Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Demonstrators hold up placards calling for the release of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi during a February 15 protest in Naypyidaw against the military coup. Photo: EPA

Two weeks after the coup, Myanmar’s protesters are undaunted – but how far can the military be pushed?

  • Amid internet blackouts, clashes with security forces and the deployment of soldiers, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to denounce the military coup
  • But analysts say the generals will do what it takes to stay in power, and they have been unresponsive to past sanctions, threats or criticism from the international community
Protesters in Myanmar kept up their demands on Monday for the release of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and an end to military rule, undaunted by the junta’s deployment of armoured vehicles in several parts of the country and more soldiers on the streets.

Suu Kyi, detained since the February 1 coup against her elected government, had been expected to face a court on Monday in connection with charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkies, but a judge said her remand lasted until Wednesday, according to her lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw.

The coup and the arrest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi and others have sparked the biggest protests in Myanmar in more than a decade, with hundreds of thousands taking the streets to denounce the military’s derailment of a tentative transition to democracy.

Myanmar authorities open fire to disperse protesters after extending Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention

“This is a fight for our future, the future of our country,” youth activist Esther Ze Naw said at a protest in Yangon, the country’s largest city. “We don’t want to live under a military dictatorship. We want to establish a real federal union where all citizens, all ethnicities are treated equally.”

In the city of Mandalay, security forces on Monday evening used rubber bullets and catapults to disperse protesters, wounding two people, according to local media and residents.


Myanmar coup: junta cuts internet as troops open fire to break up protest

Myanmar coup: junta cuts internet as troops open fire to break up protest

The unrest has revived memories of bloody outbreaks of opposition to almost half a century of direct army rule over the Southeast Asian nation, which ended in 2011 when the military – known locally as the Tatmadaw – began a process of withdrawing from civilian politics.

As well as the demonstrations in numerous towns and cities, the military is facing a strike by government workers, part of a civil disobedience movement that is crippling many government functions.

More than a dozen police trucks and four water cannons were deployed on Monday near the Sule Pagoda in central Yangon, one of the main demonstration sites in the city, where protesters had gathered outside the central bank and the Chinese embassy.

Myanmar’s young people are clearly not willing to watch quietly as democratic rule fades away

At the bank, several hundred people quietly held up signs calling for colleagues to join the CDM – the civil disobedience movement. An armoured vehicle and about six trucks carrying soldiers were parked nearby, a witness said.

Police in the capital, Naypyidaw, detained about 20 high-school students protesting by a road. Social media posts by one of the students showed them chanting slogans of defiance as they were taken away in a police bus.

“Remember, we don’t swear at the police and don’t sign anything at the police station,” one student can be heard saying.

A soldier removes a protest sign denouncing the military coup from an armoured vehicle outside the Central Bank of Myanmar in Yangon. Photo: AFP

Media also showed orderly ranks of protesters marching in Naypyidaw, bearing pictures of Suu Kyi with the message: “We want our leader.”

The army has been carrying out nightly arrests and has given itself sweeping search and detention powers. At least 400 people have been detained since the coup, the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said.


Charlie Thame, assistant professor in international relations at Thailand’s Thammasat University, said the “incredibly tenacious and resilient” people of Myanmar had tasted democracy and would not give up without a bitter fight.

“They will struggle ‘to the end of the world’, as reflected by the lyrics to the popular resistance song Kabar Ma Kyay Bu that is resounding through streets across the country,” Thame said.

Myanmar’s Gen Z protesters defy powerful military with ‘innovative’ signs

Adapted from the 1977 classic Dust in the Wind by American band Kansas, the song is emblematic of the 1988 protests in Myanmar and is said to capture the country’s sense of hope for democracy.

Nicholas Farrelly, social sciences head at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said protests were now held not just across the length and breadth of Myanmar but also across generational, ethnic, religious and ideological divides.

“Myanmar’s young people are clearly not willing to watch quietly as democratic rule fades away,” he said.

Noting that some police and government officials had stood up to defy their superiors, Farrelly said there did not yet appear to be any breakdown in the army’s ranks. “I can imagine some soldiers are very apprehensive about the situation they face. The level of opposition goes far beyond what the army will have anticipated.”

