It is now more than a hundred days since the people have been out on the streets protesting against the coup by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military is known, a day before the country’s Parliament was due to swear in the members elected at the November 2020 general election, thereby preventing this from happening.
The resistance to the coup started with the people in the cities centres such as Yangon striking pots and pans in unison every evening as a symbolic act to drive away evil. But the protests spread very quickly and became a civil disobedience movement that has touched every corner of the country.
From the second day of the military takeover, healthcare workers joined the national civil disobedience movement. By February 9, Covid-19 vaccinations had been suspended, the country’s testing system had collapsed and most hospitals in Myanmar had shut down.
Employees of banks, including the Kanbawza Bank and Central Bank of Myanmar, joined the movement along with the 100,000-strong Myanmar Teachers’ Federation.
One expert on the government’s civil service system estimated that the country had about one million civil servants and that about three-quarters of them had walked off their jobs. The staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, formerly led by Aung San Suu Kyi, have also joined the strike.
All public transport by air, land and sea has been affected by workers strikes: the Myanmar National Airlines employees, the Myanmar railways workers and truck drivers are all on strike. Truck drivers have refused to transport goods from the docks at Yangon’s four main ports. The Myanmar Container Trucking Association said they would deliver only essential items such as food and medicines.
Myanmar’s largest labour union, the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar, has announced its total support for the Civil Disobedience Movement.
Hundreds of thousands of youth in every corner of the country has been carrying their placards, singing their songs, shouting their slogans and giving their three-finger salutes. Poets have been writing their poems even as they get killed on the streets while protecting the younger protestors.
Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement against military rule includes mass street protests and a public boycott of military-linked businesses. There is also another aspect of the movement called the “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime.
Protestors have been using social media to identify the relatives of the military generals, announcing where they live, what they do for work, and what foreign universities their children attend. They then urge people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. Among those targeted thus far include Ma Khin Thiri Thet Mon, daughter of Tatmadaw chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and a producer of big-budget movies, as well as the senior general’s daughter-in-law, Ma Myo Yadana Htike, founder of the TV soap opera and beauty pageant producer.
The country’s ethnic minority nationalities such as the Kachins, Shans and Karens and Mon have made alliances with sections of the pro-democracy activists. These ethnic minorities have decades of experience of armed resistance against the Tatmadaw.
The Myanmar military has been bombing the stronghold of these ethnic minorities. According to the Phil Thornton, journalist and senior adviser to the International Federation of Journalists in South East Asia, from March 27 to May 5, the Karen National Union report its soldiers were involved in 407 armed battles with the Burma Army.
Fighter jets have flown into Karen-controlled territory 27 times and dropped 47 bombs, killing 14 civilians wounding 28 and forcing as many as 30,000 people into makeshift jungle camps. The videos posted on social media of the bombings and battles shows that that the Tatmadaw is at war with the citizens of Myanmar.
The power of the press
In the midst of the daily protests, shootings, arrests, detentions, raids and air strikes are the Myanmar journalists risking their lives every day to bring accurate and reliable reports of the tragedy and heroism they witness. Many of these journalists are young with little experience of having to work in secret from hide outs, ensuring not carry anything which can give away their identify as a journalist, such as mobiles or SIM cards.
The working conditions have got more difficult by the day.
The military government announced its decision to cancel the licences of five independent media houses in March first week: 7 Day News, Democratic Voice of Burma, Khit Thit News, Mizzima and Myanmar Now. The decision was announced by state-owned MRTV during its evening news broadcast on March 8. The announcement stated that these media would no longer be allowed to publish or broadcast articles, programmes or reports or transmit messages via social media.
On March 9, the military and police broke open into the offices of four other independent media houses: Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma, Khit Thit Media and 7 Day News. The military took away computers and documents but there were no journalists – most had already gone into hiding and some crossed across the border.
However, many of those who crossed the borders into Thailand and India were not welcomed by the host Governments. In the past, both India and Thailand had allowed the refugees to stay. But this time, Thailand succumbed to pressure from the Myanmar junta and arrested three journalists of the Democratic Voice of Burma and two of their associates in San Sai district of Chiang Mai province on May 10th.
The Foreign Correspondence Club of Thailand has expressed concern over the arrests. They are being charged for illegal entry and also for violating covid protocol.
