Protesters burn a military uniform as they take part in a flash mob demonstration against the military coup in Yangon in July 2021. (AFP)

Protests continue despite deadly consequences

More than a year after the first anti-coup militias began to form and wage armed struggle against Myanmar’s military regime, some young activists continue to stage peaceful protests in the streets despite brutal repression. 

By FRONTIER

On February 6, Ma Cherry Wint*, eyes ablaze with hatred and anger, marched along a street in Yangon’s Bahan Township chanting, “It is our duty to fight for democracy! It is our duty to make the military dictators fail!” 

In the immediate aftermath of the military’s February 1 coup d’état, millions of people joined nationwide protests across Myanmar to show their anger at the toppling of the civilian government. Barely a week after it seized power, the State Administration Council, as the junta calls itself, began using lethal force to disperse peaceful protests against the coup. 

The military’s violence gradually ramped up. On March 14, regime forces killed at least 58 protesters in Yangon’s Hlaing Thayar Township. At least 114 people were killed on March 27 – the anniversary of Armed Forces Day – and on April 8, regime forces were accused of massacring as many as 80 people in the town of Bago alone. 

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, SAC forces have killed at least 1,679 people since the coup, the majority of them protesters in the first six months after the takeover. These killings sent a chill through the protest movement, and forced organisers to largely abandon mass street demonstrations.

Today, only a handful still participate in the guerrilla protests of the sort Cherry Wint and her activist friends organise. Young demonstrators, most of whom are in their 20s, gather briefly and loudly chant slogans and hold up signs before quickly dispersing. 

Although Cherry Wint is well aware of the danger in taking part in flash mobs, she continues to participate because she believes that protesting is just as important as armed revolution. It shows the world that people are still against the coup, which will help ensure the success of “the revolution”, she said.

“When I leave home to join a protest, I have to prepare my mind for the possibility that I might be killed,” she said. 

Her fear is well justified. 

In recent months, regime forces have been brutal in their efforts to disperse and discourage protests. Last December, in a now infamous incident known as the Pan Pin Gyi Street Demolition, a soldier rammed a vehicle into a protest in Yangon’s Kyimyindaing Township. The parallel National Unity Government said at least four people were killed, with many others injured, including two journalists. At least some of the injured were arrested and remain in detention. It is unclear what their current health status is. 

Cherry Wint said her friends were among those attacked and arrested. 

“I don’t want to say I was lucky that day. I did not participate in that protest because I had other commitments,” she said. “My friends were nearly killed by that vehicle. It was like a nightmare.”

Larger protests continue in areas outside of the junta’s control, like this one in Ayadaw Township, Sagaing Region in February 2022. (AFP)

‘Without street protests, people would be calm’

In response to the junta’s bloody crackdowns on demonstrations, many young people have chosen the path of armed revolution, joining either ethnic armed groups or one of the many militias and guerrilla forces that have been established since the coup. 

Like Cherry Wint, though, some still see protest as their main tool of opposition. 

Among them is Ko Naung Cho, a former teacher at a government school in a rural area of Yangon Region. After joining the nationwide strike of government workers in response to the coup, he became a central committee member of the Basic Education General Strike Committee, a group of former education staff who have organised more than 5,000 demonstrations since the coup. Although he strongly supports armed struggle, he said he made a conscious decision to continue with peaceful protests; to the 25-year-old, they are both part of the broader strategy to defeat the junta.

“My hands used to hold chalk to teach my students – I have never even held a needle, much less a weapon. I don’t dare kill an animal. So I continue to be involved in peaceful protests,” he said.

“The armed revolutionary movement and the urban protests need to be balanced. Peaceful protests in cities keep the enemy preoccupied and as long as both sides work together in a balanced way it will bring good results for the revolution.”

A member of a Yangon-based urban guerrilla group (widely referred to as “UG”) who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Frontier that armed groups appreciate the work of protesters, even if the strategies they employ are different. 

“I was also a protester when the military seized power, but I chose to become a member of UG to fight against the military,” he said. “Some continue to protest peacefully. We have to salute their courage. I can say strikes are helping us indirectly, because military forces don’t have time to rest when strikes appear.”

Beyond the largely SAC-controlled cities, protests have also continued in areas controlled by anti-military armed groups known as People’s Defense Forces, particularly in Sagaing and Magway regions. However, organisers say that protesters in rural areas are at risk of coming under attack from the military, especially its artillery. Sometimes PDFs provide security for peaceful protests in rural areas.

