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‘You messed with the wrong generation’: the young people resisting Myanmar’s military

Since the coup, social media has become an essential tool for exchanging knowledge and experience between generations

Judith Beyer
11 February 2021, 10.07am
A family displays the three-fingered salute used by protesters in Myanmar against the military's recent seizure of power

When Myanmar’s military announced on 1 February that they had taken control of the country, civilians of all ages began to coordinate their resistance. Within a remarkably short amount of time, a new social movement was born, and people were soon pooling resources online under hashtags such as #civildisobediencemovement, #hearthevoicesofMyanmar and #rejectmilitarycoup.

This would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. Myanmar has had one of the fastest-growing telecom markets worldwide, which went from virtually nothing in the 2000s to a penetration rate of about 125% in 2020. While there was only one local operator in the beginning, with pricey SIM cards sold through a lottery system, several domestic and international companies now offer products. Within only five years, mobile phone signals have come to reach 90% of the country’s territory.

A younger generation has grown up taking the connectivity enabled by mobile phones and the internet for granted, in stark contrast to older people, who have lived most of their lives under a military dictatorship. Now, both groups are cooperating and learning from one another: combining digital skills with knowledge of how to resist the military. Both turned out to be necessary when the new regime shut down Facebook on 4 February.

Over the past year, we’ve all got used to relying on technology to stay connected. The people of Myanmar have demonstrated that it is possible to organise not only in the middle of a global pandemic, but even in a military coup.

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Dodging the shutdown

The order came from the Ministry of Transport and Communications: Facebook would be temporarily suspended due to concerns about the spread of misinformation. This claim is particularly pernicious since Myanmar did so little to curb the spread of hate speech on the platform in previous years. Online agitation fuelled the Rohingya genocide, for which Myanmar currently stands accused at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Within several hours, I observed how younger social media users switched from Facebook to Twitter, a less popular platform in Myanmar. Many used Twitter to alert others that Facebook and Messenger were now restricted by state-run internet providers and thus no longer accessible, let alone secure. The young, technology-savvy crowd quickly posted instructions on how to install VPN clients – a way to access the internet anonymously. Many also switched to Signal, a secure messaging app, and I quickly followed suit, fearing I would lose contact with my friends and research partners otherwise.

None of my older contacts knew how to make these virtual moves, but all were swiftly assisted. Even as the military announced further restrictions on 5 February and connections became increasingly unstable, people continued to share photographs and videos on Facebook that documented acts of resistance by hospital workers, university teachers, factory workers and many others.

The sound of justice

On 4 February, students at the University of Yangon published a letter to their teachers on Facebook, asking “that you, teachers who know well the meaning of injustice, do not stay silent ... It’s for our future that we ask for your help.” Recordings of resistance gatherings shared on social media show young and old singing a song from the 1988 student uprising, which includes the famous line: “we shall not surrender until the world shatters”.

“I did not listen to this song for twenty-five years, it made me feel so good,” said one of my former research assistants. She had not even been born in 1988, but these songs and their accompanying lyrics have been transmitted across generations and are able to move people – in both senses – into action. A poem entitled ‘Battle Symphony’, composed on 4 February by an anonymous collective, is already circulating widely:

In this battle,

the sound of justice

comes from pots and pans.

(ဒီတိုက်ပွဲမှာ အမှန်တရားဟာ သံပုံး​တွေဆီက မြည်တယ်။)

In the evenings since the coup, urban residents across the country have been gathering on their balconies and courtyards and banging on metal dishes in order to drive out the “evil spirit” of the military. This evokes religious practice; the chanting of verses from the Buddhist Theravāda-canon, which the majority population in Myanmar adheres to, is often accompanied by clashing noises. But my Muslim and Hindu contacts were joining in the event as well.

Many of these people have already lived through five decades of military dictatorship. Some even played an active part in the 1988 student uprising, which resulted in a state of emergency similar to the one in place now. By labelling everyone who dared to criticise the military an “enemy of the people” who needed to be “crushed”, Myanmar’s generals held several generations of people hostage. But now, people who have been divided along ethno-religious lines are united by their opposition to the military. Most remarkably, even members of the persecuted Rohingya join in, sending photographs and videos of them banging on pots and pans from refugee camps in Bangladesh, or marching alongside the hundreds of thousands of protestors who began a nationwide strike on 8 February.

This time it will be different

While elderly people were praised on social media for taking part in the strike – and some former leaders of the student uprising, now middle aged, tried to play a coordinating role – it is Generation Z who dominate the current resistance. In cities and towns across Myanmar, young people have decided on march routes and organised brigades of activists to clean up rubbish left behind. Their signs and banners draw on memes and pop references, using a language that the military leadership struggles to understand.

“My ex cheated better than the military,” read one protest sign, while another quoted from Taylor Swift’s song “Only the Young”. Yet another read: “This is the endgame” – a reference to the super-hero movie ‘Avengers: Endgame’. The protesters’ three-finger salute comes from the ‘Hunger Games’ film series, and was previously used by protesters in Thailand in 2014.

The main rallying cry, however, is: “You messed with the wrong generation”. It’s aimed at the military, of course, but it also signals a wish to move on from the previous era of protest. The message of the accompanying slogan “No! Not 88 anymore!” is clear: This time, there shall be a revolution, not just a rebellion. The young will finish what the old could not.

Protesters justify their resistance not only in regard to their own lives, but to those of future generations as well. Footage of the demonstrations shows that many protesters brought their children along; on Twitter, I found comments including “train them early” and “so that they know and remember” alongside photographs of children in prams. “These beautiful children deserve a bright future that their parents and grandparents couldn’t have,” wrote one Twitter user.

The message is clear: this time there shall be a revolution

One father carried his little son, who held a portrait of General Aung San, both the “father of the Army” and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. Pictures of the latter, who was deposed as state counsellor in February and is currently in custody, have also been visible at the protests. “She is our future and our hope,” read some of the slogans.

Aung San Suu Kyi will soon turn 76 and her father, who was assassinated shortly before Burma achieved independence, will have been dead for 74 years this year. For a large majority of the population, both remain iconic. But the art of resistance is no longer a family affair – it has become an intergenerational matter, and the current protesters organise themselves without a clear leadership.

“It’s only as an adult that I realised I’ve had survivor’s guilt all my life,” wrote a young woman on Twitter. “I did not grow up under a military dictatorship, but the rest of my family did.” Rather than enduring the same fate as previous generations, today’s youth is determined to take power back from the military. First, because they already enjoyed a decade of partial democratic freedom and they know what they will be losing. Second, because they want to put an end to seventy years of intergenerational trauma: they know they have nothing to lose.

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