To Fight or Hide: Fear Grips Myanmar With Military Back in Charge
To Fight or Hide: Fear Grips Myanmar With Military Back in Charge
The red balloons rose over an anxious city. They floated by the hundreds above the golden spire of Sule Pagoda in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, and drifted over an avenue where, more than a dozen years ago, soldiers shot citizens marching peacefully for democracy.
The balloons hovering over Yangon were released by activists, expressing their hope that the elected leaders detained in a military coup d’état would be free again. The color — later pink, after red balloons sold out — symbolized the National League for Democracy party, which had, until Monday, led the civilian government with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at its head.
By Saturday, balloons were not enough, and the familiar footfall of protesters resounded in the city. As armed police officers stood behind riot shields, marchers called for “democracy to rise, military dictatorship to fall” and sang protest anthems that once brought prison sentences.
With the generals’ abrupt seizure of power, the people of Myanmar are again in the military’s cross hairs — and increasingly shut off from the world. Although the putsch, led by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the army chief, was itself bloodless, the military has resorted to familiar tactics in the days since: dozens of arrests, beatings by mysterious thugs, telecommunications outages and, this time, social media bans targeting Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. An entire class of people — poets, painters, reporters and rap artists among them — has gone into hiding.
As officers from Special Branch, the fearsome intelligence service, knocked on doors, the muscle memory of living under nearly a half-century of direct military rule — glance left, glance right, don’t linger anywhere too long — had people resorting to both camouflage and cunning. The reflexes may have been rusty, but they kicked in quickly during this new, uncertain era of terror.
The balloons and marches were among hundreds of acts of defiance by a populace whose D.N.A. is as encoded with resistance as with vigilance. Each day brings growing street dissent, as well as moments of civil disobedience that are as subtle as they are powerful, with people testing the limits of what can be done and said.
On Saturday, thousands of people in hard hats and face masks marched in Yangon, in the largest rallies since the coup. But the world could not watch. Live social-media feeds of the protests were abruptly shut off as mobile internet and then broadband services were disrupted across the country, just as they had been during the coup.
At about 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 police officers stood with their weapons drawn.
Since the coup, cities across Myanmar have resounded with the din of clanging pots, pans, gongs and empty water jugs, a traditional send-off for the devil, which, in this case, wears army green.
The generals have been busy this week. More than 130 officials and lawmakers were detained in the early hours of the putsch, along with 14 civil society figures, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a group whose focus is on Myanmar’s political detainees.
“I will keep doing 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 jumpsuits brandished red ribbons in support of the National League for Democracy. More than 500 instructors at the University of Yangon wanted to join the campaign, too, but activists had prepared only 200 ribbons. Doctors posed with three fingers raised in a rebellious gesture from the “Hunger Games” films. The entire staff at the Ministry of Welfare resigned.
A daughter was born to Dr. Si Thu Kyaw, a surgeon at Mandalay General Hospital, on Monday, the day of the coup. The 34-year-old doctor greeted his newborn and then led a civil disobedience campaign among medical workers.
“We passed through life in fear under the military junta but we won’t let it happen to the next generation,” he said. “We don’t fear the military. We don’t fear their weapons. If we acquiesce, it’s like we are in the morgue. We need to fight back.”
The generals may have held Myanmar in their grip for nearly 50 years, but they take over a country that has changed remarkably in the last decade. In 2007 in downtown Yangon, blood seeped unseen into the burgundy robes of Buddhist monks who had been shot by soldiers in yet another crushed protest movement. Discarded flip-flops hinted at panicked feet fleeing bullets. The nation was then mostly unplugged, mobile phone cards available only to those who could pay $3,000. News circulated in whispers in tea shops.
Today, on the same streets, there are skyscrapers and shopping malls, billboards for iPhones and cafes suited for Instagram. It often feels like the whole of Myanmar is on Facebook. Shortly after the Ministry of Transport and Communications blocked the social media site, the use of virtual private networks to circumvent the ban went up 6,700 percent, according to a tech research firm. Bans of Twitter and Instagram followed.
By Friday, the civil disobedience campaign had harnessed the energy of students and even a few soldiers. Satirical memes and protest art have proliferated. A national association representing the interests of nats and weizzas, the various spirits and wizards that are believed to reside in the country, said it would cast spells on the coup-plotters. The organization had come into existence after Monday’s military takeover.
