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Preserving Truth to Power: Sustaining resistance in Myanmar

After a military coup in early 2021, civilians against the junta are capturing, archiving, and maintaining a movement.

By Kelcie Grega and Alex Esenler, September 22nd, 2022

More than 18 months after the military coup in Myanmar that shattered hopes for democratic progress, Myanmar armed forces continue their violence against civilians with arrests, torture massacres, and sexual violence.

Members of the country's resistance movement remain nimble as they navigate ways to document and preserve crucial evidentiary media of military atrocities in the face of internet shutdowns, brownouts, and imminent threats of arrest and violence.

We talked to three anti-coup activists who are working with folks on the ground trying to preserve truth to power. In this post, we'll share strategies the resistance is using to document and fight back against military violence, as well as keep the movement alive.

But first, a history lesson

The February 2021 coup d'état returned Myanmar to military rule under the so-called Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar. But the push and pull of military power and democratic government structure goes back more than 70 years.

Sustaining a movement

Myanmar’s post-coup resilience is built on decades of struggle against oppressors: from British imperialism to the current military power. While the country’s liberalization over the past decade systematically excluded ethnic and religious minority groups, protests and resistance efforts since the coup are much more inclusive.

Global Voices reported in February 2021 that the General Strike Committee of All Nationalities (GSCN) united 27 of Myanmar's ethnic nationalities, displaying a show of unity against a common enemy.

Duwa Lashi La, a lawyer, and politician who serves as the acting president of the National Unity Government (Myanmar’s government in exile composed of lawmakers and those elected in the 2020 elections) told The Diplomat in July that integrating Ethnic Resistance Organizations (EROs) has helped the pro-democracy resistance maintain territories in the Chin State, Sagaing, and Magwe regions.

“Despite the challenges, I have never seen a more promising time for our people to find common ground and establish a genuine federal union together,” Duwa Lashi La, who himself is of Kachin descent, told The Diplomat.

An independent researcher who studies digital activism in Myanmar, referred to here by the pseudonym Joseph, says what also sets this latest movement apart from past resistance efforts is that it’s being led by a much younger generation, armed with smartphones and a new sense of digital literacy.

This new generation of resistance fighters already experienced life under a liberal democracy, meanwhile their older counterparts aren’t ready to go back to the way things were, he says. “They’ve already enjoyed a taste of freedom.”

Staying safe while on the ground

Ma Sabai – who asked to be referred to by this pseudonym – was in Yangon when the Spring Revolution erupted in early 2021. Her home was home just blocks away from daily protests and actions.

Before the coup, Ma Sabai was already an active part of pro-democracy circles, educating her community on democratization, federalism and Myanmar’s constitutional process.

When the military junta took over in Feb. 2021, she along with fellow resistance fighters took to the streets and documented both the protests and military violence on civilians. Young people in particular were targeted in mass arrests, torture and killings, according to Radio Free Asia.

At sundown, Ma Sabai would bang pots and pans with her neighbors to protest the military power.

“[The military] did not like that. They tried to hit us and shoot us with tear gas and they tried to arrest people,” she says.

When security forces attempted to “disperse” the crowds, Ma Sabai said she would run to shelter. Some civilians who lived close to the action, including her brother, allowed protesters to take refuge in their homes.

Once she and fellow resistance fighters found a safe place, they would hide all tools and pamphlets related to the revolution and quickly change their clothes so they couldn’t be recognized or tracked.

Staying anonymous while supporting a cause

In Myanmar, anyone who so much as “likes” pro-democracy and resistance content on social media can face up to 10 years in prison.

Ma Sabai says she keeps multiple Facebook profiles with different names to keep her identity safe. She also never posts or interacts with resistance content on her personal social media accounts.

When leaving the house, Ma Sabi says she deletes all social media apps and VPNs from her devices.

Now, almost two years since protests erupted in Myanmar, the military is refocusing efforts toward cracking down on other forms of dissent like donating to revolutionary causes.

A lawyer, who requested to remain anonymous as they advise on-the-ground activists in Myanmar on how to stay safe while documenting social unrest and human rights abuses, shared with us some strategies people use to mitigate risks.

Average civilians who want to donate to or support organizations like the People’s Defense Force (PDF) – the revolutionary group fighting against the military junta – often have to take extra steps to protect themselves, according to the lawyer.

One way is to label donations online with something innocuous. People donating from outside the country have to go through multiple layers of bank accounts to make it harder for the ruling regime to track transactions.

Navigating digital security under state surveillance

With the threat of military surveillance omnipresent, it becomes crucial to ensure those capturing military violence and coordinating, participating in, and documenting pro-democracy movements know how to keep themselves digitally secure.

It’s vital to only share sensitive organizing information on end-to-end messaging platforms like Signal and Telegram. “We also started giving ourselves aliases and different names, so that they will not be able to track us,” the lawyer says.

For communication via email, the lawyer encouraged others to start using ProtonMail, which also provides security through end-to-end encryption.

Getting people to adopt more secure tools and messaging platforms hasn’t been easy, the lawyer says. For many people in Myanmar, Facebook is esentially the internet, and often acts as the primary organizing tool for civil disobedience campaigns, labor strikes, and other actions.

After recognizing the power of smartphones in resistance efforts, the junta began implementing random checkpoints and searches on civilians’ phones.

Both the lawyer and Ma Sabai say activists, eyewitnesses, and documentarians often keep multiple phones; one for personal use, and one for documenting protests and military violence.

“If they find any content related to the revolution, you can be arrested and jailed,” the lawyer says.

When Ma Sabai was documenting protests in 2021, she uploaded crucial evidence of military violence onto a cloud service before deleting it on her phone. Sometimes she would store files in a folder labeled with an inconspicuous name before military authorities had the chance to search her device.

For the lawyer – who is currently based in the U.S. – encouraging digital security practices is a matter of life and death.

“I have to really make sure that my family is safe back home because if you're outside of the country, they come after your family,” he says.

Controlling the narrative

The the anti-coup resistance is fought both on the ground and online, with civilians controlling the narrative through hashtags like #WhatshappeninginMyanmar and publicly shaming military supporters online.

While good for the revolution, social media is also used as a tool by the military to fight back against the resistance, Joseph says.

When military leaders seized power, internet providers in Myanmar were ordered to ban Facebook (Meta)-owned services in the country, including Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. The demand for virtual private networks (VPNs) surged in the country, but the lawyer says the junta is currently seeking a ban on VPNs.

Military authorities also use social media to disseminate junta propaganda.

Radio Free Asia reported in March that military authorities often use Telegram to collect intelligence on pro-democracy celebrities, anti-junta activists, and journalists. Activists told RFA that the military uses this information to crack down on anti-junta actions across the country.

In August, Tatmadaw spokesman Major-General Zaw Min Tun announced that the regime plans to replace Facebook with its own homegrown social media platform.

“It’s kind of scary,” Joseph says. “If they start doing that and contain [social media communications] there is no way to escape.”

Keep up with #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar

The situation in Myanmar is constantly changing and evolving. Here are some resources you can check for updates and ways to support the resistance.

Myanmar US Advocacy work

Students for Free Burma

U.S Advocacy Coalition Myanmar

On-the-ground updates in Myanmar

Mohinga Matters

Sisters to Sisters Myanmar

Media covering Myanmar

The Irrawaddy

Radio Free Asia

Assistance Association for Political Prisoner

Justice for Myanmar

Global Voices

If you want to donate to the resistance

Mutual Aid Myanmar

Support Myanmar