Social media resistance
Across the South-East-Asian nation, millions have marched against military dictatorship. Both private and public workers have engaged in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), in an attempt to shake the military loose from its deeply rooted hold on power.
It is now close to a month of political, and soon, economic crises in Myanmar. After the military orchestrated a coup on February 1st, on the grounds that there had been widespread voter fraud in the recent election, arresting democratically elected leaders President Win Myint and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi from the National League for Democracy (NLD).
The military has considerable experience, having fought past and on-going wars with armed ethnic forces for several decades now, but they are finding the resistance hard to shut down with brute force alone. In previous uprisings in Myanmar’s history, particularly the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the military’s tactic of choice was terror wrought using firearms.
After thousands were killed, or died in prison, the military planned a graceful exit from front lines of administration, to manipulate it from behind the scenes. So it was, until February 2021, when the generals executed, what many believe they thought would be, a quick reset of the balance of power in the military’s favour.
Apart from breaking its own military drawn-up constitution, as ruled by the International Court of Justice, the military wanted it to be a swift return to normal. The people, however, had tasted freedom from tyranny under a civilian government.
Thailand is supporting peace and stability in Myanmar, which is in line with the desires of ASEAN and the international community, said the Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson, Thanee Saengrat.
A digital resistance
Perhaps the most important dynamic during this coup is how connected the Myanmar people, especially the younger generation, are to the world at large through the internet. Specifically, social media Platforms such as Facebook.
The military recognizes this, taking steps to block regular access to Facebook, Twitter and so on. Nightly internet blackouts are also imposed on the people from midnight, as anytime police or military personnel come to arrest someone, social media users broadcast live videos or send out alerts to gather enough people to monitor the situation.
Due to access restrictions, citizens both young and old have learnt how to use workaround software, such as VPNs on their phones, to keep in touch with what’s going on around the country. So, despite their efforts to also block the ports and IP addresses of the VPNs, millions are still accessing their social media platform of choice, Facebook.
Now, the military seems to have stopped trying the blocking tactic and has switched to spying on the communications of people of importance instead.
Lu Min, a well-known actor and NLD supporter, had broadcast live on Facebook from a discreet location hours before the police came and took him away in the middle of the night. CDM leaders and protest organizers also found themselves under watch and being targeted.
Well known public groups, which coordinate donations to CDM participants, find their usual numbers unusable. Some receive death threats and harassment from unknown sources. A series of such incidents has pushed many to take extensive measures to conceal their identities and those of their contacts.
(All sources quoted below have requested full anonymity)
Getting to the protests
As the protests and CDM continues, it is becoming increasingly apparent that logistics are a huge issue. A large proportion of the protestors are young students, who have yet to enter the workforce. Even those who are employed full time, or own businesses, are having a hard time as the second wave of COVID-19 was causing havoc, well before the coup.
This, however, has not deterred them.
Tom, founder of the group “Free Rides for Democracy”, says that the “transportation problem was an obvious issue”, considering that public transport and even taxis were out demonstrating and causing huge traffic jams.
“It was taking a particular toll on the young demonstrators, who are out almost daily to protest peacefully at various locations. I thought of a quick and practical solution and started a community group that helps connect demonstrators and donors offering free rides.”
On the very first day, the community managed to secure 12 free and secure rides for protestors and the number has shot up since.
Food and money
Yesan, a returnee from Japan, has set up a tightly knit, anonymous network of donors to secure water and food for protestors, as well as the CDM, and says that he is terrified that the younger generation will go have to go through the system he went through, designed by the military to brainwash and intellectually cripple Myanmar’s citizens.
“We have to proceed extremely carefully with everything, from storing records to actually getting the money to them. CDM participants are at most risk because they are being targeted. Even famous and wealthy celebrities are snatched away. Most civil servants in CDMs have to live in staff quarters, because they cannot afford the extra expense of renting someplace else.”
He says he and his colleagues are determined to give up their lives to see this whole thing through.
As the US places sanctions on more members of the military top brass, ASEAN seems to have a different approach. It has always been the way of the “ASEAN Family” to stick to a policy of non-interference and the same sentiment was echoed when Reuters reported that Indonesia is pushing for the coup installed government to uphold the promise of a new election.
When it comes to getting real news and information to those on the field, a fact-checker Mr. Handsome (pseudonym), is taking even more security measures to protect his own identity and sources.
“I am always on the lookout for misinformation and manipulative news. If I see something, I check it with facts and figures. I can refer to my data or to my sources. After I confirm or debunk certain rumours, I disseminate it to the public on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and messaging apps like Viber.”
Mr. Handsome says that he also sends important information to his connections via a variety of apps available, which are rated higher for security. The
“I cannot reveal any more to you, other than to say that, even if internet lines are down, SMS via phones can be encrypted.”
Signs of resistance
For actually shepherding protests, it is a struggle for “Kyaw Kyaw” to hide as much of his digital identity and footprint as possible, while also working behind the scenes coordinating protests.
“It’s not as if I am someone like Min Ko Naing (a pro-democracy activist since the 88 uprising) who has an arrest warrant out for him, but certain precautions have to be taken. I have completely discarded the regular phone number I have been using for years and all my social media accounts are brand new ones,” said “Kyaw Kyaw”.
He says that, since night-time arrests of student protest leaders as well as CDM organizers have become more frequent, he regularly tries to spend his nights in other places, like homes of his close friends or relatives.
“I definitely feel safer doing that, although I am not sure how effective it will be. There are many who could be on the list of people to arrest before they get to me. There definitely are more well-known faces who people rally behind and they are definitely at more risk than me.”
“Kyaw Kyaw’s” daily activities now include managing the logistics of protesting, especially gathering designs and art for protest signs and then getting them printed and placed on signboards and placards.
“I am definitely paranoid by normal standards but, then again, this is not a normal time. Even if I get rid of them frequently, there are data that I have to keep, which can get leaders jailed for speaking out against the military coup. We are all afraid, but we are more afraid that not speaking out against illegitimate oppressors will maintain the military status quo in Myanmar for years to come.”
A war of attrition
As restrictions on personal freedoms and rights get chipped away piece by piece, it is certain that an amount of time will be needed for the military to heed the demands of the people of Myanmar.
For the more internet savvy generations Y and Z, social media services are the lifeblood of Myanmar’s 2021 resistance to the military regime. So far, many have taken the safety measures they believe are needed to keep the whole show running.
As the pressure mounts, politically and economically, on the coup installed government, their methods change to maintain their oppression of the population. The economy is sluggish due to COVID-19. Daily internet cuts remain. Threats of death and acts of violence persist, but more apparent now are the military’s efforts to divide the people, by digging deep into the racial and religious wounds that Myanmar had endured for decades.
It will soon be a month since February 1st, but the people remain largely united and adamant in their struggle for democracy.
Only time will tell whether the military or the people will come out on top.
by David tun