“We can get a vaccination for COVID-19, but we can’t get a vaccination for the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military]. We need to resist things ourselves.. it’s the only vaccination for this political crisis,” observes Haom, a twenty-one-year-old Student Union member studying History and Politics.
Haom joined her Student Union to protest against the Myanmar military coup (the military are also known as the Tatmadaw). On 1 February 2021, the Tatmadaw seized control of the country, detaining key political figures such as de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, alongside other political activists and members of the leading party the National league of Democracy (NLD), who won the November 2021 election by a landslide. Since then, the Tatmadaw have become increasingly violent, terrorising households throughout the night with raids and internet blackouts, as well as firing at protesters with live ammunition, so far resulting in four deaths and hundreds of injuries. This is in-keeping with the Tatmadaw’s history, adding to their long list of human rights violations.
Sullivan, a twenty-two year old student studying International Relations, confidently states why he is involved in the protests “As a student protestor, I have been planning to take down the Tatmadaw government as soon as possible.., to remove them from the politics of Myanmar.” He adds that since the first day of the coup, he has been organising protests and encouraging people to join them – particularly civil servants. Students like Sullivan and Haom encourage civil servants to join protests both online and in-person. The strikes are a vital part of the “Civil Disobedience Movement” (CDM), which has adopted a “no recognition, no participation” approach. It is hoped that by the CDM halting essential business activities, the Tatmadaw will be pressurised into restoring the civilian elected government and releasing political prisoners. Groups participating in the CDM include government ministries and private industry, ministerial administration staff, healthcare professionals, teachers and other education professionals, transportation staff including railway employees and the national airlines as well as banks. Haom remarks that “Almost all of our human rights will be restricted soon, so we as Gen Z, need to protest against the Tatmadaw. I don’t want my generation to be in this situation again.”
Since the coup began, the population of Myanmar has been subject to multiple, and total internet blackouts. Most notably, the now daily blackouts from 1am-9am, coincide with police raids on households and unconstitutional arrests, leaving the population tired and scared. This tactic would be devastating anywhere, but in Myanmar it is a stark reminder of the country’s past when it was isolated from the world for around 60 years until 2010 (visas were granted since 1992 but were short and controlled). Myanmar’s means of communication with the outside world was further constricted until 2010 due to the cost of an internet enabled sim-card being anything up to $1000-$3,000 in bribes.
In the last ten years, internet use has spread rapidly to far-reaching parts of the country and is now central to Gen-Z’s protesting tactics. Haom explains that she learnt how to make homemade shields online and uses gas masks and goggles to protect herself: “the internet is great for us because it’s the 21st century and we can find out how to protect ourselves against the dictatorship.” Sullivan on the other hand emphasises creative communication “images play a really vital role in getting people interested in protests,.. everybody can enjoy memes, especially Gen Z – they really know how to use them well.”
Much has been made of Gen Z in the media, and not without cause. Around the world many young people are dissatisfied with the world and futures they have inherited. The youth in Myanmar are no exception having grown-up in the shadow of multiple coups and uprising, with their grandparents born under colonial rule, they have inherited only the tentative beginnings of a pathway to democracy.
However, when asked how they cope with the pressure of being a part of the “saviour generation” Raom just laughs, “we just want to break the vicious cycle, it is our responsibility and our time to protest. If we don’t, the next generation will suffer this again.” Sullivan also dislikes the term “I don’t think we are a saviour generation. In our Student Union we have a popular slogan “There is no supreme saviour,” we have to do it on our own, we have to fight for our own,.. so I don’t like to be named as saviour generation.”
Sullivan is also somewhat reluctant to distinguish many differences between Gen Z and the older generations, “to be honest, I don’t see many differences between the generations, but Gen Z are more creative than the others, they have been doing really well and have a strong attitude to take down the Tatmadaw.” Haom expands on this as she enthusiastically explains that Gen Z have new and innovative ideas to protest, learning strategies online from Hong Kong as well as trying to capture the international community’s attention. Indeed, they have been influenced by Myanmar’s extensive history of uprisings and also neighbouring uprisings such as those in Thailand and Hong Kong. Indeed, Gen Z have been busy, painting prodemocracy slogans on streets and beaches across the country, reminiscent of the BLM slogan painted on the road leading to the White House last year. The military have also been busy cleaning washing down the streets each night.
