Young Burmese are using tech to organize against a military coup, but the junta has powerful tools to silence them.
Riot police leave their positions blocking a road after protestors dispersed following a peaceful demonstration against the military coup of 1 February 2021 and in support of the NLD (National League for Democracy), Aung San Suu Kyi and democracy. Panos Pictures/Redux
The first Saturday evening after the coup, Nandar sat in her Yangon apartment playing the guitar. At 8 p.m., the streets resonated with the sound of thousands of pots and pans being banged in unison, a ritual of exorcism that has become a nightly tradition since the Burmese military took power in the early hours of February 1. Sometime later, there was a new clamor, clapping and cheering, so Nandar, a feminist activist and podcaster, went down to the street to ask what was going on. She was told that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released.
Suu Kyi, the state councilor and de facto democratic leader of the country, had been taken into custody on the morning of the coup and later charged with owning illegal walkie-talkies, among other crimes designed to add a veneer of legality to her arrest. If the rumors of release were true, it would have been a turning point in the turmoil of the past week: a glimmer of hope that the military might be willing to loosen its grip on power.
“I didn’t buy it,” Nandar said. The news was indeed a hoax, a way for the military junta to try to take control of the narrative in the face of a growing campaign of civil disobedience. Spread during an internet blackout — the second of the week — that cut access to independent news outlets and social media, the rumor seemed designed to take momentum out of the movement by making people believe they had scored a victory. “I think it was, in a way, to disturb our sleep,” Nandar said. “So that the next day, we would not feel as strong.”
Thousands of Burmese marched on Sunday anyway, many of them young people in their teens, 20s, and 30s, a cohort who have enjoyed the tentative expansion of freedoms in Myanmar over the last decade. Since the country returned to a form of civilian rule in 2011, its borders have opened, its economy has grown, and millions of its people have come online, connecting to global culture via social media.
Nandar is a model of this generation: she is in her mid-20s, fluent in English (she translated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” into Burmese), digitally native (she runs two podcasts), and politically active. The speed and scale of public opposition to the coup took the military by surprise, forcing them to take drastic measures. Within days of the junta seizing control, they had imposed curfews, blacked out the internet, and blocked access to messenger services and social media.
“There was this very popular slogan going round: ‘You messed with the wrong generation.’ I think that’s true,” she said.
Still, despite the outpouring of dissent and the expressions of solidarity across social media around the world, this tech-enabled civil disobedience movement is at an enormous disadvantage against a state that holds the power to disrupt and manipulate the infrastructure of protest. Their experience echoes that of political opposition groups, from Hong Kong to India, that have found that encrypted messaging systems, offline networks, and global attention only afford limited protection.