Hunched over the light of their phones, some young people remain defiant. The panda-eyed generation, as they call themselves, mount vigils night after night.
On Facebook, a grandson of a former junta leader, retired Senior Gen. Than Shwe, posted a sticker of bouncing teddy bear bottoms in support of someone decrying the coup. “Stay strong,” he also posted, along with heart and muscled-arm emojis. “You will never walk alone.”
Tens of thousands of people “liked” Facebook campaigns to boycott a beer company and a mobile phone operator that are part of the military’s immense business empire. Another embargo is targeting a member of the military’s new cabinet who owns gold and diamond shops.
The hashtag #savemyanmar has attracted tens of millions of supporters, and even Rihanna, the pop singer, sent her prayers to the country’s citizens.
But if the resistance has grown sharper and more sophisticated, the military still flexes its strength. On Thursday night, 21 people who banged pots and pans in Mandalay were picked up by the police. Activists and reporters found themselves tailed once again. The generals may have handed some 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 caged the country for decades.
In last November’s elections, the National League for Democracy won an even more decisive mandate. But the army, whose proxy party did terribly, asserted that the election was marred by fraud.
It hasn’t helped that even during the years of hybrid military-civilian governance, the number of political prisoners grew larger than during the previous era of transitional military rule. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says that before the coup, more than 700 people were either in prison or facing trial for crimes of conscience.
The army, which has vowed to rule for at least a year with a 15-member State Administrative Council reporting to General Min Aung Hlaing, has shown that it will use any legal pretext to lock people up.
On Wednesday, a court document surfaced confirming that Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 15 years under house arrest, had been charged with an arcane infraction stemming from walkie-talkies and other imported equipment found at her villa in Naypyidaw, the capital. President U Win Myint, who was also detained on Monday, faces a separate charge for breaching coronavirus regulations by greeting supporters during the election campaign last year.
The charges against the two civilian leaders might seem absurd, but they could put each in prison for up to three years, a reminder that Myanmar can be run like a penal state. In 2016, a poet who wrote about having a tattoo of a former president on his penis was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for online defamation. During the years of direct military rule, critics of the army were locked up for, among other charges, holding foreign currency and riding a motorcycle backward.
Monday’s coup was staged before dawn, when the roosters had not yet crowed and the monks had not set forth, barefoot, for their morning alms. As dusk has fallen each night after the army takeover, the national mood has grown distressed. Who will be taken tonight?
With little information leaking out about the fates of those still detained — some have been released and placed on house arrest — people are once again relying on “mouth radio,” as waves of rumors are called.
“We know it’s very risky to protest on the streets but we need to do it,” said Ko Ye Win Aung, one protest organizer. “We can’t let democracy go backward.”
If there is one constant in the history of the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, it is a willingness to shed blood. The military crushed protests tens of thousands strong in 1988 and 2007. When Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was between stints of house arrest in 2003, generals sent goons after her convoy, killing dozens.
And in the nation’s frontier lands, the Tatmadaw has killed, raped and burned. A frenzy of violence against the Rohingya, culminating in an exodus of the Muslim minority in 2017, was carried out with genocidal intent, according to United Nations investigators.
As protests grow, some are worried that a bloody crackdown is inevitable. U Tun Shein, a trishaw driver, said he had peeled off a photograph of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from his vehicle.
“She will still be in my heart forever,” he said.
On Thursday, U Win Htein, an elder of the National League for Democracy, sat at his home waiting for his arrest.
A former army captain who joined the opposition movement and became one of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest advisers, Mr. Win Htein spent about 20 years in prison. He read international economic treatises while in the notorious Insein Prison 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 now” and poked fun at others in the National League for Democracy who had served shorter sentences. Mr. Win Htein became a lawmaker in the civilian government.
Around midnight, in the shadows between Thursday and Friday, soldiers and men from Special Branch came for him. Now 79 years old, Mr. Win Htein was charged with sedition for criticizing the coup.
“I’ll be back in,” Mr. Win Htein said hours earlier, a shorthand for detention. “But don’t worry. My heart is free.”