Despite their modesty, protestors’ actions can come with serious personal consequences. One of the most tragic moments of the protest so far was the killing of 21-year-old protestor Ma Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, who died following a shot to the head by police as she was running for cover behind a bus stop. Haom explains that this was a horrible moment for protestors, “I thought that most of the protestors would withdraw, but we are still protesting using protection such as the shields and gas masks.” She also adds that the fatal shooting has become more of a motivation for protestors, a sentiment echoed by Sullivan, who after expressing his deep condolences for her sacrifice, states that she is a hero for them now. He remarks that “I think her shooting has encouraged more people to join the CDM, because if you don’t join the CDM you’re killing people. That’s how it works.” Since the interviews took place, three more people have been fatally shot by the Tatmadaw.
Perhaps his views might be considered extreme for those with only a superficial knowledge of Myanmar’s complex history. In the last few weeks alone, tanks and hordes of soldiers have been placed in many cities. Videos circulate on social media featuring people evidencing injuries, shell casings of bullets and most poignantly videos of the recent deaths in Mandalay, where the sound of ammunition being fired can be heard alongside men and women screaming and running away. It is unsurprising then, that student union members actively organising protests do not go unnoticed, Sullivan admits “I’ve been under surveillance for weeks since the Tatmadaw coup, to be honest I’m not safe now, I have to keep hidden and avoid being arrested or detained by the police. I have to.” Indeed, since the coup has begun one of the first Tatmadaw actions was to arrest well-known previous well-known student protestors.
With democracy in Myanmar prior to the coup being thread bare, the Gen Z protestors contemplated what the future of the NLD would be. Haom navigates what is a difficult question “our people were under charismatic leadership, because of Daw Aung San Su Kyi, and most people want to return to NLD authority, but charismatic leadership can be unpredictable, and most people don’t know how to identify what a real government is. We need to be able to choose ourselves. Protestors should not stop merely at reinstating the elected government, but they must dismantle the system of Tatmadaw involvement to secure Myanmar’s future.” Sullivan is asked if he thinks the NLD is the best party for Myanmar’s future “No, not at all” he replies, “but to be honest I don’t see any alternative. That’s really sad. I think the biggest problem for the NLD will be nationalism, because the majority of the people are Burmese.”
Another group whose future has been ravaged and remains firmly undecided on is the Rohingya, who have experienced ethnic cleansing carried out by the Tatmadaw since 2016. When their case was tried at the International Court of Justice last year, they were not defended by Daw Aung Sann Su Kyi who suggested prosecution would be administered internally if necessary. Despite the fact that this is a contentious and even dangerous topic to discuss publicly in Myanmar, Haom and Sullivan are bravely prepared to engage with it.
When asked about the lack of public support shown to the Rohingya in comparison to the current protests. Haom thinks it is because most people don’t know what real nationalism is, “the level of public support for the coup is totally different from the Rohingya issue,.. they (the public) don’t understand the difference between ethnic genealogy and a civil territorial nation”. She also considers the education system where “most people don’t have a chance to learn about human-rights or humanity based social sciences.” She reasons that this is because their education system has been heavily influenced by the Tatmadaw and this has helped construct an ethic genealogical mindset, which discriminates against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities.
Sullivan, who describes himself as pro-Rohingya, agrees that this is a difficult question, “most of our students are pro-Rohingya, the Rohingya have been attacked by the majority of people in the country, but now the tables have turned, I hope they understand now how the Rohingya have suffered.”
Since the beginning of the coup, many photos have been posted online of Rohingya, both inside and outside Myanmar, supporting the civil disobedience movement and protesting against the Tatmadaw. Both Haom and Sullivan see the coup as a chance for change “this is a great chance to get solidarity and mutual understanding between us.. It will be a positive opportunity for us to build a federal country” says Haom. Sullivan is a little more restrained, “I think people are really slowly trying to understand the situation of the Rohingya and I hope they will be able to really understand the situation of the minorities.”
As the interviews drew to a close, their attentions are turned towards the international community, and they were asked if they had a message to send to the international community. Haom reaffirmed that student activists and protestors were being arrested and injured, that their human rights and freedom of speech were under attack, she urged that Myanmar needed international support to succeed in defeating the Tatmadaw. Sullivan explained that “I don’t really want to ask them for help, because we must fight on our own for our freedom,.. but it would be better if the international community helps us to fight the Tatmadaw against this unjust coup.”
For students, academics and any other readers, I hope that the words of these two brave young people will have moved or motivated you. I implore you to take action, be informed, write, petition, fundraise and make noise on social media – keep the story in the news and do not let the light go out. We must take action to protect those whose human rights are being violated. Please act now.
Amy Joce is a SOAS BA Development Studies Alumna, and since graduating, she has working in Myanmar and Afghanistan. Amy currently works as a Data Analyst for a domestic abuse charity.