With VPNs and fancy dress, Myanmar youth fight 'turning back of the clock'

Guardian reporter in Yangon and Rebecca Ratcliffe
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA</span>
Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

In the searing afternoon sun, Myo, 21, stood in front of a police barricade near Yangon’s Sule Pagoda – one of just a handful of protesters to gather at the rallying point on Wednesday. He stood alone, a towel wrapped around his neck to soak up the sweat, and held a sign that read “humanity” in front of the officers.

“The military took away my future,” said the digital artist. “My work can no longer pay me. This country had barely started trying to develop and now it’s 2021. I don’t know what made them think they should stage a coup.”

Almost one month on since the military seized power from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, waves of mass protests have spread across Myanmar’s towns and cities, at times drawing hundreds of thousands on to the streets. Even on quieter days, pockets of defiant young demonstrators have kept up their presence in Yangon, despite threats by the army.

They know if we don’t fight now, we will never get democracy

“Their generation is not fearful of anything,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a human rights activist based in Yangon. “For us and for previous generations we were so normalised under the militarised system. We know how they react, we know how brutal they are.”

Myanmar’s younger demonstrators, though, have grown up with freedoms that were denied to their parents and grandparents for roughly half a century. While democracy was still developing under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, the country had become more open and outward-looking. Freedom of expression and the ability to access information had both widened.

“They were ready to fly out and see things but now they feel like their wings are being broken by these people,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi.

At street protests and online, the younger generation have made their defiance clear. While longtime activists and union leaders have helped organise demonstrations, younger, internet-savvy protesters have caught the world’s attention with their creative demonstrations, meme-inspired signs and scathing wit. “My favourite, Ariana Grande, is taller than [Min Aung Hlaing],” said one sign, mocking the coup leader with a reference to the petite American singer. “You fucked with the wrong generation,” read another. Demonstrators have performed dance routines under flyovers, marched in fancy dress and have found novel ways to disobey the authorities – at one point dropping onions on some of Yangon’s busiest roads to bring traffic to a standstill during a national strike.

Protests have been livestreamed on social media, with placards, often written in English, read widely by international audiences.

Protesters give a three-fingered salute of resistance during an anti-coup protest outside the Hledan Centre in Yangon.
Protesters give a three-fingered salute of resistance during an anti-coup protest outside the Hledan Centre in Yangon. Photograph: AP

Myo learned English online from movies and songs, not through the education system, which he says is broken. The generals, he pointed out, send their own children overseas to study.

“Unfortunately for them, some of us aren’t so dumb any more. We can see through them and this time we are fighting back,” he added.

Demonstrators have taken inspiration from protest movements elsewhere, adopting the three-finger salute, a gesture that is used at student-led rallies in Thailand. In turn, young people across the wider region have expressed solidarity with their neighbours, rallying behind hashtags such as #saveMyanmar, and welcoming protesters to the “Milk Tea Alliance” – a playful, online coalition of pro-democracy activists across Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, named after their shared love of the drink.

Burmese students living abroad, meanwhile, have used social media to spread information, share petitions and lobby rights groups. “I felt I had to make good use of my privilege,” said Lily, a student in the UK, who is following the developments online, and making videos to raise awareness of what is happening in her country.

It’s only because Myanmar has become more democratic that she has been able to enjoy opportunities to travel and study abroad. In the past, even owning a mobile phone was out of the question – a sim card cost thousands of dollars.

The military regime responded to online dissent in the aftermath of the coup by banning Facebook, only for shops to pop up in Yangon offering to install VPNs, so that such restrictions could be evaded. Many internet users flocked to Twitter, though this too was also banned, as was Instagram. A draft cyberlaw has been proposed that would grant the junta sweeping powers to ban content, restrict the internet and access user data. At night, when the authorities regularly raid houses and arrest protesters, the internet is routinely shut down across the country.

“The internet block is bullshit,” said Tin, an avid video gamer whose pre-dawn multiplayer sessions have been ruined by the nightly shut down. “We pay $20 (£14.50) a month for 24/7 wifi but now our rights have been violated.”

He sat with his five friends, all 18 years old, outside the historic Secretariat, a grand colonial complex in downtown Yangon on Thursday. They smoked cigarettes, played Green Day songs on an acoustic guitar, and talked about the coup.

Hours earlier the friends watched footage taken at a protest spot 20 minutes away of pro-military supporters stabbing and punching passersby.

“More violence is coming,” said Tin, who added that his father’s friend was gunned down outside the Secretariat during a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1988. “[The military] will do whatever it takes, but we have to continue protesting peacefully.”

While many of their parents have first-hand experience of military violence, the teenagers say they have reluctantly allowed them to protest. “They know if we don’t fight now, we will never get democracy,” said Tin.

Later that day, police opened fire as residents in Yangon held a protest to oppose the replacement of their administrator with a military appointee. Social media footage, apparently taken in Tamwe township, showed security forces firing at people’s balconies.

The military is trying to turn back the clock 20 years, said Tin.

No one knows how long protests can be sustained, or if the military will launch deadly clampdowns, as it has repeatedly in the past. Younger generations feel they have a responsibility to continue the struggle for democracy, said Thinzar Shunlei Yi.

“Every time we fight them, we lose,” added Tin. “But this time we have to win. We started this revolution and we will end it.”