Can Myanmar’s Protesters Succeed?
Led by student activists, the new civil-disobedience movement draws on the experience of older generations—but its methods and demands are a radical break with the past.
After soldiers arrested civilian government leaders in the early hours of Feb. 1, one question ricocheted around social media in Myanmar: “Are we going back in time?” Tanks appeared on the streets in Yangon and Mandalay, the country’s largest cities, and barricades blocked major highways, recalling the military takeover after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the coup of 1962. Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, stationed soldiers outside of Yangon’s City Hall, the hostel where hundreds of lawmakers stayed in the capital city of Naypyidaw, and the offices of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
These images formed an exceptional moment, one that suggested a swift end to Myanmar’s nascent democracy. People added the date—“1.2.21”—to social media tributes, memorializing the day before it had even ended. But the resemblance between the unfolding circumstances and those of the past was uncanny. Had Myanmar found itself again in 1962, when the Tatmadaw first took power? Would the widespread protest movement that had sprung up in response meet the same harsh crackdown as those in 1988 and 2007?
In Myanmar, the past is an asset to be harnessed. The students leading a new solidarity movement in the aftermath of the coup draw in part on the pro-democracy struggles of previous generations. Like those before it, their civil disobedience movement calls on citizens to reject military rule through collective action. But while Myanmar’s young organizers are troubled by the prospect of a return to the dark past, they appear confident that their movement will produce transformative results.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, activists began organizing online campaigns, from coordinating strikes to advocating for a boycott of companies with ties to the military. As the civil disobedience movement grew online, the Tatmadaw quickly clamped down. After an initial wave of internet outages reported on Feb. 1, Myanmar’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications issued directives blocking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram later in the week. By Feb. 6, there was only silence: Internet access was suspended across the country for two days, with connectivity at just 16 percent of ordinary levels.
While many were hesitant to embrace large-scale protests, fearing the military’s reaction, the disruption of online resistance pushed demonstrators into the streets of Yangon, marching with their neighbors and coworkers. “We’ve done it for three decades; we will continue to the end,” a researcher from Myanmar told me. Within an hour of the internet cut on Feb. 6, a broad coalition of workers, farmers, and students had converged on the city’s downtown neighborhoods.
By the next day, the crowds had swelled to hundreds of thousands in Yangon, and other protests appeared across the country. On Monday, protesters gathered in Naypyidaw, which has historically seen few expressions of public dissent. There, security forces used water cannons to break up protesters, the first sign that a forceful response might be imminent. On Tuesday, the response turned more violent: Security forces in Naypyidaw used live rounds, and local media reported that one woman was in critical condition. Unofficial accounts circulating on social media underscore how the military has returned to well-worn tactics, combining violence with intimidation by plainclothes police and paid agitators.
Despite these threats, the protesters are still in the streets—defying curfews, restrictions on public assembly, and blockades. The ongoing general strike has forced banks to remain closed, grounded flights, and even risks slowing the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 vaccination program. According to the young activists, these disruptions are reasons for optimism. Nurtured by the vision of previous generations but reconstituted online, the movement voices a collective retort: “You messed with the wrong generation.”
Before the coup, most people I spoke to in Myanmar referred to two khit, or eras: the era of uncertain political transition and the era of nascent democracy. Now, people speak of “this new time” or the “era that starts now.” The NLD itself had promised a “new era” after its landslide election victory in 2015, but the November 2020 election—which the Tatmadaw alleges was flawed—has prompted a step back to something more familiar. Last week, people began counting the days since the coup with hashtags: #Day1, #Day2, #Day3, and so on. Facebook timelines filled with old photos from family albums and archival news footage: a stream of red-robed monks from the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and clusters of students with fists raised in 1988. Aye Min Thant, a Myanmar journalist, relayed their aunt’s reaction on Twitter on Feb. 1: “This is just like when I was a child. These exact tactics.”
Many people returned to long-abandoned routines, resuming old precautions as if by reflex: an extra lock on the door, a curtain pulled over a window. As night began to settle over Yangon on Feb. 1, 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; stocking up at the market; lining up at the bank for cash. The presence of the Tatmadaw has already triggered rumors of demonetization and panic buying, as if the experience of the current generation had collapsed into that of their parents and grandparents.
