Protesters escorted by resistance fighters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Sagaing Township on September 7, 2022. (AFP)

‘1,000 days of revolutionary light’: Mobilising the public in Sagaing

Activists in Sagaing Region are trying to rekindle a mass movement against military rule in parallel with the armed struggle, but conflict and displacement make this a formidable challenge.


On October 29, 1,000 days after the 2021 military coup, thousands of villagers took to the streets of rural Sagaing Region in demonstrations against the junta.

Demonstrators held signs with the slogan “1,000 days of revolutionary light” and others supporting Operation 1027, the offensive against the military launched two days before in northern Shan State by ethnic armed groups in the Three Brotherhood Alliance.

More people joined as darkness fell. Because the date coincided with Thadingyut, a Buddhist festival of lights, protesters lit up the night with fire balloons and candles arranged into political slogans, while also gathering to watch revolutionary films and hear public lectures.

These activities were organised by protest coordination groups, known as strike committees, in scores of villages in 12 of the region’s 34 townships. The number of participants varied between places, but members of strike committees for Monywa, Chaung-U, Yinmabin and Salingyi townships told Frontier that most of the residents of each village took part.

The anti-coup movement started with similar demonstrations across Myanmar, but following brutal repression by the military, the protests largely gave way to armed struggle. Sagaing, most of which had not seen conflict for decades, became one of the strongholds of newly formed anti-junta militias called People’s Defence Forces.

As the armed struggle continues, the region’s roughly 40 strike committees have been trying to recreate a mass movement, involving civilians who are unable or unwilling to join PDFs. However, regular military aerial and ground attacks, displacement and prolonged internet cuts imposed by the junta are not making things easy for them.

To improve coordination, these committees established two region-wide bodies on October 1 – the Strike Strategy and Policy Committee and the Regional Strike Working Committee, each with 15 members chosen from among local strike groups.

The SSPC is tasked with identifying common political positions and giving overall direction to the movement, while the RSWC is in charge of coordinating activities on the ground.

“We organise public activities to encourage each other,” SSPC member Ko Khant Wai Phyo told Frontier. “No matter how much the military council oppresses us, we want to show the people living in the city and the international community that we don’t accept military dictatorship.”

Candles form the words Revolutionary Thadingyut, referring to the Buddhist festival of lights, during an anti-junta protest in a Sagaing Region village on October 29. (Supplied)

The committees’ mission is not only to mobilise the population, but also to educate them. Their educational activities include the screening of short movies about the resistance such as The Road Not Taken, a film by the director Ko Pauk about military defectors, as well as videos produced by the strike committees themselves that identify military-linked businesses to boycott.

In addition, local activists deliver public speeches and play pre-recorded lectures by luminaries of the resistance or members of the National Unity Government, the parallel administration founded by lawmakers ousted in the coup.

“To succeed in the revolution, we can’t only pursue armed struggle. We also need to share our political knowledge with the public,” Ko Zaw Htet, an official at the NUG-linked administration team for Pale Township, told Frontier.

However, Ma Chaw Su from the Monywa Strike Committee said although most locals backed the resistance, opinions differed about the usefulness of protests.

“Some people think that public demonstrations aren’t needed anymore because the defensive armed resistance has become stronger. We need to convince people that popular mobilisation is also important,” she told Frontier.

U Kyaw Zaw, spokesperson of the president’s office in the NUG, said that due to the entrenched power of the military in Myanmar, it was necessary to fight the regime in different ways, including through mass public campaigns.

“A more comprehensive and multifaceted approach would yield quicker results in the revolution; focusing solely on armed struggle will only prolong it,” he said.

However, mass gatherings in support of the revolution come with an ever-present danger.

“People fear military attacks, especially during public demonstrations,” Ko Zwe Min Htet, a member of the Chaung-U Youth Strike Committee, told Frontier. “We try to explain that the junta carries out attacks whether we engage in public protests or not.”

Nonetheless, he said, “Security is a top priority for us. Before any activity, we always gather intelligence on the military’s activities.”

Strike committees also ask armed resistance groups to provide protection. “They ask us whenever they need security,” Ko Zar Ni Thein, leader of the Chaung-U PDF, told Frontier. However, PDFs can only protect against ground assaults, and Zar Ni Thein said “airstrikes are more dangerous than ground attacks during public demonstrations”.

In the minds of many people in Sagaing is the air strike on April 11 on Pa Zi Gyi village, in Kantbalu Township, which took place during the opening ceremony of a NUG public administration office. At least 181 civilians were killed and 29 were injured in the attack, according to the parallel government.

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military in Sagaing Township on September 7, 2022. (AFP)

Sagaing villagers interviewed by Frontier said that due to such brutal attacks and the resulting displacement of entire communities, opportunities for nonviolent resistance are limited.

U Hla Min*, a resident of Htan Zin village in Yinmabin Township, said “there are some protests depending on how peaceful things are, but it’s still difficult to organise public speeches. Our family has had to leave the village and stay in the jungle for almost two years.”

“Protests in our area have become scarce, mostly because the military junta is always present and the community now focuses on armed resistance,” said U Kyi Naing*, a resident of a village in Ye-U Township.

He added that, shortly after the coup, a strike committee was established for the township. However, it was disbanded after four of its members were arrested in December 2021 and the others were forced into hiding. The committee has not been reassembled since then, he said.

However, there are safer ways to resist military rule, including through the continued boycott of the military’s vast business empire. Last month, strike committees campaigned for a strengthening of the boycott, publicising a list of goods and services to avoid.

Hla Min said he and other villagers in Yinmabin “avoid using express buses affiliated with the junta and refrain from buying military products”.

Prominent activist Dr Tay Zar San said it was important to widen the scope of resistance activity. “There are numerous ways for the public to get involved, from physical demonstrations to online campaigns,” he told Frontier. “Even if you’re at home, you can still make a difference by boycotting military-owned products.”

Hla Min agrees. “Not everyone can engage in demonstrations,” he said. “I don’t oppose them, but I prefer methods that allow everyone to participate.”

*indicates the use of a pseudonym for security reasons

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar