Poking the Bear: The Military’s Attempts at Pre-empting the Silent Strike

An anonymous Myanmar-based contributor details the junta’s recent efforts to undermine the organizing of protests.

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As the one-year anniversary of the military coup swiftly approached, people around the country were waiting to hear how anti-military activists would call upon us to commemorate that tragic date. We did not have to wait long. On January 22, the call so many had been hoping for came in the form of a post on social media. A silent strike was set in motion for February 1, with a request for the closure of all businesses and for people to stay at home.

News of the strike spread quickly across the country by way of social media, phone calls, news outlets and word of mouth. Min Aung Hlaing, the self-proclaimed Prime Minister and head of the military junta’s organization, the State Administrative Council, and his cronies, did not take long to react. A week in advance of the planned strike they embarked on yet another campaign of terror against the people. According to a January 26 Myanmar Now article, the junta threatened that those who merely participated in the strike would suffer severe repercussions:

“The military council responded to the call three days later by announcing that anyone found to be taking part in or promoting the silent strike would see their property confiscated and face multiple criminal charges. Those charges include Section 52a of the Counterterrorism Law, Section 124a and 505a of the Penal Code, and Section 33a of the Telecommunications Law. The terrorism charge carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years, and Section 124a—for sedition—carries a life sentence of 20 years. The other charges are accompanied by three to five years in prison.”

With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that the regime had, weeks ago, begun to take steps toward preventing any such resistance by the people. In December they announced that all internet providers, of both mobile data and WiFi, had to double the cost of their services. No explanation for the price hike was given. Increasing the cost of internet services would, of course, provide additional revenue for the military, but more insidiously, it would also reduce its affordability and thereby diminish internet communication, especially among the poor.

Calculating that more action was needed, on January 8 the regime raised prices again to further discourage internet usage. This time they levied an additional tax on SIM cards. These phone cards, which previously cost 1,500 kyat, became subject to an additional commercial tax of 20,000 kyat—more than half an average week’s wages—amounting to an increase of 1,333 per cent. Further, internet service providers were hit with a tax increase of 15 per cent on their sales, which of course would be passed on to consumers.

The regime, through its mouthpiece, the Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper, claimed the move was an effort to promote well-being among the youth because the new charges would reduce the “effects triggered by extreme use of internet services on the employment of the people and mental sufferings of [the] new generation [of] students.” No one was buying this except as some much-needed comic relief.

The real reasons for those increases were to directly impede communications among the organizers of protest actions such as the strike, and among the people in general, as well as to further enrich Min Aung Hlaing and his partners in crime and corruption. 

But, still not satisfied, the junta continued pulling other levers. Ten days before February 1, the junta announced that electricity would be cut from 6 am to 6 pm for the three days immediately preceding the strike—January 29, 30 and 31—which means that during this three-day period there was no WiFi and no way for most people to charge their computers or phones—phones being the principal means by which the vast majority of the people access the internet. While over the years, and especially since the start of this latest coup, the citizens of Myanmar have grown accustomed to being without electrical service for hours at a time, this recent announcement heightened people’s concerns. No one doubted that this was merely another effort to prevent them from communicating and organizing in the days leading up to the strike.

In another attempt by the regime to frustrate and crush the upcoming strike, on January 24, eight days beforehand, Myawaddy TV and MRTV—the junta’s television propaganda outlets—announced a new restriction: anyone caught in possession of a virtual private network (VPN) app would be subject to arrest, fines and a possible prison sentence of up to three years. A life sentence is possible if the owner has shared anything deemed to have incited people to participate in the upcoming strike, or referred to the military in a derogatory manner.

News of this new law had recently been circulating in the media, but it was considered to be merely some proposed legislation made public for purposes of review. This, however, was at odds with what the junta’s TV stations were saying. On January 24, The Irrawaddy reported that it had access to a leaked copy of a draft of the legislation, and a cover letter, showing that the decision to enact the law had already been made. Whether or not this draft legislation had been ratified is of little consequence, because, ultimately, when anyone is stopped by police or soldiers and ordered to turn over their phone, the law will be interpreted at the end of their gun barrels.