At least 400 people have been detained since the coup. Photo: Kyodo

The protests in the country have drawn comparisons to what is popularly referred to as the Milk Tea Alliance, a movement pushing for democratic change in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Farrelly said taking on the might of the Myanmar military was never easy, so “it helps to have strong allies and friends”. However, he added that young people in the country were aware that their counterparts in Hong Kong and Thailand had taken on “well-entrenched and often brutal regimes” and had fought “losing battles”.

While the military has restricted online communications, Farrelly said the first few weeks of widespread protests against the coup had shown that there was no loss of momentum simply because the army “had switched off the internet”.

“People are now understandably angry that the information is being limited by the junta in such a self-serving manner,” he said. “Of course, this generation of Myanmar protesters are savvy about technology and can make use of it even under these dire conditions.”

Yangon residents patrol neighbourhoods overnight amid fears of arrests following coup

Across social media platforms, the country’s youth are making their voices heard, with many voicing dissatisfaction against the coup, making it clear that dictatorship must be overturned and democracy restored. Others said the past decade had been “crushed under military boots” and called on the United States and the United Nations to take action against the military.


Sonny Swe, CEO of Frontier Myanmar Weekly Magazine, said while it had been a fortnight since the coup, the tempo of protests was still high – even if there were fewer people on the streets on Monday due to the military’s “day and night pressure on demonstrators”.

Soldiers stand outside the Central Bank of Myanmar as people gathered in protest on February 15. Photo: AFP

“I’m sure [the demonstrators] will go as far as possible,” he said, adding that he feared the military would do likewise as it was a “do-or-die situation for army chief Min Aung Hlaing”, the general who seized power from the National League of Democracy (NLD) headed by Suu Kyi.

Swe added that Sunday night’s eight-hour internet blackout, the second since the coup, had “another huge negative impact on the citizen and economy”.

May Sabe Phyu, director of the Yangon-based Gender Equality Network, said the internet shutdown had created fear and insecurity as people were unable to contact and communicate with those outside the country – and that people would get angrier if it continued.

Myanmar coup: thousands protest amid fear of night arrests, security patrols

She said young people and protesters would go on until the military leaders returned power to the NLD. “How long it will take we don’t exactly know, but we will fight until we win.”

On the association with the Milk Tea Alliance, Phya said it was helpful for the movement as the regional support and the people power it generated would apply further pressure on the military.

“The space for the junta is now getting narrower since people are united regionally and globally [against the coup),” she said, adding that the military should be censured internationally. “The world should not just sit back and watch innocent people killed by the military.”

However, Farrelly from the University of Tasmania said in the past, the country’s generals had proved unresponsive to international pressure, whether in terms of sanctions, threats, or criticism.

The military had made no apologies for their violent campaigns against ethnic minorities, and even orchestrated the brutal purge of the Rohingya Muslim population, he noted. “The top generals have a track record of doing whatever they judge necessary to stay in power and punish their enemies. The hard question is: what might the democratic world do to support its many friends in Myanmar?”

Thammasat University’s Thame said the military was aware that a bloody crackdown such as those that took place in 1988 and 2007 “would hasten nascent revolutionary conditions”.

“That’s why they are taking a leaf out of the playbook of more sophisticated authoritarian states such as those of China and Thailand with the cybersecurity bill,” he said, referring to the first piece of legislation the army is looking to pass. Human Rights Watch said the bill would give authorities “sweeping powers to access user data, block websites, order internet shutdowns and imprison critics and officials at non-complying companies”.

Su-Ann Oh, a visiting fellow of the Myanmar Studies Programme at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, wrote in an article published by the institute on Monday that the ongoing anti-coup protests were qualitatively different and posed a bigger challenge to Myanmar’s military rulers than earlier protest movements.

She said the scale and nature of the ongoing civil disobedience were unprecedented due to economic changes over the past decade, such as increasing urbanisation and expanded opportunities for political participation.

“The NLD, other political parties, and civil society organisations have spent this time organising the public, which now believes more strongly that they can make a difference politically,” Oh wrote.

Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Defiant protesters stand up to military