Inside Story

The resistance that began with a bang

Letter from Yangon | Resolute citizens continue to face off with an intransigent military in Myanmar

Thomas Kean 5 March 2021 2255 words

A protester holds a rose and flashes the three-finger salute during prayers for Tin Nwe Yi, a teacher killed during the crackdown on anti-coup forces in Yangon on Monday. Lin Bo Bo/EPA

There are few moments in life when you recognise instantly that the world around you can never be the same again. Monday, 1 February, was one of those times.

I woke to the cries of my one-year-old son, but my eyes were immediately drawn to my phone, which was glowing with notifications in the early-morning darkness.

The previous week had been one of high tension between Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government. Staring at the phone, I knew immediately that our world had just been upended.

At around 3am, just hours before Myanmar’s new parliament was due to meet following the November election, the Tatmadaw had begun rounding up senior officials from the NLD government in the capital, Naypyitaw, as well as Yangon and provincial cities. By the time I read the messages from my colleagues at Frontier Myanmar, a Yangon-based independent media organisation, the Tatmadaw was in full control.

I immediately opened Facebook — by far the most popular social media platform in the country — and watched a livestream of a regional minister being detained, a small group of gun-wielding soldiers just visible in front of her house. More photos, videos and testimonies were coming in from around the country by the minute. The coup was playing out on social media.

Then, at exactly 7.38 that morning, we got a taste of what this new era would be like: the internet suddenly went down. With the news channels also taken off the air, and the military-run station playing a Buddhist sermon, we were abruptly in an information vacuum. We would learn later that the newly installed acting president — a military appointee — was in the process of handing over power to the Tatmadaw commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, under a one-year state of emergency. After a decade, the military was back in charge.

This coup wasn’t supposed to happen. Like most observers, I’d assumed that the constitution the Tatmadaw carefully drafted over the course of fifteen years was enough security against any electoral outcome. The ability to nominate one of the three presidential candidates and another three seats in cabinet, complete autonomy over military affairs, 25 per cent of seats in parliament, an effective veto over constitutional change — surely it was enough. Discontent had been rumbling since the November election, which the NLD won in a landslide over the military’s proxy party, and the military had launched a campaign to discredit the outcome. But it was only in the week before the coup that we began to take these threats more seriously, after a military spokesman refused to rule out the possibility of the Tatmadaw seizing power.

The coup still didn’t make sense for the military as an institution, and right until 1 February there was optimism it wouldn’t happen. What we misjudged was how Min Aung Hlaing’s ambitions, with his retirement looming in mid year, and the personal enmity between the senior general and Aung San Suu Kyi could push the country into new and dangerous territory.

For all its flaws, the constitution had delivered a stable if uneasy power-sharing arrangement between the military and the NLD. It had enabled Myanmar to continue an imperfect transition that combined new political freedoms and rapid economic growth with a faltering peace process and, of course, the expulsion of the Rohingya to Bangladesh. With the civilian government now toppled, the future seemed deeply uncertain. That first day passed in a haze of confusion; the people I spoke to still seemed to be in shock.

The Tatmadaw portrayed its power grab as simply a temporary hiatus on the path to democracy. On previous occasions when it has seized power, in 1962 and 1988, the military abolished the constitution and introduced sweeping political and economic changes. This time, it was at pains to point out not only that the constitution would remain in force but also that Min Aung Hlaing’s temporary government would continue many of the NLD government’s initiatives. It appointed former ministers from the Thein Sein government, which preceded the NLD and won international plaudits for its reform agenda, and began negotiating with minority political leaders disgruntled at perceived NLD arrogance. It promised to hold elections and hand power to the winning party.

The military seemed confident that post-coup Myanmar would be business-as-usual. But it wasn’t long before everything began to fall apart.

Yet again, the Tatmadaw had badly overestimated its support in the community and underestimated the rage that its removal of Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD would unleash. This proved a potent cocktail for an uprising.

The resistance began with a bang — literally. The nightly banging of pots and pans, an old ritual to drive out evil spirits, started at 8pm on 2 February, and has continued every night since. The next day, thousands of medical workers joined the “civil disobedience movement” and walked off the job, insisting they wouldn’t return until the civilian government was reinstated.

By that first weekend, thousands were on the streets of Yangon, and when the police made little attempt to stop them the protests quickly began to grow and spread, first across the central plains of Myanmar and then to its minority-dominated uplands. On 22 February — dubbed the “22222 uprising” — millions marched across the country, calling for an end to military rule. Tens of thousands of public and private sector employees joined medical workers in their boycott, crippling the health, logistics and banking sectors and bringing much of the machinery of government to a grinding halt.

As editor-in-chief of Frontier, I’ve spent most of the past month behind a computer screen — coordinating assignments with our reporting team, downloading photos, videos and news updates, writing liveblog and social media posts, and editing and writing features — rather than on the streets. But during one of the first days of mass protests, I walked along a main road through Yangon’s suburbs with thousands of students heading to downtown Yangon to meet up with other groups. Residents lined both sides of the street, holding placards and giving the three-finger salute that has become a symbol of the resistance. A lot of the protesters were clearly NLD supporters — some people held “Free Aung San Suu Kyi” posters — but they seemed to be united by a bigger cause: removing the military from power.

“We’re here to show the military that we will never accept them back in charge,” a woman in her thirties, Ma Shwe, told me through her black face mask. Standing beside the road, a twenty-three-year-old man explained that he could only vaguely remember what military rule was like, but he knew what it represented. “If we’re under the military, we have no future,” he said. “We have no choice but to fight.”

