In January 2021, when the military, once again, takes over in Myanmar, Thwin Htet is in the middle of writing her master’s thesis. She wants to become an engineer. While Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta for most of the time since the end of the colonial era, Thwin Htet has seen the country open up over the past decade. Although the military still had a lot of power, at least there had been a mostly civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi – who, despite all the criticism from the West, is still a central figure for the freedom movement in the Southeast Asian country.
Myanmar had not become a free country in recent years, and life has remained dangerous, especially for ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya. Nevertheless, some things had changed: Unions were formed in the numerous garment factories that sprouted up in the urban centers, women were able to move more freely on the streets, and the internet was no longer controlled by the military. Almost everyone had access to mobile data, and the price of a smartphone dropped rapidly after 2011, after the military introduced initial reforms under pressure from the democracy movement.
But then there were elections in November 2020 and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won more votes than expected. The military, which until then had always reserved 25% of the seats in parliament for itself, responded a little more than two months later with a coup. Again it took power and again it locked away the politicians of the civilian government. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had already spent 15 years of her life under house arrest, was now locked up at home again. The new military government alleged that there had been cheating in the election.
But now something happened that hardly anyone had expected: the masses took to the streets. The people of Myanmar did not want to accept this coup. There were huge demonstrations in all major cities. Especially young people, most of whom had grown up during the opening of the country, did not want to accept the new, old dictatorship. „You messed with the wrong generation“ could be read on some banners and posters.
Not only young people, but also many women have found their voice in the past ten years. They have experienced the possibilities and the power they could have, says Kant Kaw, who has lived in the U.S. for 15 years. Many of her friends and relatives are still in Myanmar. With the worldwide network Sisters2Sisters, she wants to draw attention to how the military systematically uses sexualized violence as a weapon of war.
The campaign was founded after Shwe Yamin Htet was released from prison. The 17-year-old had been arrested, together with her mother, during a protest march and was only released because she is a minor. On Facebook, she reported how a cellmate in custody had been the victim of sexualized violence. The woman had stated that she was with a Muslim man – hence, a member of an ethnic minority. This alone was reason enough for the military to torture her. Shwe Yamin Htet has been in hiding ever since.
And even if many do not explicitly call themselves feminists, women know that life under the junta is dangerous, especially for them.
Thwin Htet is also part of Sisters2Sisters. She still lives in Myanmar and describes herself as a feminist. She says the struggle against the junta is also a feminist struggle. Because the junta stands for violent, patriarchal structures. Women are worth less than men in the eyes of the military and have traditional roles to fulfill. Life under the dictatorship is also dangerous for trans people. They are persecuted, insulted, and humiliated; trans women are put in men’s prisons. And even if many do not explicitly call themselves feminists, women like Thwin Htet’s sister and her mother would know that life under the junta is dangerous, especially for them. Thwin Htet hardly ever goes out on the streets anymore, let alone to protests. She tries to fight the junta mainly online. Anything else is too dangerous, she says, and she can’t do that to her mother.
No money for the junta
Thwin Htet remembers February 28, 2021, clearly. She was at one of the big demonstrations in Yangon, four weeks after the coup, 19 days after the first demonstrator had been shot by the military.
Suddenly panic broke out, she reports. It was the first time in her life that she had heard gunshots. Then, she just ran. She knew if she didn’t keep running, she could die. So she ran and eventually hid until the situation calmed down. Meanwhile, 18 people had been killed by the military during protests. Thwin Htet made it home. Since then, she only goes out when she has to. She leaves her cellphone at home and takes another one with her, a „clean“ one, because there are numerous checkpoints where the military checks the cellphones of passers-by. She tries to avoid these checkpoints as much as possible.
Thwin Htet has still not handed in her Masters thesis. She and her fellow students do not want a degree „from the junta“. They are on strike, just as many other workers in the country are on strike or have gone on strike: garment workers, bus drivers, doctors and even government employees have stopped working in several general strikes in the past year. Many have stopped paying their electricity bills and taxes because they don’t want to give money to the junta; money that in the end only finances the junta’s cruel attacks on the people of Myanmar.
Chevron, Total, Posco or Petronas are some of the most important sources of finance for the military.
With the so-called „Blood Money Campaign“, the initiators from Myanmar are trying to draw attention to the fact that international companies such as Chevron (USA), TotalEnergies (France), Posco (South Korea) or Petronas (Malaysia) – with their oil and gas businesses – are some of the most important sources of finance for the military. But also clothing companies like Adidas are criticized because they still produce their products in Myanmar and thus support the junta.
February 1 marks the first anniversary of the coup. Originally, the junta announced a state of emergency for one year and held out the prospect of new elections. But there is no end in sight to the state of emergency. Instead, the trials of politicians in the civilian government are in full swing, and one by one they are being sentenced to long prison terms. Journalists are also filling the prisons.
Kant Kaw tells the story of a friend of her family who was part of the civilian government. He was arrested after the coup. Since the military usually also targets the families of their designated enemies, Kant Kaw and friends organized a safe house for his family and collected donations to pay for it. The relatives are now safe, but they have to hide, she reports. The friend himself has never been heard from again.
Needle pricks against the regime
There are thousands of stories like these. Violence, assaults and arrests have become part of everyday life in Myanmar. Worldwide attention has waned, yet every day there are reports of a village being burned down, people being tortured or killed. As recently as 24 December, soldiers burned down a village, shot and set fire to the inhabitants.
A few weeks earlier, a picture was published on the Internet showing the outlines of people writhing in pain as they died. Their bodies consisted only of ashes. They were reportedly burned alive with their hands tied.
While the military allowed the protests to continue in the first week after the coup, the junta has since taken extremely brutal action against protesters and activists. According to the NGO, The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), nearly 1,500 people have been killed and more than 8,000 imprisoned since the protests began. Although the junta made headlines in the fall by saying that it had released 5,000 political prisoners, many of them have since been re-arrested. Reports about this are hardly to be found in the media.
There are no longer large demonstrations. Instead, flash mobs are organized time and again: Suddenly, a few dozen people gather in the street, unpack banners and run through the street – shouting protest slogans – before just as suddenly disappearing again. Sometimes the military catches them, sometimes not. A video from early December shows a large, black military SUV crashing into one such crowd.
Otherwise, it has become common for people to bang on pots and pans at their windows at home, loudly expressing their protest. No matter how cruel the military repression is, the form of protest may change, but it does not dry up. At one point, women stretched their traditional garments, their sarongs, across the street. This is because the male military does not want to touch women’s clothing. So the soldiers had to consider whether to avoid that street or to „humiliate“ themselves and fight their way through the large cloths.
These and similar little pinpricks happen all the time. But the junta is not defeated. And so, in the meantime, many people have fled to Thailand. In the border town of Mae Sot, numerous refugees live in a camp that is far too small. Others are joining the armed resistance: The People Defense Forces (PDF) are also gaining popularity among younger people. No one wants to leave power to the military.
And so everyone is trying in their own way to stand up to the junta in Myanmar: some online, others in armed struggle, some with flash mobs, others with pots and pans. Worldwide campaigns are being planned to capture the world’s attention. Some are fighting from within the country, others from outside. The resistance is great. But the military has staying power.