In the early morning of 1 February 2021, Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlain seized power, detaining the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and other members of the NLD, charging the latter with corruption crimes. What would follow in the next few hours would shock the people of Myanmar and the whole world. The shutting down of various forms of communication, disrupting internet connections and cellular services, employing “kill switch’ tactics.
Many people would protest through the streets of Yangon amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those protesting were met with the military’s characteristic response of violence through a campaign of terror and use of lethal force, arresting individuals who were suspects of supporting democracy and consistently raiding homes to capture these individuals and firing live ammunition and the use of water cannons to disperse those protesting.
As dubbed by the locals, the Spring Revolution started with a boycott campaign of the military, a Pot-Banging movement, and a Red Ribbon Campaign. The color red is a color typically associated with the Aung San Suu Kyis’s political Party. Adopted by those protesting, the color now represents their fight and struggle for freedom along with a ‘three-finger salute’ popularized by the dystopian science fiction book and film The Hunger Games, and influence prevalent amongst the youth (Myanmar Mix 2021) (Sharma 2021).
Those in Yangon started the protests by banging pots and pans every night, expressing their frustrations. Staying bound to their homes due to the pandemic as well as the military’s curfew restrictions, such actions have still enabled the youth, women, disabled, and the aged to oppose the actions of the military.
Allowing the women specifically to voice their concerns by actively participating in the political landscape, typically dominated by men due to the society’s roots in patriarchy.
Those opposing these arrests identify themselves as ‘Gen-Z.’ The term typically is associated with Generation Z, a demographic born between the late 1990s and the early 2000s or the mid-2010s, currently between the ages of 16-30. Generally seen to be those individuals as ‘confident users of new technology.’ In this political opposition, ‘Gen-Z’ has done exactly that. Being at the forefront of the protests, developing political awareness, and tackling the country’s conflicting ethnic differences have halted the achievement of a democratic society.
Along with understanding and counteracting the barriers the military has imposed on the state toward stability. Having grown from the experiences of their elders who partook in the 8888 Uprising, these Gen-Z’s have heard the stories of losses in pursuing a democratic state. Furthermore, having grown up with the restrictions imposed on them, including speech limitations and participation in political activities, most of these individuals have also experienced a certain level of political liberalization. With an estimated 4.8 million members of the youth being able to vote in the November 2020 elections, these members of society refuse to go back to a life of repression. Their participation breaks various rules of Myanmar’s society, where elders are often respected and considered to be the decision-makers of families and communities.
Summoning the tool that comes most naturally to them, Gen-Z was able to use social media to spread information about the coup and organize protests. Through platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, co-ordinating ongoing activities while bringing attention through shared photos and videos of the protests with the hashtags of ‘#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar’ and ‘#Myanmarcoup’. With such technical resources available at their fingertips, ‘Gen-z,’ along with the country having experienced a boom in telecommunications pushed by globalization, created a freer generation and one that was able to access opportunities the previous generations never had. (Horsey 2021).
The military expanded its tactics to strengthen its authoritarianism through digital means. Tracking down individuals through their posts on social media leads to activists on these platforms being banned. Any individual or organization exhibiting anti-regime material would also experience the same. This led Generation to adopt new means of communication through niche applications such as Telegram or Viber. Allowing for a safe means of communication without detection by the military. At the same time, the youth also began using VPNs or Virtually Private Networks that would enable internet users to use internet connectivity anonymously, essentially hiding the user’s location and bypassing the restrictions imposed by the government.
With the first wave of protests almost being compared to an experience at a festival, Slogans in English were used despite the previous generations’ aversion to the language due to feelings of apathy towards English.
This showed Gen-Z’s approaches to gaining international attention without any prior interference from narrative-building. Placards based on humor tactics or ‘memes’ were used to gain attention for example, some slogans have included prompts such as “My ex is bad, but the military is worse” or “I want a relationship, NOT a dictatorship”. Those holding these slogans expressed their dissatisfaction and the exhausting experiences that have led up to the movement so far. These slogans and many others express a sense of individualism amongst the youth despite such actions typically being considered culturally improper. Being influenced by Western popular culture and protest culture exhibits the transformation Myanmar’s society faces, challenging traditionalism while moving toward a certain sense of modernity. With the opposition favoring a rather traditionalistic approach with their fear tactics, repression of the status quo, and attempts to reverse the changing societal structures through force, they were instead met with Gen-Z’s creative reactions in their pursuit of change. This new change poses a distinctive threat to the military of being unable to control the metamorphosis the youth currently experience in their activism. Furthermore, it opens up a stronger pathway for international criticism of the military’s actions, while the youth may face a stronger sense of international solidarity for exposing their actions.
This particular generation of young women has also challenged the well-established hierarchies and gender norms. In certain instances, the demonstrations successfully turned the military’s misogynistic views against themselves. Feeding off of casual superstitions, where often it is believed that passing underneath women’s sarongs or ‘Htamein/longyi’, as they are known in Burmese (garments similar to western skirts), could cause men to lose their masculinity or their male prowess. In various streets of Yangon, these garments were hung up high with soldiers facing self-imposed restrictions into areas, which slowed down their access. However, soon these were taken down by security forces. In another instance, young women used sanitary napkins, a widely considered taboo, with pictures of Min Aung Hlain painted red to simulate blood. Despite such actions being considered culturally insensitive, these occurrences shatter the conformed gender norms.
Regardless of the challenges these women faced, their leadership opened up a gateway for other individuals of the Burmese society to join hands in their fight for resistance. On the other hand, in the face of experiencing violence at the hands of the military, a certain percentage of Women have also armed themselves, preparing for battle. Although those joining armed resistances significantly consist of men, women have not backed down from enlisting. Leading to the eventual creation of a female-only resistance group located in the state’s central region of Sagaing. Regardless of such advancements, few women serve on the front of these battles while none are in decision-making roles.
Nonetheless, it perpetuates existing gender roles, where women are considered too weak for battle, and men are to protect these women—pressurizing the males in these armed groups to adopt the masculine warrior role.
This ultimately results in an ineffective use of personnel capable of fighting. Although those participating in armed resistance remain a minority and paradoxical in the movement’s true nature, the goals of these organizations remain the same. Having recently passed its second anniversary, mainstream media are slowly forgetting the resistance; furthermore, the role of those participating and breaking bridges goes unacknowledged. Having women and the youth as the front-liners of the revolution challenges the gender and age norms in the patriarchal society of Myanmar but also inspires those around the world, allowing them to endorse and inspire such movements.
The author is a Peace and Conflict Studies Scholar at National Defence University in Islamabad.