SINCE THE COUP, the military has arrested at least 680 people, including human rights activists, lawmakers, journalists, and protesters, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Police abducted members of the election committee and protesters under the cover of night. The military promised new elections in a year, but most citizens didn’t believe it: The past two military coups in 1962 and 1988 led to junta control for more than two decades.
In the first few days after the coup, the streets remained empty except for pro-army supporters blasting celebratory music from their trucks. But every night at 8 p.m., people all over the country poured out their anger by banging pots and pans, honking car horns, and drumming on metal banisters. Medical doctors began to strike—causing concerns as the country had been hit hard by COVID-19—followed by teachers, civil servants, bank employees, railway workers, and other industries seeking to bring the country to a standstill.
To disrupt communication, the military intermittently shut off or slowed internet and cell phone services. It blocked Facebook—the main reson people in Myanmar access the internet—as well as WhatsApp and Twitter. Still, young people used VPNs to circumvent the ban and openly expressed their anger at the military coup and their support for the NLD. Through social media, they organized protests, planned strikes, and shared protest safety tips.
Charles Petrie, a former UN humanitarian and resident coordinator in Myanmar, pointed out that Hlaing “must have thought that he could go back to the 1990 playbook,” he told King’s College London. “He is wrong. The Myanmar of today no longer has much in common with the closed and isolated Myanmar of the 1990s. … [The youth] have been inspired by the other peaceful revolts around the world.”
Photos of the Myanmar protests are reminiscent of recent democracy movements in other Asian countries—young people donning yellow hard hats like in the 2019 Hong Kong protests and lifting up the three-finger salute (which the Hunger Games movies popularized) like in Thailand’s protest movement. They also flocked to Twitter to get the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar trending to attract international attention. Myanmar youth joined the “Milk Tea Alliance,” an online solidarity movement composed of netizens from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and India fighting oppression and China-backed trolls.
On Feb. 6, the day of the first major demonstrations, the entire nation experienced an internet blackout. After returning from protests at the Hledan Center, Naw Thazin Hpway saw in the yard of her apartment complex people clapping and singing at rumors that Suu Kyi had been freed. But others claimed the news was fake. “I was not able to know what was real,” she said. “This was the worst day of my life. I feel like I stayed in the dark even though there was electricity.”
In reality, Suu Kyi remained under house arrest. Authorities charged her with illegal possession of walkie-talkies and breaking coronavirus restrictions.
Authorities continued internet shutdowns each day from 1 to 9 a.m., coinciding with midnight raids on dissidents.
Each crackdown brought more people protesting. When the military banned gatherings of more than five people and set a curfew in 36 townships on Feb. 8, Hpway feared no one would show up to protest the next day, but she returned to Hledan to support the movement. Her fears were wrong: Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated across the country. Police used tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and in some cases even live rounds against protesters. In Naypyidaw, police shot a 20-year-old woman in the head, leaving her braindead, and injured a 23-year-old man with a shot to his chest.
Violence again escalated on Feb. 20 when police and soldiers opened fire at striking shipyard employees in Mandalay, killing two and injuring at least 30. The 33rd Light Infantry Division—responsible for attacks on the Rohingya—was involved.
Ethnic groups also joined, even though they had been deeply disappointed by the NLD and Suu Kyi. In the past five years, ethnic minorities continued to suffer as the peace process stalled and the new leadership refused to grant the groups autonomy. In some areas fighting has continued as the military broke cease-fire agreements and continued attacks. The NLD’s election committee also barred voting in several ethnic areas in November, disenfranchising more than 1 million people in Rakhine state. Yet now they’ve found common ground with the Buddhist majority in opposing the military.
At a park in Yangon, members of ethnic minority groups waved flags representing their various groups—Karen, Kachin, Ta’ang, Rakhine—some donning brightly colored woven longyis, a long fabric running to the feet, and traditional headdresses. In Shan state, thousands held a demonstration on traditional fishing boats on Insle Lake, while in Karen state, villagers in Papun District protested not just the coup but recent military shelling that caused 5,000 people to flee. Ethnic armed organizations joined the civil disobedience movement and said they would not tolerate a crackdown on protesters.
“What is happening right now is not about party politics,” Ke Jung, a youth leader from the Naga tribes by the Indian border, told Reuters. “It’s a fight for a system. We cannot compromise with the military, it will give us a black mark on our history.”