Foreign Policy

Can Myanmar’s protesters be successful?

After soldiers arrested civilian leaders in the early hours of February 1st, a question popped up on social media in Myanmar: “Are we going back in time?” The streets of Yangon and Mandalay, the country’s largest cities, appeared Tanks up and barricades blocked major highways, commemorating the military takeover after the 1988 uprising for democracy and the 1962 coup. Myanmar’s military, known as Tatmadaw, stationed soldiers outside Yangon’s City Hall, the hostel, where hundreds of lawmakers lived lived in the capital, Naypyidaw, and the offices of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

These images formed an extraordinary moment that suggested a swift end to the emerging democracy in Myanmar. People added the date “1/22/21” to social media honors, remembering the day before it even ended. But the similarity between the evolving circumstances and those of the past was eerie. Had Myanmar found itself again in 1962 when the Tatmadaw first took power? Would the widespread protest movement that emerged in response experience the same harsh crackdown as in 1988 and 2007?

In Myanmar, the past is an asset that must be used. The students who lead a new solidarity movement after the coup are based in part on the pro-democracy struggles of previous generations. Like its predecessors, its civil disobedience movement calls on citizens to reject military rule through collective action. While Myanmar’s young organizers are troubled by the prospect of a return to the dark past, they seem confident that their move will produce transformative results.

Immediately after the coup, activists began organizing online campaigns, from coordinating strikes to advocating boycotts of military-affiliated companies. As the civil disobedience movement grew online, the Tatmadaw was quickly put down. After an initial wave of internet outages reported on February 1, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications issued guidelines later in the week blocking Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Until February 6, there was nothing but silence: Internet access was blocked across the country for two days, with connectivity only 16 percent of normal.

While many were reluctant to accept large-scale protests for fear of the military’s response, disruption of online resistance pushed protesters onto the streets of Yangon and marched with their neighbors and staff. “We have been doing this for three decades. We will continue to the end, ”a researcher from Myanmar told me. Within an hour of the February 6 internet cut, a broad coalition of workers, farmers and students had gathered in the city’s neighborhoods.

The next day, the crowd in Yangon had grown to hundreds of thousands, and other protests appeared across the country. On Monday, protesters gathered in Naypyidaw, where historically there has been little public disagreement. There, security forces used water cannons to break up demonstrators, the first sign that a forceful response is imminent. On Tuesday, the response became more violent: security forces in Naypyidaw used live rounds and local media reported that a woman was in critical condition. Unofficial reports on social media underscore how the military has reverted to worn-out tactics, combining violence with intimidation from plainclothes police and paid agitators.

Despite these threats, the demonstrators are still on the streets – despite curfews, restrictions on public gatherings and blockades. The ongoing general strike has forced banks to remain closed, end flights and even slow down the Department of Health’s COVID-19 vaccination program. According to the young activists, these disturbances are reasons for optimism. Nourished by the vision of previous generations but restored online, the movement utters a collective response: “You messed with the wrong generation.”

Many foreign analysts saw Myanmar as an international success story for a decade, the transition from which promised steady progress towards democracy. But scholars in Myanmar have long questioned this transition, particularly those from ethnic and religious minorities who have experienced repeated violence from the Tatmadaw for decades and have seen little change under Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. In the face of repeated cycles of repression, the transition phase only seemed to offer more of that.

Before the coup, most of the people I spoke to in Myanmar referred to two khits or epochs: the era of uncertain political transition and the era of emerging democracy. Now people are talking about “this new time” or the “era that is beginning now”. The NLD itself had promised a “new era” after its landslide election victory in 2015, but the November 2020 elections – which Tatmadaw claims were flawed – brought a step back to something more familiar. Last week people started counting the days since the coup using hashtags: # Tag1, # Tag2, # Tag3, and so on. Facebook timelines of old family album photos and archive news: A stream of red-clad monks from the 2007 Saffron Revolution and groups of college students with fists from 1988. Aye Min Thant, a journalist from Myanmar, shared her aunt’s reaction on Twitter Jan. February: “It’s exactly like when I was a kid. Exactly this tactic. “

Many people returned to long abandoned routines and reflexively resumed old precautionary measures: an additional lock on the door, a curtain over a window. When night fell over Yangon on February 1st, I called a friend. “We’ve been here before, we know what to do,” she reminded me before listing the tasks she had planned for the next morning: checking the drinking water supply; stock up on the market; Queue at the bank for cash. The Tatmadaw’s presence has already sparked rumors of demonization and panic buying, as if the experience of the current generation has collapsed into that of their parents and grandparents.

