Despite more than 500 people killed by security forces in a brutal, months-long crackdown, hundreds of thousands of anti-coup protesters in Myanmar are still taking to the streets. As morale dwindles, internet blackouts continue, and crackdowns from the military escalate, the movement has capitalized on the power of social media platforms to document and share its message.
“If we do not share photos and videos of the violence and cruel actions by the military regime and police on social media, nothing is left as the evidence for how they did violence against humanity,” said Zay*, a student and protester in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city.
Social media has been an essential element of the anti-coup protest movement which emerged days after the military arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and declared a year-long state of emergency on February 1. Protesters, favouring civil disobedience tactics to hinder the military’s administration and governance, have mobilised online to earn support for their movement, as well as share the atrocities they see in daily struggles.
“Social media is very important,” said Aung, a protester in Yangon. “That’s how we can communicate and link with each other, that’s how we can know what is happening in other cities.”
Citizens of Myanmar have flocked to mediums such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share their experiences using the hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar.
“We can raise our voice so that the world can hear,” Aung said. “Especially the new generation, they are very good with social media. They keep updating what is happening so the world can know what actually happened in Myanmar because the military government is making fake news – very, very fake news – and they want the world to believe it.”
After the coup, misinformation was shared among protesters in order to suppress large gatherings, including messages claiming that protesters were hired by the military and others falsely claiming that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released. Facebook affirmed this claim, promising to cut back on profiles run by Myanmar’s military junta, citing that they have “continued to spread misinformation”.
Fake news is not the only concern of protesters in Myanmar. After the coup, the military junta imposed a nationwide internet blackout from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m., also banning access to social media platforms.
These internet shutdowns coincided with the first movements of mass protest. Since the coup attempt, Myanmar’s internet connectivity has dropped by 50%, raising many concerns about the government’s involvement in limiting free speech. Nevertheless, creative measures to circumnavigate the restrictive internet access have evolved. Myanmar has experienced a 4,300% increase in demand for VPNs, which allow residents to disguise the location of their servers while accessing other servers abroad. Through VPNs and the use of mobile networks, protesters have been able to continue sharing their struggle with the outside world.
“Social media is important because we are showing real people who are actually suffering in Myanmar,” Aung said. “We are raising our voice and asking for help.”
Despite the increased desire for world attention, many activists and journalists have faced increasingly restrictive measures from Myanmar’s military junta. In a tweet, the BBC reported that one of their journalists, Aung Thura, had been taken by a group of men in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw, and has since not been seen or heard from. The military junta has treated protesters similarly, according to eyewitness accounts and videos shared on social media.
Documenting violence from security forces
Since the beginning of the anti-coup protests, police and military forces have vehemently repressed demonstrations. At least 500 people have died in the violence, according to the rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Thousands have been arrested, including several journalists.
“Whether it’s in a city, big city, small city, capital, village, mountains, or near the sea, all of the people in the whole country are feeling unsafe,” Aung said. “People are living in terror.”
Videos have captured police and military forces shooting live bullets into crowds of peaceful protesters. Amnesty International has examined and verified more than 50 videos showing “systematic and premeditated killings” by security forces.
The first reported shooting in the protests was captured on video on February 9 in Naypyitaw. A 19-year-old, Mya Thwet Thwet Khine was shot in the head by police and died in the hospital 10 days later.
In Mandalay on February 20, security forces fired into a crowd of people striking at a shipyard, killing at least two people, including a 16 year old.
On March 2, military personnel were captured using snipers to shoot at unarmed protesters in Yangon.
Zay believes sharing images of this violence is integral to the protest cause.
“When we sue the military junta in international courts for the crimes they committed against humanity, these photos and videos are going to be our strong evidence,” Zay said.
Dozens of other instances of violence have been documented and shared online, capturing the attention of the international community. The European Union has sanctioned 11 individuals tied to the Myanmar coup, including junta chief Min Aung Hlaing. The US Treasury Department has imposed similar sanctions, citing the lethal use of force against demonstrators.
“It will help us to end the military rule, but only to a certain extent,” said Zay. “There’s a lot to be done for us who are on the ground. While it does help to get some help from the international community, ultimately it is up to us to make this revolution successful. We will never surrender and we will fight till the end.”
Going viral: From aerobics to dropped onions to untied shoelaces
Even the first moments of the military coup in Myanmar on February 1 went viral on social media. A woman, filming herself doing an aerobics routine, inadvertently captured a convoy of armoured vehicles near the Parliament building in the country’s capital Naypyidaw. The clip was viewed over 22 million times on Twitter.
This accidental capture of the coup on camera signalled the potential impact of social media in the protest cause. Other creative – often humorous – videos showing the military and anti-coup protest tactics have since caught the attention of the outside world.
The crux of the country’s civil disobedience movement has been focused on nonviolent forms of protest that serve to block traffic and impede the military’s rule over Myanmar. Dissenters began by banging pots and pans in the streets, and have since mobilized in large numbers in cities across Myanmar.
Other protesters block streets by strewing papers in the street and gathering them up, stopping to tie their shoes in the middle of intersections, or by feigning car troubles.
These passive acts of protest also serve to maintain the morale of protesters, who have been on the streets for weeks.
Despite little evidence of a military retreat, protesters in Myanmar continue to demonstrate against the coup.
*Real names were not used to protect the identities of protesters.