To Combat or Cover: Worry Grips Myanmar With Army Again in Cost
The red balloons rose over a frightened city. Hundreds of them hovered over the golden tower of Sule Pagoda in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, and drifted along an avenue where more than a dozen years ago soldiers shot dead citizens marching peacefully for democracy.
The balloons floating over Yangon were released by activists, expressing their hope that the elected leaders, who were detained in a military coup, would be free again. The color – later pink after red balloons sold out – symbolized the party of the National League for Democracy, which until Monday led the civilian government headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
By Saturday, balloons weren’t enough and the protesters’ familiar footsteps rang out in the city. When armed policemen stood behind protective shields, the demonstrators demanded “democracy rise, the military dictatorship fall” and sang protest anthems that once brought prison terms.
With the abrupt seizure of power by the generals, the people of Myanmar are back in the crosshairs of the military – and increasingly cut off from the world. Although the coup led by Major General Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, was bloodless itself, the military has used familiar tactics in recent days: dozens of arrests, strikes by mysterious thugs, telecommunications outages and this time social media bans on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram . A whole class of people – including poets, painters, reporters, and rap artists – have gone into hiding.
When officers from the special department, the terrifying secret service, knocked on doors, the muscular memory of living under almost half a century of direct military rule – look to the left, look to the right, don’t linger too long – let people fall back on both camouflage and cunning. The reflexes may have been rusty, but they have set in quickly in this new, uncertain era of terror.
The balloons and marches were among hundreds of acts of defiance by a population whose DNA is encoded with both resistance and vigilance. Every day brings growing disagreements on the street as well as moments of civil disobedience that are as subtle as they are powerful. People test the limits of what can be done and said.
On Saturday, thousands of people wearing hard hats and face masks marched in Yangon for the largest rally since the coup. But the world couldn’t watch. Live social media feeds of the protests were abruptly shut down as mobile internet, and then broadband services across the country were cut, just as they were during the coup.
Around the same time, in Mandalay, a convoy of hundreds of cars and motorcycles circled the iconic moat around the city’s old palace, honking their support for the protest movement. Soldiers and policemen stood with guns drawn.
Since the coup, cities across Myanmar have rang with the din of clinking pots, pans, gongs and empty water jugs, a traditional farewell for the devil, who in this case wears army green.
The generals have been busy this week. More than 130 officials and lawmakers and 14 civil society figures were arrested in the early hours of the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group that focuses on political prisoners in Myanmar.
“I will do this until the dwarf Min Aung Hlaing dies,” said Daw Marlar, a participant in the protests. “I will fight until I die.”
On an offshore natural gas platform, workers in orange overalls waved red ribbons to support the National League for Democracy. More than 500 instructors at Yangon University also wanted to join the campaign, but activists had only prepared 200 tapes. The doctors posed with three fingers in a rebellious gesture from the “Hunger Games” films. The entire staff of the Ministry of Social Affairs resigned.
On Monday, the day of the coup, a daughter of Dr. Si Thu Kyaw, a surgeon at Mandalay General Hospital, was born. The 34-year-old doctor greeted his newborn baby and then led a campaign against civil disobedience among medical professionals.
“We went through life in fear under the military junta, but we will not let it happen to the next generation,” he said. “We are not afraid of the military. We are not afraid of their weapons. If we agree, it’s like we’re in the morgue. We have to fight back. “
The generals may have ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years, but they are taking over a country that has changed remarkably over the past decade. In 2007, in downtown Yangon, invisible blood seeped into the burgundy robes of Buddhist monks who had been shot by soldiers in another downcast protest movement. Discarded flip-flops indicated panicked feet fleeing bullets. Back then, the nation was largely unplugged, cell phone cards only available to those who could pay $ 3,000. News whispered in tea shops.
Today there are skyscrapers and shopping malls, billboards for iPhones and cafes suitable for Instagram in the same streets. It often feels like all of Myanmar is on Facebook. Shortly after the Department of Transportation and Communications blocked the social media site, the use of virtual private networks to circumvent the ban rose 6,700 percent, according to a technology research firm. Bans on Twitter and Instagram followed.
