Each day before the internet goes down, anti-coup activists in Myanmar pile on to social media and encrypted messaging apps to frantically organize the next day’s protest.
By day, thousands of people across the country join vibrant demonstrations calling for the military, which seized power in a coup on February 1, to hand back power to civilian control and release ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi. They defiantly bang pots and pans, beat drums, wave creative signs and march en masse through the streets. Government and factory workers have gone on strike to join a growing civil disobedience movement against the takeover.
But when night falls, fear sets in. Communication is difficult because of internet shutdowns ongoing for the past six nights – a digital curfew now coexists with the real curfew imposed in major towns and cities from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m.
The military has justified seizing power by alleging widespread voter fraud took place during the November 2020 election, a claim refuted by the election commission.
Many citizens have told CNN they are terrified of being dragged from their beds in nighttime or early morning raids, which have become frequent occurrences since the military takeover, and detained or charged on the basis of vaguely worded laws commonly used in the country to stifle dissent.
Some protesters, who by day are fearlessly marching through the streets, go into hiding at night, moving from house to house to avoid arrest.
“It’s a mental fight as well as physical,” said Thinzar Shunlei Yi, 29, a prominent human rights activist who went into hiding a few days after the coup. She said not knowing what will happen each night, and at the protest in the day, is a type of “psychological warfare.”
“Every morning we have to check: are we going to this (event)? Because anything can happen on the streets anytime. But outside we feel united and strong,” she said.
She said she protests despite the dangers to “let the people and military know that our current political system is failing” and that Myanmar “needs a new solution” and “framework” that’s inclusive of all people and ethnicities.
From the bigger cities like Yangon and Mandalay, to remote villages, people across the country are protesting against the new military regime, risking arrest for their actions. And while the demonstrations are dominated by young people, like Thinzar Shunlei Yi, who have tasted democracy and don’t want to give it up, they are supported by many in the older generation who remember what it was like under the previous military rule.
In the early hours of February 1, before Myanmar’s coup leaders had officially announced their takeover of the country, a white van pulled up outside Maung Thar Cho’s house in Yangon’s suburbs.
Inside the vehicle, his relative says, were several soldiers and others dressed in civilian clothes.
For three hours the unmarked white van waited outside the home until at 7:30 a.m. the plainclothed personnel came to the door to take Maung Thar Cho away. His family says they were asked to provide a towel to blindfold him, but weren’t told where he was going or why he was being taken.
But Maung Thar Cho, a prominent Burmese writer and history professor, is popular with young people in Myanmar and the speeches he delivered across the country have been widely viewed on YouTube and other social media sites.
One of the officials told the family, “we are just taking him for a while and (will) give some clothes and medicine, and we will be taking care of him,” according to a relative who didn’t want to be named for safety reasons.
“We were very shocked. And we didn’t know what to do,” the relative said. “They didn’t tell us who they were.”
It has been almost 20 days since Maung Thar Cho was detained in the early morning raid, and his family said they have had no contact with him since two phone calls on February 2 and 3, when he reassured them he was being taken care of. They say they still don’t know why he was taken.
“He has never been detained before … (He) has not been very outspoken about the military agenda in the past. He’s been talking in a more scholarly interest in his talks and speeches,” said the relative, who was concerned Maung Thar Cho does not have access to his heart medication.
What happened to Maung Thar Cho was a harbinger of the overnight raids to come – and has been perceived as an early warning of the potential consequences for those who criticize the coup. The relative said they knew of other writers who had also been rounded up in similar raids since the takeover.
“He has delivered these literary speeches in every corner of the country – (in) villages and small cities. So I think maybe the military was worried about his influence,” the relative said.
Burmese human rights organization, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), on Thursday said it had verified 521 arrests related to the coup since February 1 – 477 of those people remained in detention or faced outstanding charges. CNN cannot independently verify the status of all those named on AAPP’s list
Among them are civilians, activists, journalists, writers, monks, student leaders, as well as politicians and officials in the ousted National League for Democracy Party (NLD)-led government, according to the AAPP.
