Since the Myanmar army took power on February 1, thousands of people have been out on the streets every day for loud protests. But part of the protest is less visible: in order to keep the number of deaths, injuries and arrests as low as possible, the protesters mainly focus on civil disobedience: the so-called Civil Disobedience Movement.
In key sectors, people lay down their jobs, or work as inefficiently as possible. Motorists block the highway with their bonnet open, because they “all have bad luck”. “The country must become uncontrollable,” says activist Hnin Nu Hlaing. “This system must collapse, so that the military will sit down with the protesters at the table.”
Influential people who openly supported the protests, such as well-known figures and influencers, were quickly arrested. That is why the resistance acts as a body without a head: there is no central leadership, but small groups that support the movement on their own initiative. “This will prevent it from collapsing when the head is cut off,” says Hnin, member of one of the forty to fifty organizations in the largest city, Yangon.
Together with some seven acquaintances, Hnin gives financial and legal support to demonstrators who are arrested or dismissed. “We can only convince people to put down their jobs if we continue to pay them. That is why we provide replacement income and, if necessary, new jobs.”
The communication of such groups first mainly went through Facebook, but after rumors that the military government is monitoring the Internet with the help of China, it came to an end. “People who used the state‘s Internet service provider were seeing Chinese characters, so we get the feeling they’re watching us.” Important information is now distributed through encrypted apps.
Hit in the wallet
Several sectors in Myanmar are run by the military. The Civil Disobedience Movement wants people in these professions to leave work, with health care, education and banking in particular. Especially through the banks, they hope to hit the Tatmadaw financially hard.
“ When the money flows dry up, they cannot pay the salaries and pensions of soldiers,” says Soe Yu Naing, who is trying to support the movement from the Netherlands. “Hopefully, that will create an internal crisis.”
According to Soe, the military government could be hit in three ways. Civil disobedience is the most important of this, but the international community can help by imposing sanctions on army leaders and their families. “And also by boycotting companies that have ties to the military, we can shut down cash flows.”
The demonstrators are partly opting for this form of protest out of fear of more violence. On February 9, a 20-year-old protester was shot in the head by the police. Today she died. In the meantime, the army deployed armored vehicles, and troops are being moved from the border areas to the cities.
“ After the student was shot, relatively little happened, mainly shooting with rubber bullets,” says Hnin. “But the protesters do get the warning: as soon as stones are thrown, we start shooting.” Hnin fears a situation similar to that of the 1988 coup, in which the army opened fire on protesters. “We shouldn‘t make the same mistakes as we did then.”
Soe is also afraid of more violence. “Indeed, the army is still in control, but especially in rural areas it seems to be getting more grim. They want the people to react violently so that they can justify their takeover of power. That’s why we opt for a non-violent approach.”
The question is how long this way of protest can be sustain. A movement without a head brings problems. “Now it‘s chaos,” says Soe. “I have no idea who I should contact in Myanmar. The different groups should work more together, with each other and with international organisations.”
Hnin fears that the movement bleeds to death without a clear direction. According to her, some EUR 12 million per month is needed to provide financial support to all refusing workers. “Now it’s going well, but it‘s not a long-term plan. In two or three months, people will be exhausted and the money will run out. The army doesn’t just give up, so we might have to go through another year.”