Gen Z breaks out from Suu Kyi's shadow, takes charge of resistance against Myanmar coup

A young generation of political activists critical of her leadership is now setting the political agenda. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - The slight, mild-mannered mayor who was detained briefly alongside key Myanmar office holders during the Feb 1 military coup had tendered his resignation.

But he refused to go quietly.

On Facebook, Dr Ye Lwin uploaded a profile picture of himself doing a three-finger salute, a symbol now widely adopted by Myanmar nationals denouncing the military regime. Then he packed his bags - expecting to be arrested again.

On Tuesday (Feb 9), he was detained alongside members of the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) party, former office holders, election commission members, civil servants boycotting work and even a prominent astrologer who posted online a hex against "forces supporting the dictator".

As of Friday, over 300 people have been detained in relation to the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

That number is expected to climb as the regime continues its nightly raids on dissidents after 8pm, when residents in Yangon, Mandalay and several other parts of Myanmar are forced to stay indoors by the 8pm to 4am curfew.

Locals have pushed back. They bang pots and pans when they spot security forces entering their ward, alerting neighbours who rush out onto the street to try to protect targeted dissidents. They also live-stream the entire process.

Two weeks after the power grab by commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, thousands of people in Asean's poorest country continue to defy a public-gathering ban to protest on the streets, while a growing civil disobedience movement has disrupted rail and aviation operations, border trade, and threatens its healthcare system.

The senior general has justified his one-year state of emergency by alleging massive fraud in the Nov 8 election that gave the NLD a sweeping second victory. Now, he is courting ethnic minority politicians to bolster a new government that is widely expected to last beyond that.

But as he dusts off a playbook which kept the military in power for five decades prior to 2010, he faces stiff resistance from a new breed of young activists now freed from the shadow of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The 75-year-old state counsellor has been held incommunicado since Feb 1. She has been charged with breaching Myanmar's import-export law over six allegedly illegal walkie-talkies found in her possession.

It is unclear if more charges may be laid against her, after the military raided the NLD's headquarters in Yangon on Feb 9. According to the Irrawaddy journal, the NLD's savings passbooks were seized, and its closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and computer servers destroyed.

While Ms Suu Kyi remains revered by the majority of Myanmar's population, the NLD in recent years had been stultified by her top-down management style and her first-term government was criticised for ignoring the wishes of ethnic minorities.

With Ms Suu Kyi silenced, a young generation of political activists critical of her leadership is now setting the political agenda.

These digital natives were the earliest faces of the anti-coup movement while the NLD struggled to come up with a coherent response. They include activists like Ms Ei Thinzar Maung, one of the youngest candidates in the Nov 8 election who contested unsuccessfully on the Democratic Party of a New Society ticket.

In live videos posted online, the 26-year-old woman has warned about the long, difficult days ahead for Myanmar people while marshalling support for civil servants boycotting work.

"Gradually, we will be treated like slaves by the military," she says. "If we keep quiet now, they will issue worse laws."

Mass demonstrations calling for the release of "Mother Suu" have been complimented by more disarming, Twitter-friendly rallies staged to communicate the larger anti-junta struggle to the international audience. Fitness trainers bared their six-packs on the streets of Yangon.

Young women in pastel-coloured wedding gowns held up signs that said: "Getting democracy is a bigger concern for us than getting husband".

"The real, main actors now are from the Generation Z who are under 25 years old," democracy activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi tells The Sunday Times. "People are not waiting for the NLD's orders and not asking for its permission anymore... we don't want to be under the shadow of one person.

"We don't want to be under military dictatorship and we don't want to be under a personality cult either."

There are few signs that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing is going to budge.

After the United States declared it would freeze US$1 billion ($1.32 billion) worth of Myanmar government funds held in the US, the 64-year-old military chief doubled down on his yet unproven allegations of election fraud, referring on Friday to a "clear and intense focus on the path of genuine and well-disciplined multiparty democracy".

Significantly, he has offered prominent positions to ethnic minority parties and politicians who had been alienated by the NLD.

The new 16-member State Administration Council chaired by himself now includes among its members Mr Saw Daniel - a Kayah State Democratic Party politician who has since been expelled by his party - as well as Ms Aye Nu Sein from the Rakhine-state based Arakan National Party (ANP).

In the months leading up to the Nov 8 general election, Rakhine state saw some of the fiercest battles between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group that was designated by the Suu Kyi government as a terrorist outfit.

Thousands of displaced villagers had little access to information because of a long-running blackout on mobile data.

But the Arakan Army and military halted hostilities around the election. One day after the Feb 1 coup, the military regime abruptly restored Internet data in Rakhine state.

On Friday, ANP founder Aye Maung, who was serving a 20-year sentence for high treason, was freed after being granted amnesty by the commander-in-chief alongside over 20,000 inmates.

By way of explanation, Mr Oo Hla Saw, a former ANP lawmaker, tells the Straits Times: "This is a very complicated issue. ANP's participation in the ruling council is not a problem for Rakhine people... the military confrontation was very cruel and violent.

"We suffered in Rakhine state and we never want to suffer again."

Rohingya refugees gathered behind a barbed-wire fence at a temporary settlement setup near Maungdaw district in Myanmar's Rakhine state on April 25, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Some democracy activists in Rakhine state have been appalled.

"Since there is no such provision which gives special political power to Arakan (Rakhine) state in the 2008 Constitution, there would be no benefit for Arakanese people no matter who comes to power," said Mr Ting Oo, general secretary of All Arakan Students' and Youths' Congress.

"The Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) took power from the (majority) Bamar people, what benefit can they give to Rakhine people under the unitary dictatorship government?"

Unlike ethnic armed groups like the Restoration Council of Shan State which have explicitly condemned the coup, the powerful Arakan Army has stayed silent. Analysts say it is trying to size up the sentiments of war-weary locals.

Youth activists say they are trying to counter this divide-and-rule approach by forging links across the country.

A Shan state-based youth leader, who wanted to be known as Ms Nang, says: "Now we don't have any colour, we don't have any political party. As long as we are against the military, we are one."

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