More than 70 journalists have been arrested since the coup in Myanmar. Often the family members are not informed and lawyers too are not given access. Most of them have been arrested while they were covering the protests such as Min Nyo (51), a reporter with the Democratic Voice of Burma, was arrested while covering protests in town of Pyay and beaten causing serious injuries. He is under detention.
Journalists cannot wear helmets and jackets with press logos on them when they go to cover demonstrations as they become easy targets for the military. However, if they do not wear them the demonstrators suspect them of being police informants.
Within the fortnight of the coup, the Tatmadaw brought changes to the laws to make it easier to frame and charge activists, especially journalists.
New section 505A prohibits causing fear, spreading false news and agitating crimes against a government employee, all punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.
Other such amendments include:
- Expansions of the scope of high treason and sedition, which make it easier to convict individuals simply for criticising the military (sections 121 and 124A).
- New sections 124C and 124D that make it a crime to hinder the work of the military or government employees.
- A new section 505(a), not to be confused with 505A, which makes it a crime to make a statement undermining the morale of military or government employees.
Martial law, imposed in some locations since March, allows cases involving these offences to be heard by military tribunals and increases the maximum sentence to death or life imprisonment with hard labour.
Despite the arrests and detentions, the threat of imprisonment and torture journalists continue to work under impossible conditions. With the economy in ruin, banks closed and many have no regular income and low budget rice and curry shops closed many journalists who are doing free lance works have no regular source of income.
The success of today’s civil disobedience movement comes from decades of experience of the independent media working under military dictatorship – from the time of the national uprising in 1988 to the coup of February 2021. The tactics used by today’s protestors and dissident hackers are direct descendants of the post-1988 underground communication system.
The expertise and infrastructure built by media veterans like Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma and ethnic nationality media covering earlier crackdowns. In addition they have forged international alliances and got training so that they have been able to provide accurate information and analysis under these conditions.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are instrumental in allowing the people of Myanmar to coordinate and communicate with each other and the outside world. Social media sites are key weapons in Myanmar’s current struggle, facilitating strategies such as the Social Punishment campaign that shames and ostracises family members and supporters of the Tatmadaw.
A new generation
And another generation of journalists are being trained even in the midst of the protests and crackdown. “When I saw young trainees today, I was convinced that the military regime will have to go back to the barracks,” said Soe Myint, the founder of Mizzima. “I was their age in 1988 and it took me more than two or three years to get the skills and expertise that the trainees got within three months.”
A woman journalist in Myanmar agreed with this assessment. She told a Fojo, a Swedish media institute: “I have high confidence in Generation Z and their Spring Revolution. They have strong organising powers and unity – they have everything but a gun.”
She said she has gas mask in her backpack along with medicine and a few contact numbers in case of an emergency. She studies the situation in the area and decides on an escape route when she goes to cover the country wide protests calling for a Spring Revolution against the military coup.
Another woman journalist said in an interview she lived with the fear of a raid in her home where she lived with her two children. As a single mother she worries what will happen to her children if she is imprisoned.
The Tatmadaw has now started targeting the families of the journalists. They have visited the families of Mizzima journalists trying to intimidate mothers and fathers and forcing wives and children to go into hiding. But this has failed to intimidate Mizzima, which has started its second channel despite the ban on satellites even as the military knocked on the doors of their parents’ homes.
Mizzima produced a short documentary on how it is working under such dangerous conditions. Two million viewers inside Myanmar watched the video documentary within seven days. Despite the ban on Facebook, the readership is ever increasing.
One viewer sent a short video to Mizzima to show how she and her friends watch the banned television in bunkers; another sent a photograph of how they have hidden their satellite under their lungis inside their homes ever since it was banned.
Myanmar’s journalists draw strength from their people and the people support independent media. Soe Myint, a veteran of the national uprising of 1988 says all this shows “what we are doing is absolutely right. It shows the military regime is very afraid of what we are doing – just a free to air TV channel.”
Journalist organisations in India have issued statements of solidarity for the Myanmar journalists who have taken shelter in India. But it would be even more meaningful if the act of solidarity was followed by a sustained campaign for the journalists from Myanmar taking refuge in India. They should be given long-term visas and accreditation like other foreign correspondents who have been living in the country for a long time.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.