The day after the coup, young activists distributed calls to “drive away the evil spirits” by beating pots and pans and reenacting a traditional practice of banishing malevolent forces. This first public act of resistance has a long history: it was a key strategy during the 1988 uprising when hundreds of thousands of citizen activists came together to demand democratic change. In 2021, the riot began at 8 p.m. with a sharp clang of metal initially scattered across Yangon. The next day the noise enveloped entire townships and mixed with car horns and screams of discontent. “It is the earlier generations who hurt the most,” a young journalist wrote to me and saw photos of middle-aged people repeating the ritual again. “They have lived through this once, twice or three times and hoped that we, their children, never had to find out about it.”

On the third day, Myanmar’s youth had started their online civil disobedience campaign and mobilized a resource their parents and grandparents lacked. They shared links to secure messaging apps that could be used even if the internet, cellular networks, or power were turned off. Bridgefy, the most popular, was downloaded more than 600,000 times in the hours after the coup. Youth activists also relied on transnational networks such as the Milk Tea Alliance and published pictures of the three-finger salute – recognizable from Thailand’s mass protest movement last year.

The internet also made other forms of activism possible: lawyers promoted free legal aid for those arrested, and MPs who were denied their new seats were sworn in online despite the military.

The Civil Disobedience Movement’s anonymous Facebook page now has more than 227,000 followers and is the most direct route for pro-democracy activists. Despite the added strain from the coronavirus pandemic, health workers led the general strike that began on February 3, which local bureaucrats, teachers and engineers are quickly joining.

In one video, nurses with brightly colored scrubs stand in a socially distant grate spanning the grounds of the Yangon Specialty Hospital singing a famous 1988 generation protest song – the title is a reference to the long shadow that violent repression of the military throws. Where previous generations had picked up candles, they held their phones in the dark as they sang, “We will not forgive until the world ends, it’s an archive written with our blood.” Your parents may know the words by heart , but the young health workers probably hoped they would never have to learn it.

The new civil disobedience movement now spans 87 townships and is similar to the strikes of the past, but with different goals and methods. Activists are seizing new opportunities to form coalitions online, and their demands are broader than those the NLD pursued in its first term. The student union of Yangon University has declared its refusal to accept anything but full democracy and the abolition of the 2008 military constitution. Ethnic Rakhine and Karen protesters emphasize self-determination and federalism, while LGBT rights activists call for a truly inclusive movement. These demands, which reject the status quo of the NLD, are a radical break with the past.

If history repeats itself, the Tatmadaw strategy can repeat itself. A violent response to widespread protests appears to be imminent, and longstanding tactics to suppress activism, including arbitrary arrests and the use of paid provocateurs, have continued. However, the military also appears to be anxious to divert increasing international pressure, particularly following the UN Security Council’s call for those detained during the coup to be released. As Western governments weigh the sanctions, General Min Aung Hlaing’s February 9 speech highlighted concerns about Myanmar’s economic recovery and its ability to retain billions of dollars’ worth of FDI.

Civil society leaders and campaign organizers are already mitigating these risks by sharing digital security guides and toolkits for demonstrators. Myanmar’s last generation of pro-democracy activists turned to beating pots after years of dictatorship, and only after the street protests of 1988 were brutally quashed by brutal crackdowns that left many dead or injured. But this is the ritual that today’s youth began with – bypassing pandemic restrictions, imposing a night curfew, and threatening military violence.

When thousands of young people flocked to the streets on Saturday, many posted final messages before the internet outage took effect. “We can’t go back in 1988,” they read. “We have to fight for our future.”

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