Myanmar’s Creative Anti-Regime Protesters Stay One Step Ahead of Police

By The Irrawaddy 18 February 2021

YANGON—Myanmar’s anti-coup protesters check their social media newsfeeds every night, eager to find out what the main theme for the next morning’s protests will be before the military regime blocks the internet. However, the messages are usually coded. Since the military coup in Myanmar, thing are often not what they seem: If you see a post on social media from anti-coup protesters that reads, “Please don’t do it tomorrow,” you should do the opposite. You’re actually being encouraging to do it.

Slow-motion traffic 

On Wednesday night, the word from anti-coup protesters was, “Let’s drive cars very fast tomorrow.” The next day, cars on Yangon’s major roads moved at a crawl, creating huge traffic jams in the city. The slowdown was one of the ways in which residents of Yangon have shown their support for the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which aims to discourage civil servants from going to work for the military regime. When traffic police asked drivers to speed up, a long line of protesters started walking across the street and blocking the vehicles. One group even knelt down in the middle of the roads, pretending to tie their shoes.

“We aren’t breaking any law; we’re just crossing the road,” a protester shouted at traffic police who tried to break up the groups.

Amid heavy troop deployments and the presence of military armored vehicles across the country, thousands of people—from prominent artists to young people—have adopted a variety of creative tactics to show their peaceful opposition to the military regime, while at the same time playfully mocking the coup leaders. Usually, the source of the ideas is unknown.

Broken-down car campaign

On Feb. 16, a large number of social media users shared the message: “Cars don’t break down tomorrow!” Next day, cars were mysteriously breaking down in the middle of major streets and on bridges across Yangon, as the daily mass rallies continued in the city. With “broken-down” cars blocking the way, police and military personnel were unable to conduct their  usual patrols and break up the protests. The road blockages also prevented civil servants from reaching their offices.

When riot police asked drivers to move the cars, some replied that they had run out of fuel; others left signs on their vehicles with notes like, “This car is participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement.”

Cars block the Maha Bandula Bridge in Yangon on Feb. 17, 2021 in support of the Civil Disobedience Movement against the military regime. / The Irrawaddy

When police tried to move the cars, long lines of protesters began crossing back and forth on the street, intentionally blocking them. Scenes like this were repeated from Yangon to Muse in the north of the country, as the “broken-down car” campaign took hold nationwide.

“We have to show our opposition to the dictators in any way we can. That’s why we are participating in all the campaigns launched on social media,” taxi driver U Htoo Htet told The Irrawaddy.

Street murals 

Pro-democracy activists aren’t letting riot police get any rest at night, either. After a hard day’s work breaking up or cracking down on protests in the major rally hubs in Yangon, they spend their nights erasing all the street murals created by young people in major cities across the country.

An aerial view of a street mural in Pyay, Bago Region. / Nyi Nyi Naing

The campaign, which has seen huge anti-coup slogans painted directly onto city streets, is believed to have started last week in Mandalay, the second-largest city in the country, when a group painted “We want democracy” on the road outside the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology in Chanmyatharzi Township. The campaign caught the attention of Maxar, a space technology company that produces satellite images. The company shared its images of the mural with international media, recognizing the novelty of the methods by which young people in Myanmar are making themselves heard.

An aerial view of a street mural in North Okkalapa Township, Yangon. / Ye Myint Aung

Within a few days, the campaign spread from northernmost Kachin State to Tanintharyi Region in the far south, with young people in major cities creating street murals featuring such slogans as: “Respect our vote,” “We want democracy,” “No Dictatorship,” and “F…the coup.” Whenever authorities erase the murals, residents simply move to another location and paint their wishes on the streets again.

Early on Thursday morning, 20 young people painted “No Dictatorship” in huge block letters on one of the main streets in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. A young woman from the group who asked not be named told The Irrawaddy, “The police erased our mural just a few hours after we finished it.”

“We just want to let the world know that we don’t want dictatorship,” she said.

Projected images

In Yangon, where nighttime curfews have been imposed, images projected onto the sides of buildings have become a common sight. The sides of buildings are illuminated every night, but the location always changes.

A projected image is seen in Yangon. / Thar Zaw

The projected images have included three-fingered salutes (a sign of resistance to the coup) and signs urging the release of Myanmar’s detained civilian leader, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and demanding that civil servants join the CDM and refuse to work for the regime’s cabinet.

A projected image is seen in Yangon. / Thar Zaw

‘Lennon Walls’

Inspired by the popular pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, young residents in Yangon have also created “Lennon Walls” (named after musician John Lennon, viewed by many as a symbol of freedom and peaceful protest) across the city, especially at bus stops, bridges and on walls in their neighborhoods.

In Yangon, young people call them “the wall of our voice.” The walls are covered with Post-it Note messages calling for democracy, demanding the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and rejecting the coup.

Some young people have plastered walls and bridges in Mayangone and Hledan, the most popular protest spots in the city, with posters and art works to draw people’s attention to the protests.

A wall is covered in Post-it Note messages calling for democracy near the Chinese Embassy in Yangon. / The Irrawaddy

An anti-coup protester who helped start the Lennon Wall movement in Yangon, urban planner Ma Eliza Khine, told The Irrawaddy, “We come with the idea that we don’t have to confront authorities directly. And we can voice our wishes from the walls at the same time.”

However, she said police have started chasing young people who try to create Lennon Walls recently. “They remove all the notes in one place. But young people create them again in another place.”

Banging pots and pans 

Banging pots and pans at 8:00 p.m. is one of the most persistent campaigns to have arisen since the military seized power. It began in Yangon on Feb. 2, a day after the military takeover, and soon spread across the country.

A man strikes a steel bowl with a metal spoon during an anti-coup pots-and-pans banging session in Yangon. / The Irrawaddy

Traditionally, Burmese people bang pots and pans to drive evil out of the village or house.

“All of our family members are waiting for the clock to hit 8 p.m. every night,” a 70-year-old retired civil servant from Dawbon Township told The Irrawaddy.

“When we heard they [the military regime] charged our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi with an additional offense, we hit the pot extra hard that night,” he said.

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