ATHENS, Georgia — Myanmar’s military dictatorship renders the country in a state of near-collapse. Though international and domestic forces challenge its legitimacy, the junta has remained in power since its coup in February 2021. Following the coup, the military junta imprisoned former President Aung San Suu Kyi and cracked down on grassroots movements demanding democracy, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. When people took to the internet to demand assistance, the junta shut down internet access across the country, cutting off citizens’ abilities to contact each other or raise awareness online. Additionally, as the National Unity Government (NUG), which consists of the elected politicians exiled after the military takeover, advocates a return to democracy, military clashes, protests and online activism in Myanmar show no signs of stopping.
The Ongoing Human Rights Abuses in Myanmar
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the military dictatorship’s actions have led to a deterioration of the economy while leaving millions struggling with food insecurity. Though Myanmar had some successes reducing poverty in previous years, the junta stymied the economy and the World Bank reported that a variety of factors brought on by a combination of political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic would “substantially reduce human capital, skills and productive capacity over the longer term.”
Myanmar’s desirability to foreign markets also plummeted. As the costs of imports rise while private investments fall, the people of Myanmar struggle with fewer opportunities and fewer goods.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, an anonymous university student from Myanmar said that should the military remain in power, “the country would be knocked back multiple decades” in terms of living standards.
Even now, the junta, in its desperation for power, has tightened its grip on civil life, even “deferring money from other sources to military arsenal and personnel” and attacking civilians to “bait the resistance.” Arrested resistance members face brutal torture methods. The former citizen has stated that “Some torture methods leaked through videos I have seen include decapitation, whipping, beating and acid injection toward the face.”
The actions of the junta have dire humanitarian consequences. Military crackdowns targeting civilians and humanitarian workers cut the flow of necessary resources. Although this did not stop humanitarian workers from reaching more than 1.67 million people with necessary aid in 2021, the U.N. stated that an estimated 3 million people still required aid by November 2021 and the junta still served as a major barrier to greater assistance. Other sources of poverty, such as long-term displacement and the mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities, also remain unresolved, though these issues affect hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Online Activism and its Challenges
People living in Myanmar have taken to social media to voice their demands and concerns. Nonprofit organizations, social media activists and outreach programs alike have spread awareness throughout platforms like Instagram and Twitter to galvanize support and aid for resistance groups.
However, the junta blocks internet access from ordinary citizens, creating blackouts throughout the country. In this form of digital autocracy, the interviewee explains, the junta tries to silence online activism in Myanmar and people only have access to “a total of [six]hours [of electricity]in the country: [three hours]in the afternoon and [three hours]at night.” On top of this, the junta banned the use of large social media platforms along with the use of VPNs.
This level of hostility deters democratic political mobilization and the fears aimed at activists bleed into the populace at large. The interviewee explained that “the military now has checkpoints across the cities and counties to check if your respective phones have VPN. If found, you are either fined or jailed. If you are jailed, you will be tortured.”
Additionally, average citizens living elsewhere have given Myanmar less attention. The former Burmese resident expressed concerns to The Borgen Project that people have “strayed away” from online activism. However, while people living outside of Myanmar “[move]on with their lives,” those in the country do not have that option.
Effects of Online Activism in Myanmar
Myanmar is in a state of civil war that extends past bloodied city streets into the digital sphere. The internet is a powerful tool for resistance and solidarity and the NUG and its allies are more than aware of that. Through the NUG’s official Facebook account, the NUG posts regularly, spreading messages of hope, resilience and open defiance across the platform.
Within the country, social media helps anti-junta individuals persuade others to join their cause and organize pro-democracy demonstrations. For example, online activists working for an organization called People’s Goal allegedly swayed hundreds of former junta soldiers to defect.
Additionally, non-government organizations similar to Mutual Aid Myanmar, offer ways to help sustain the pro-democracy movement by providing financial assistance as many people grapple without access to adequate food, housing or health care. As of March 31, 2022, Mutual Aid Myanmar has raised and distributed $705,000 to support citizens including students, health care workers and civil servants.
Channeling public outrage into online activism in Myanmar and abroad can mobilize politicians and the public. Myanmar has a long history of popular resistance that circumvents inhumane and militaristic scare tactics, but the nation still needs support from external actors.
As the NUG has stated, “The military remains firm in its goal to kill or subjugate every human being within Myanmar.” As the humanitarian cost of the civil war grows, the populace should not have to shoulder this fight alone. Instead, international organizations, nonprofits and foreign states must work to return political power to Myanmar’s citizens.
When discussing ways people could help Myanmar, the anonymous interviewee echoed these sentiments, stressing the importance of “condemning the coup with more sanctions that are targeted toward the military and helping out the resistance.”
The United States and its allies have already passed major sanctions against Myanmar. On March 25, 2022, the U.S. imposed “sanctions on five Burmese individuals and five entities” in condemnation of the junta’s atrocious crimes against humanity.
Major political challenges stand in the way of removing the junta from power. However, amid rising political instability and economic uncertainty, each victory counts, from major state sanctions to online activism in Myanmar.
Since seizing power, the junta has stripped countless people in Myanmar of their lives, their well-being and their dignity. It is more important than ever to speak out as Myanmar deserves to be a free country again. People can champion the nation’s freedom through major international statements or helpful donations or even lengthy Facebook posts, which serve as small but necessary steps toward democracy.
– Lauren Sung
Photo: Wikipedia Commons