — remain personae non gratae. For now, as Myanmar moves “back to the future”, society grapples with anxiety and fear, and stages a daring and defiant revolt against injustice. How will the Tatmadaw handle this in the long-term remains to be seen. In Nineteen Eighty-Four , the antagonist O’Brien, an administrator at the Ministry of Truth, shares a chilling answer: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”
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