But a member of the General Strike Committee, which is the largest group organising protests against the coup, said demonstrations are a form of nonviolent disobedience, and it is better to keep them separate from armed resistance, especially in urban areas.

“In areas that are not under the control of PDFs, it is more dangerous for the people to hold protests. Non-violent protests and the armed uprising must be separated, but need to maintain a balance,” said the 22-year-old, who goes by the name Ko Leo.

Overall, though, there seems to be general agreement that peaceful protests remain necessary, despite the danger to participants. 

Ko Shwe Aung*, a spokesperson for the Dawei Township General Strike Committee, says the revolution will die if street protests end.

“Without street protests, people would be calm. We saw that in some villages where there have been no strikes, people seem to be getting used to living under military administration. It gives the impression that the military is winning. That’s why we keep saying that holding protests is important,” he said.

Naung Cho agrees, and says that protests are especially important because they spread political messages in rural areas, where many have been cut off from the internet and independent sources of news. 

“A revolution without the people will not succeed. We have to think about how to mobilise people and how to convey revolutionary messages to them, so we take the risk and keep doing flash mobs,” he told Frontier on January 31.

A flash protest in Launglon Township in Tanintharyi Region at an unknown date. (Supplied)

Improvise, adapt, overcome 

Protester Ko Nyan Nyan* says he takes part in the protests for the sake of his boyfriend, who was arrested by the military in Yangon last June. Nyan Nyan has left his family home and gone into hiding in Yangon, but hopes he will be reunited with his boyfriend when the revolution ends.

“I lost my beloved in the revolution. It made me determined not to back down, and I will continue fighting against the junta in peaceful or other ways,” said Nyan Nyan, 22.

Safety concerns are constantly on the minds of organisers, but like Nyan Nyan many protesters remain undaunted. 

The Basic Education General Strike Committee is among the groups that have been targeted by the junta; all of its members are either in hiding, or have been arrested.

Naung Cho, who is wanted for incitement under section 505-A of the Penal Code – a charge that carries a potential three-year prison term – said three teachers who are on the committee were arrested at their homes in Mandalay on the night of October 30.

“We do not know if they are still alive,” he told Frontier on January 31. “At first, we heard that they were detained and tortured at the interrogation centre in Mandalay’s old palace. We still cannot find out if they have been transferred to prison. I’m worried for their safety,” he said.

Ko Leo said some GSC members have also been arrested for protesting, but declined to provide additional details, saying it could endanger the group’s members. 

“No deaths [among GSC members] have been reported so far, but there have been cases of serious injuries,” he said. “Some young people want to take part in protests to honour friends who have been killed, injured or arrested. These are the factors that push them to continue holding protests.”

Protesters have been finding other ways to show that they reject the regime. One of the most successful demonstrations was the so-called “Silent Strike” on December 10, which emptied cities and towns throughout the country in a powerful riposte to the regime. Photojournalist Ko Soe Naing was arrested while taking pictures of Yangon’s barren streets and allegedly killed in military custody.

It clearly irritated the junta, because when activists called for another “Silent Strike” to mark the first anniversary of the coup, the regime threatened to bring sedition or terrorism charges against participants and supporters, and forced businesses to remain open. 

Despite the threats, the second silent strike was almost as successful as the one on December 10, but more than 200 people were arrested in the weeks that followed.

“The revolution is changing over time,” Ko Leo of the GSC said. “To minimise the risk for people, our techniques for protesting need to evolve.” 

Naung Cho of the Basic Education General Strike Committee said the military wanted to crush the silent protest because it showed that people are united in their opposition to junta rule.

Apart from flash mobs, other non-violent campaigns launched by student-led activists have included “Red Blood Week”, when red paint was poured onto roads, footpaths and bus stops throughout Yangon in February to symbolise the blood of those killed or injured for opposing the coup. Legions of tech-savvy youths have also expressed opposition to junta rule through creative online campaigns, such as photo campaigns where people post photos of themselves holding up three fingers – the most widely used symbol of protest against the junta.

Naung Cho said there was no doubt that peaceful protests would continue.

“The strikes will continue until the revolution is successful,” he said. “No matter what we do, the coercion by armed people must end now and we have to make sure it will never emerge in the next generation.”

* Indicates the use of a pseudonym.

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