In Myanmar, the generals are used to getting their way. Did they miscalculate this time?

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On the streets of Yangon, the mood captured by news cameras seems friendly, even festive. Young people with brightly painted faces and determined looks fill parks and intersections day after day. Their signs ask “Where is democracy?”

Not here. For all the upbeat music and colourful costumes, worry weighs heavily on a Myanmar whose uneven march toward real people power has been blocked by a military with other plans. For all the talk of a peaceful transition to democracy, tanks block roads and soldiers shoot protestors. A 20 year-old woman died this week after being hit with a real bullet. 

The country’s military coup, now three weeks old, is settling into a tense standoff with the generals on one side and a wide swath of Myanmar’s civilian population on the other, vowing not to give up until they achieve full democracy.

Coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing took charge after sweeping aside the results of an election last year which saw Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party score a landslide victory. Suu Kyi is now being held, charged with a few minor offences to justify her detention.

Hlaing has promised a new multiparty vote next February, and to “hand over power to the one who wins in that election, according to the rules of democracy.” 

For the teens and twenty-somethings on the streets, the shock is real — perhaps greater than the generals have bargained for.

Musicians perform outside the British embassy during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Friday, Feb. 19, with a sign reading ‘We don’t have guns but we have hope.’ (AFP via Getty Images)

The youth grew up with very different expectations.

“We are young, we have a future,” said Nyi Nyi Nyang, a 24 year-old playing electric guitar to the protest lyrics. “But this dictatorship can destroy all our dreams.” 

He is a digital marketer, a job that didn’t even exist here until a decade ago, he told a freelance CBC News crew. That’s when a previous military dictatorship’s barriers to the outside world started crumbling and the internet flooded in. It spread from one per cent to over 43 per cent penetration, bringing mobile phones, social media and a new vision of western freedoms — not to mention new ways of organizing opposition being used in places like Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Nyi Nyi Nyang, 24, is a digital marketer, a job that didn’t exist in Myanmar a decade ago. ‘This dictatorship can destroy all our dreams,’ he said. (CBC)

Young people have embraced all that.

“We want peaceful change,” said a protestor who goes by the initial M, and reached by CBC by telephone. “We don’t have guns. Our hands are empty, only the mobile phones.”

But they are not the only ones who protest the military’s actions in increasing numbers. A widespread civil disobedience movement — popularly known as CDM — has brought the country’s government and the generals’ cash flow to a near standstill.

Protesters chant slogans during an anti-coup protest at Sule Square on Feb. 17 in downtown Yangon. Armored vehicles continued to be seen on the streets of Myanmar’s capital, but protesters turned out despite the military presence. (Hkun Lat/Getty Images)

‘Uncharted territory’

Doctors and nurses were the first to stop obeying official orders, immediately after the coup. They were joined by many civil servants, bank employees and rail workers who went on strike. Every day, cars block key intersections, their hoods up under the pretence of mechanical trouble. 

People have also started boycotting corporations owned by the generals: from Myanmar Beer to Red Ruby cigarettes, from banks to bowling alleys. For them, losing power could also mean losing this lucrative stream of extra income.

WATCH | Doctors and nurses refuse to obey orders under military coup:

Myanmar’s military government has laid several charges against the country’s democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was detained in the coup. The charges are seen as a way of keeping her in custody while the military tightens its grip during a state of emergency. 1:59

In response to the protests, the army has given itself broad new powers of search and arrest, and has made penal code amendments aimed at stifling dissent with tough prison terms. It has arrested more than 500 people, including Suu Kyi and other leaders of the NLD. And it has launched a nightly curfew, regular internet outages, and raids across the country, under the cover of darkness.

The impasse is real and it is unpredictable, says Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of The Hidden History of Burma. He’s worked with the United Nations and as a special advisor to the president of Myanmar. His grandfather was former UN Secretary General U Thant.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” he said in an interview with CBC News from Bangkok. “If the military begins to buckle as a result of these protests, then it’s hard to see exactly where things might go.”

Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of The Hidden History of Burma, says the current impasse between civilian protesters and the military generals is real and unpredictable. (Submitted by Thant Myint-U)

A miscalculation?

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been in similar situations before. Under previous generals, it was a military dictatorship for half a century before 2010, a starkly unequal society divided along lines of race, poverty and power. 

When people demanded more democracy in 1988 — holding nationwide protests and work stoppages, enlisting the support of civil servants and indeed the police — the army responded with deadly force. Hundreds of civilians were killed before the military regained control. 

Since then, the generals have been careful to cede power only under their terms. 

They kept constitutional supremacy in the shadows, even as Suu Kyi stood in the world spotlight, leading Myanmar toward democracy. 

“That didn’t happen because of protests. That didn’t happen because of a grassroots revolution. That didn’t happen because of [international] sanctions,” said Myint-U.

“It happened because the generals were confident. They themselves wanted to move along a certain path toward giving up a little bit of power.”

But Myint-U says this is a different era, and with this month’s coup they may have miscalculated.

“I don’t think they counted on the kind of really visceral anti-military feeling that they’ve unleashed over these past couple of weeks,” he said. 

A man gestures towards residents, unseen, as police stand guard at the entrance gate of a Buddhist monastery where pro-military supporters took shelter after clashes with local residents following a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Thursday. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)

“They thought they could do this in a fairly easy way, that they would take over. They would put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. They would probably deregister [her political party] the NLD. They would have new elections. And then the parties that were friendly to them would somehow win the elections.”

But despite the opposition — and the social and generational changes — sweeping Myanmar, Myint-U doesn’t anticipate splits in the close-knit military which could lead to a street-level victory for the protestors.

“This is not an army that’s ever broken ranks,” he said. And for all the influence of the internet and other ways Myanmar has opened up, “almost everything has been done to keep the army itself relatively isolated from the rest of the world.”

So far, the generals have been undeterred by sanctions imposed on them Thursday by Canada and the UK for army “repression” and human rights abuses or by similar sanctions imposed by the United States. General Hlaing seems indifferent to demands from the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, that he “swiftly restore the democratic system” or to calls by the UN to avoid using force on civilians.

A group of punks take part in an anti-coup protest on Wednesday in downtown Yangon. Teens and twenty-somethings in Myanmar have experienced a decade of internet access, social media and a new vision of western freedoms, making the military coup a shock. (Hkun Lat/Getty Images)

Still, the protestors persist.

Twenty-four year old Phyo Thandar Kyaw says they are afraid, just like earlier generations fighting for democracy in Myanmar.

“My mom told me about what happened in the 1988 uprisings and how they were scared,” she says. “Now I feel like it’s happening again.”

But as fellow protestor Yan Naung Soe adds, this time “we have more educated young generations and more solutions.” More ways, they insist, to defeat the old generals.



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