Medical staff protesting in Yangon last Saturday as security forces intensified their response. Nyein Chan Naing/EPA

For all that determination and anger, the protests in Yangon initially felt more like a carnival. Police were few, except at a handful of strategic locations, and not particularly threatening; people called out pyithu ye, or people’s police, in an effort to entice them to join the demonstrations. When I visited the barricaded area in front of Yangon’s city hall in mid February, there seemed as many people taking selfies in front of the police as were protesting. It was colourful, joyous, creative.

Gradually, though, the atmosphere has become more menacing. The military has shown no signs of yielding; rather, its position hardens by the day, as seen in the detention of politicians and activists, enactment of harsh new laws and use of ever-greater violence against protesters. On 28 February, when particularly large demonstrations erupted across the country, security forces killed at least eighteen people across six cities, the United Nations said, and as of 4 March fifty-four protesters had lost their lives in total, the United Nations said. Many are young and have died from gunshot wounds to the head or back, which indicates the security forces have adopted a “shoot to kill” policy to suppress the protests. As a result, the protesters are increasingly young and male, and are arming themselves with home-made shields and even bullet-proof vests.

Prisons are also swelling with political detainees. Since the coup, the slow trickle of arrests has grown to a flood, with detained protesters — who initially were being released without charge — now being sent directly to prison. Close to 1300 had been arrested up to 2 March, local rights groups say.

This is all intended to intimidate. So far, though, it has had the opposite effect — for many, the violence against peaceful protesters has only reinforced why the military must be removed from power.

The security forces are waging what must seem like a never-ending war against thousands of young, determined opponents of the regime. The confrontations in Yangon all more or less follow a similar pattern. The police fire tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets and charge towards the demonstrators’ makeshift barricades; the protesters take shelter in nearby apartments and re-emerge after the police have left. My colleagues, brave Myanmar journalists and photographers, have spent the past week being gassed and shot at, and hiding in strangers’ homes to evade arrest, in order to document this struggle for the world.

Time moves differently in a crisis; more has changed in our lives over the past month than in the average year. What was once strange becomes normal.

We’ve had to quickly adjust to a strange new reality — a reality in which banks are shut because rank-and-file staff are on strike, laws can and will be changed overnight without any consultation, and we consider it a duty to spend fifteen minutes each night filling neighbourhoods with the clang of metal on metal.

We’ve learned new acronyms, like CDM (civil disobedience movement) and CRPH (Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the NLD’s rival government), and worked out the difference between tear gas canisters and stun grenades. We use VPNs and the messaging app Signal as a matter of course. Facebook feeds that were once full of photos of family and friends and inane thoughts are now dedicated solely to political struggle. We’ve chafed at 8pm curfews and nightly internet shutdowns, and burned with anger at livestreams of activists and politicians being arrested, and videos of police brutality.

As a foreigner, I’m an outsider — this is not my fight. But I am not totally detached from the struggle, either. Having lived in Myanmar for more than thirteen years and made a life here — a career, a family and a home — I can certainly empathise with the loss, anger and hopelessness propelling the protest movement.

But as a journalist, the coup has also brought a renewed sense of purpose. Many other journalists in Myanmar feel the same, I suspect, even as the risks continue to mount.

The media had been an important stakeholder in the early years of Myanmar’s unexpected liberalisation, but the NLD’s ascension to power — widely celebrated by journalists — had unexpected consequences for our industry. The party essentially ignored independent media, preferring its own state-run outlets, and had no compunction about locking journalists up under ill-defined laws if they challenged its political interests. Many journalists felt disappointed, even betrayed, by the NLD.

The Rohingya crisis took this to a new level. The tsunami of negative coverage that it unleashed prompted a huge public backlash against the media. Disinformation campaigns on social media, fuelled partly by government statements, painted journalists as foreign-funded stooges. After the government prosecuted two Reuters reporters for exposing a massacre of Rohingya by the Tatmadaw, journalists came to be seen as untrustworthy at best and potential traitors at worst. It felt as though we were slowly being ground down by a hostile public and government.

Now, inadvertently, we find ourselves back on the side of the people. It has been energising, revitalising.

Slowly, gradually, though, the military has turned the screws. It began with a letter demanding we refer to it as the State Administration Council, and stop calling it a “regime,” “military government” or “coup government.” In an unprecedented show of unity, almost sixty media organisations, including Frontier, signed a joint statement pushing back against these demands, and insisting that we will continue to report freely and in line with media ethics. Our refusal to comply has resulted in further warnings; the latest included a threat to revoke our licences if we do not submit.

Meanwhile, amendments to the colonial-era Penal Code and the Electronic Transactions Law have heightened the legal risks for journalists and media organisations. In addition to the myriad laws already used to lock up journalists, it’s now an offence to “cause fear, spread false news, agitate directly or indirectly against a government employee” or distribute “fake or inaccurate news online that could create panic, loss of trust or social division.” Both carry a three-year prison term.

In recent days, close to twenty journalists have been arrested while covering the demonstrations, of whom at least six have been hit with these charges.

We all know what may be coming. The military is determined to hold on to power at any cost, and anyone or anything that gets in its way is unlikely to be tolerated for long. Until then, though, we’ll just keep doing our jobs. It’s the only thing we can do. •

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.