Maung Thar Cho did not have time to anticipate being seized by the authorities, but the thousands who turn out on the streets every day are working fastidiously to evade the same type of fate while opposing a coup that abruptly ended Myanmar’s short and uneasy transition into a fledgling democracy.
Many feel they are fighting for their very future – especially those who remember the more than half a century of brutal, isolationist military rule.
Myanmar’s military did not respond to CNN’s repeated requests for comment.
With memories of the past, older generation stands up
Sanchaung Bo Bo, 48, said he goes out every day to protest because he knows firsthand how violent military rulers can be and doesn’t want to see the younger generation suffer as he has done.
Sanchaung Bo Bo was 15 and living in Yangon when security forces brutally crushed a mass popular uprising against the military regime in 1988. Thousands were killed in protests that year, according to Human Rights Watch.
Following the violence, thousands of pro-democracy activists fled to the jungles around Myanmar. After a brief stint in prison, Sanchaung Bo Bo joined them, he says, hiding for four years in northern Myanmar. He said he joined a band of students who had formed an armed political opposition group, but life in the jungle was tough.
When members of the group turned on each other, resulting in the deaths of 30 of his friends in a now-infamous massacre, he returned to Yangon.
In 1998, Sanchaung Bo Bo was arrested after trying to arrange a 10-year anniversary event to mark the uprising. He was charged with defamation against the state and spent 11 years in prison, where he said he was repeatedly tortured.
In one instance in 2000, he said a prison guard beat him with a rope with a metal end so severely that he remains deaf in his left ear, and continues to have trouble sleeping. His prison experience took such a toll that he said he once considered suicide, but something within him pushed him to survive.
“People still carry the trauma from that generation. Even when they see people in uniform it gets into their nerves. It’s like they are allergic to it. They feel their blood getting hot as well,” Sanchaung Bo Bo said.
In photos: Unrest in Myanmar
Standing up to the military rulers, he said, is important, as he felt Myanmar could not regress back to the era of martial rule. Laws governing the country need be “specific and just,” he said, and he called on the international community to protect Myanmar civilians.
“I don’t want any new generation to experience what we have experienced. I want them to live without fear in their life,” he said.
Protesters remain determined
Sanchaung Bo Bo said one key difference between today’s coup and 1988 is the fact younger people have now tasted democracy and, in general, are better educated than his generation.
Generation Z’s mark has certainly been firmly stamped on the recent protests, with creative protest art and graffitied messages mocking the general now in charge of the country, Min Aung Hlaing. Protesters hold up the three-fingered salute from the “Hunger Games” movie franchise, a popular symbol of anti-coup protest adopted from recent political unrest in neighboring Thailand.
In downtown Yangon on Wednesday, thousands of people were chanting and holding placards emblazoned with Suu Kyi’s image and banners reading “Justice for Myanmar” and “Reject the military coup” as they marched to the Sule Pagoda.
Venice, 32, who didn’t want to use her full name over safety concerns, was among them. She said she had protested every day since February 6 and quit her job as a business development manager because her company didn’t want her to demonstrate.
“Now it is about all people. They are touching our democracy. Our country just began democracy and we are still (at) a very early stage,” she said. Venice noted that regular electricity cuts in Myanmar when she was younger taught her how to work around periods without the internet.
“With cut internet, people are still able to organize … We all have experience of that,” she said. “So we organize this like before the disconnection time. We already gather, we already announced on Facebook, Twitter, etc.”
And now we even have Telegram and Signal messenger,” she added, referring to the encrypted messaging apps.
Another young protester, who didn’t want to be named for fear of arrest, said he was demonstrating for his generation’s future.
“Now we have no purpose and future. So we protest for our democracy and freedom,” he said. “We know our fathers’ experience and we do not want the military, we want our government. So we are going out.”
The protester said he moved back to Yangon from Singapore six months ago because of the coronavirus pandemic. Like many of his peers, by day, he said he goes out onto the streets to protest, but at night he moves from house to house to evade arrest.
“Every day I go out and we play drums and sing revolution songs – we drum for revolution. Every day we are protesting. We never stop,” the young protester said.
“I am not afraid of being shot. I am afraid of being arrested.”