It bears mentioning that, since the coup’s onset, websites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—which are used by the vast majority of Myanmar’s population—and a host of other sites as well, have been blocked, and therefore anyone accessing these sites could only do so by using a VPN. So, in Mandalay and Yangon, and probably everywhere between, soldiers and police have been searching the phones of random pedestrians and motorists looking for their VPN apps. We have heard that those caught with the app on their phones are being given the option of arrest and certain prison time, or of bribing the arresting soldiers with a payment of 100,000 kyat (US$56) to make the problem go away.

Clearly, as they have done so many times in the last year, the soldiers and police have created for themselves a tidy commercial enterprise on the backs and suffering of their fellow citizens. A few days before the strike we heard of a man who was stopped by soldiers. After seizing his phone, they discovered that he had been on Facebook. When asked how he had accessed the site without a VPN, the man, unable to provide a satisfactory answer, was promptly beaten. In another case, two people were stopped by soldiers and VPN apps were found on their phones. The soldiers simply confiscated the phones, undoubtedly either to sell or for their own personal use.

Business owners who were unaware of the new law were posting on Facebook that they would support the strike by closing for the day. Consequently, many of them were tracked down, arrested for their posts, and had their establishments permanently shuttered and apparently expropriated. In addition, there have been reports from numerous areas that vehicles with loudspeakers mounted to their roofs were circulating through neighbourhoods warning people that should they participate in the strike they will be in violation of the law, and anyone sharing information about the strike on social media will be subject to arrest and imprisonment under the counterterrorism laws. On January 26, The Irrawaddy reported that these warnings were “an attempt to prevent the protest after the previous silent strikes saw the whole nation of over 54 million people stay out of sight for the day.”

Police, soldiers and okkahtas, the military-appointed ward administrators, went from business to business, forcing owners to sign an agreement committing them to keeping their shops open on February 1, the day of the strike, and acknowledging that if they failed to do so they would suffer severe consequences. But everyone understood their dilemma. Even if they were forced to open, with everyone staying at home they wouldn’t expect any customers. So what then did the junta hope to gain by forcing shops and businesses to remain open? With no customers on the streets, what’s the point? Other than bolstering the junta’s delusion of normality, it simply makes no sense.

These various efforts by the military regime, each of which required the marshalling of enormous human and material resources, demonstrates that the call for another general strike struck an extremely raw nerve. In his vain efforts to project legitimacy, particularly to the international community, General Min Aung Hlaing has announced time and again that he would “very shortly” have the “terrorists” under control and could ensure stability throughout the nation. However, stability seems to be getting further and further beyond his grasp.

On February 1, empty streets, similar to those seen during the December strike, put the lie to the junta’s statements and became a major embarrassment. Desperate to avoid international disgrace, the regime has gone into overdrive in its efforts to crush the resistance, but its efforts will, in all likelihood, prove to be both insufficient and deficient. The amount of resources it amassed in hopes of forestalling the strike is a telling indication of how alarming this demonstration of resistance was to the regime, a fact that the Burmese people have carefully noted. The military’s heavy-handed and disproportionate tactics are a clear sign of its weakness and desperation.

By moving forward with the strike, the Burmese people have shown the world that investments in Myanmar will never bring returns until there is genuine democratic stability, and that such stability is squarely in the hands of the people. Deserted streets across the country on the day of the strike, despite every effort by the military to quash it, should serve as a warning to those who continue to engage in business with the generals while the people of Myanmar suffer under these tyrants.

Nonetheless, the people must not become complacent, because this regime will almost surely carry on in ways that defy morality and legitimacy. People need to prepare themselves for any and all possibilities. The regime led by Min Aung Hlaing and his cronies—which sanctions the bombing of innocent civilians, which tortures and burns to death young and old alike, which gang-rapes women, which loots and torches homes and entire villages, which murders indiscriminately—that regime accepts no constraints and recognizes no limits on its atrocities.

How the military will respond now that the strike has successfully taken place is an unknown that should concern everyone. But attempts at terrorizing people have already proven ineffective in deterring them from their cause. This is especially true for those of Generation Z who have vowed to fight to the end. Recent attempts to cow the Burmese people into submission, as described above, will only act as an accelerant thrown upon their anger and resentment. It would do Min Aung Hlaing and his gang well, and the international community too, to heed the words of the many who have announced that they will “never back down,” that “this is the last time.” It remains to be seen who is poking whom.