By Friday, the campaign against civil disobedience had harnessed the energy of students and even some soldiers. Satirical memes and protest art have increased. A national association representing the interests of Nats and Weizzas, the various ghosts and wizards believed to live in the country, said it would cast a spell over the coup plotters. The organization came into being after the military takeover on Monday.
Some young people are defiantly bowed to the light of their phones and remain defiant. The generation with the panda eyes, as they call themselves, mounts vigils night after night.
On Facebook, a grandson of a former junta leader, retired Lieutenant General Than Shwe, posted a sticker with bouncing teddy bear bottoms to aid someone deciphering the coup. “Stay strong,” he wrote along with emojis with a heart and muscular arms. “You will never go alone.”
Tens of thousands of people liked Facebook campaigns to boycott a beer company and cellular operator that are part of the military’s immense business empire. Another embargo is on a member of the new military cabinet who owns gold and diamond businesses.
The hashtag #savemyanmar has attracted tens of millions of supporters, and even Rihanna, the pop singer, sent her prayers to the citizens of the country.
But when the resistance has become sharper and more refined, the military still shows its strength. 21 people were picked up by police on Thursday evening, banging pots and pans in Mandalay. Activists and reporters were shadowed again. The generals transferred power to the National League for Democracy in 2015 after the party won elections in a landslide, but they did not dismantle the vast security apparatus that had locked the country in place for decades.
In the elections last November, the National League for Democracy received an even more crucial mandate. But the army, whose deputy did terribly, claimed the election was marred by fraud.
It did not help that, even in the years of hybrid military-civil governance, the number of political prisoners grew larger than in the previous era of transitional military rule. The Relief Society for Political Prisoners says that prior to the coup, more than 700 people were either in jail or tried for crimes of conscience.
The army, which has vowed to rule for at least a year with a board of 15 member states reporting to General Min Aung Hlaing, has shown that it will use any legal pretext to imprison people.
A court document surfaced Wednesday confirming that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who had been under house arrest for 15 years, was charged with an arcane violation related to walkie-talkies and other imported equipment at her mansion was Naypyidaw, the capital. President U Win Myint, who was also jailed on Monday, is charged with violating coronavirus regulations by welcoming supporters in last year’s election campaign.
The charges against the two civilian leaders may seem absurd, but they could jail anyone for up to three years, a reminder that Myanmar can be run like a penal state. In 2016, a poet who wrote about a former president’s tattoo on his penis was sentenced to six months in prison for online defamation. During the years of direct military rule, critics of the army were jailed for, among other things, holding foreign currency and reversing a motorcycle.
The coup on Monday took place before daybreak, when the taps were not overcrowded and the monks had not gone barefoot to their morning pastures. As dusk falls every night after the army is taken over, the national mood is desperate. Who will be taken tonight?
Since little information is known about the fate of those still in custody – some have been released and placed under house arrest – people are again relying on “oral radio”, as rumors are called.
“We know that protesting in the street is very risky, but we have to do it,” said Ko Ye Win Aung, a protest organizer. “We cannot let democracy go backwards.”
If there is one constant in what Myanmar’s military is called in the history of the Tatmadaw, it is willingness to shed blood. The military put down tens of thousands of protests in 1988 and 2007. When Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest in 2003, generals sent thugs into her convoy and killed dozens.
And in the border areas of the nation, the Tatmadaw has killed, raped and burned. According to United Nations investigators, a genocide was committed against the Rohingya, which culminated in an exodus of the Muslim minority in 2017.
As protests intensify, some fear that bloody crackdown will be inevitable. U Tun Shein, a trishaw driver, said he peeled a photo of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from his vehicle.
“She will still be in my heart,” he said.
On Thursday, U Win Htein, an elder from the National League for Democracy, sat in his home awaiting arrest.
Win Htein, a former army captain who joined the opposition movement and became one of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest advisers, spent about 20 years in prison. In the notorious Insein Prison he read international business treatises and wrote love letters to his wife.
When he was released in 2010, the same year as Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, he joked that he was “out for the time being” and made fun of others in the National League for Democracy who had served shorter sentences. Mr. Win Htein became a lawmaker in the civil government.
Around midnight, in the shade between Thursday and Friday, soldiers and men from Special Branch came for him. Win Htein, 79, was charged with criticizing the coup.
“I’m back,” Win Htein said hours earlier, short for imprisonment. “But do not worry. My heart is free “