Across Myanmar, a campaign of civil disobedience is swelling in response to this week’s coup, in which the military ousted the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). Unlike past resistance movements, notably the 1988 uprising that made Suu Kyi a democratic icon, Myanmar’s new dissenters are keeping their activism off the streets and finding safer ways to reject military rule.
“We want to make our feelings heard, but at the same time do what we could without being rash and demonstrating on the streets,” added Lynn Nu, 32. “We thought this movement was the safest bet.”
The campaigns target institutions directly run by the military and government-run hospitals. Staffers at 70 hospitals and medical departments across 30 towns and cities in Myanmar are refusing to go into work at government-run hospitals, treating patients in private facilities instead. Other workers quit their jobs at Mytel,
a telecommunications company run by the military. And some are calling for a boycott of goods made by military-linked companies, which include Myanmar Beer and Red Ruby cigarettes, ubiquitous in the country’s tea shops.
Earlier this week, Myanmar’s military, led by commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, detained Suu Kyi and her ministers and seized power. NLD lawmakers were barricaded in their guesthouses in the capital, Naypyidaw.
On Wednesday, Suu Kyi was charged with possessing walkie-talkies allegedly imported illegally, while ousted civilian president Win Myint was charged with flouting coronavirus rules that ban gatherings — allowing the military to keep the pair detained for two more weeks.
The coup’s trigger was the refusal of the military and its proxy party to accept the results of November elections that Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide. But tensions between Suu Kyi’s civilian government and the generals had been building over five years of a fragile power-sharing arrangement.
Since the coup on Monday, some level of normalcy has returned to Myanmar. Communications are functioning. Chief ministers and NLD lawmakers have returned to their homes.
But public anger is growing.
It started with a faint, tinny sound Tuesday evening, as residents in Yangon, the largest city, began to bang on pots and pans from their balconies to register their disgust with the military’s actions.
Whole streets and neighborhoods joined in, following a local tradition to ward off evil spirits with drums. The sound eventually reached a peak as people made noise any way they could. Some whooped and cheered, banging on tables and the roofs of their cars, while taxi drivers sounded their horns.
The campaign is gaining momentum; more honking and banging erupted Wednesday night, this time even louder and more sustained than before, with more people out on the streets. Some also sang a revolutionary anthem from 1988 after lyrics circulated earlier in the day. Much of the resistance is organized on Facebook, which is massively popular in the country.
Doctors, celebrities and NLD politicians are also raising the three-finger salute of defiance popularized by the “Hunger Games” series, also a symbol of resistance in neighboring Thailand against the monarchy and the army-backed government there.
Kyaw Thu Win of the punk band Rebel Riot said the group is recording a new song called “One Day” in solidarity with the growing resistance. Similarly, the band’s fight for injustice will be kept off the streets for now, in fear of what might come next.
“Right now we are showing solidarity online, from home,” he said. “No one is going out yet, so we are showing we do not agree with the new law and new system.”
Despite dissidents’ caution, pushback from the authorities has already begun. A 35-year-old resident of east Yangon said soldiers and community leaders visited homes Tuesday night, complaining about the pots-and-pans protest.
“They said, ‘This is none of your business. Do you all want to be captured?’ ” said the resident, who declined to give her name because of safety concerns. Soldiers, she added, indicated they would patrol the streets and arrest anyone who participated in protests.
The military ruled Myanmar for half a century until a quasi-democratic transition began in 2010. The army’s brutal reign was defined by arbitrary arrests, torture and ill treatment of citizens. There was no free speech or free assembly, and residents who lived through those times describe a police state in which neighbors would report on one another and fear was prevalent.
Even under the NLD-led civilian government, which took power in 2015, the military remained powerful. The army has continued to battle ethnic militias and minorities — most notably, the Rohingya, more than a million of whom were driven from their homes in a scorched-earth campaign in 2017.
The military’s record is on the minds of resistance campaigners and organizers, worried that a wrong move could herald a wider crackdown.
“We don’t want to give them any excuse to crack down on us more and say there is instability,” said Lynn Nu, the assistant surgeon. “We have fear, because they have guns and we have no guns. But we will do our best.”
Nachemson reported from Yangon. Kyaw Ye Lynn contributed to this report.