The day after the coup, young activists circulated calls to “drive out the evil spirits” by banging pots and pans, reenacting a traditional practice used to banish malevolent forces. This first public act of resistance has a long history: It was a key strategy during the uprising of 1988, when student activists were joined by hundreds of thousands of citizens to demand democratic change. In 2021, the uproar began at 8 p.m. with sharp clangs of metal, scattered at first, across Yangon. By the next day, the noise enveloped entire townships, mingling with car horns and cries of discontent. “It’s the prior generations that this pains the most,” one young journalist wrote to me, seeing photos of middle-aged people repeating the ritual again. “They lived through this once, twice, or three times, and came to hope we, their children, would never have to know about this.”
By day three, Myanmar’s youth had begun their online campaign of civil disobedience, mobilizing a resource their parents and grandparents had lacked. They shared links to secure messaging apps that could be used even if the internet, mobile networks, or electricity were cut. Bridgefy, the most popular, was downloaded more than 600,000 times in the hours after the coup. Youth activists also drew on transnational networks, such as the Milk Tea Alliance, and posted pictures of the three-fingered salute—recognizable from Thailand’s mass protest movement last year.
The internet facilitated other forms of activism, too: Lawyers advertised free legal help for those arrested, and the members of parliament who were denied their new seats were sworn in online in defiance of the military.
The anonymous Civil Disobedience Movement Facebook page now has more than 227,000 followers, emerging as the most immediate path forward for pro-democracy activists. Despite the added burden of the coronavirus pandemic, health care workers have led the general strike that began on Feb. 3—quickly joined by local bureaucrats, teachers, and engineers.
In one video, nurses wearing multicolored scrubs stand in a socially distant grid that stretches across the grounds of Yangon Specialty Hospital, singing a famous protest song from the 1988 generation—the title a reference to the long shadow cast by the military’s violent repression. Where prior generations had grasped candles, they held their phones aloft into the darkness as they sang: “We won’t forgive until the world ends, it is an archive that is written with our blood.” Their parents might know the words by heart, but the young health workers likely hoped they would never need to learn them.
Now stretching across 87 townships, the new civil disobedience movement bears some resemblance to strikes of the past, but with distinct aims and methods. Activists draw on new possibilities for coalition-building online, and their demands are more all-encompassing than those pursued by the NLD in its first term. The University of Yangon Students’ Union has declared its refusal to accept anything less than full democracy and the abolition of the military-drafted 2008 constitution. Ethnic Rakhine and Karen protesters emphasize self-determination and federalism, while LGBT-rights activists are calling for a truly inclusive movement. Rejecting the NLD status quo, these demands are a radical break with the past.
If history is repeating itself, so may the Tatmadaw’s strategy. A violent response to widespread protests appears imminent, and long-standing tactics for suppressing activism, including arbitrary arrests and the use of paid provocateurs, have continued. But the military also appears eager to deflect mounting international pressure, particularly following the U.N. Security Council’s call for the release of those detained amid the coup. As Western governments weigh sanctions, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing’s Feb. 9 speech indicated concern about Myanmar’s economic recovery and its ability to ability to retain billions of dollars’ worth of foreign direct investment.
Civil society leaders and campaign organizers are already mitigating these risks, sharing guides on digital security and toolkits for protesters. Myanmar’s last generation of pro-democracy activists turned to banging pots after years of dictatorship, and only after the 1988 street protests were quelled by a brutal crackdown which left many dead or injured. But this ritual is where today’s youth began—circumventing pandemic restrictions, a nighttime curfew, and threats of military violence.
As thousands of young people streamed into the streets on Saturday, many posted final messages before the internet outage took effect. “We can’t go back 1988,” one read. “We need to fight for our future.”
Courtney T. Wittekind is a Ph.D candidate in social anthropology at Harvard University, studying urban development, planning, and political change in Yangon, Myanmar. A Rhodes Scholar, she received her M.Phil from the University of Oxford in 2016.