Myanmar's Web-savvy youth take on the military

Protesters win fans on social media with witty signs, many in English for a global audience

Protesters blocking a bridge with their cars during a demonstration in Yangon yesterday. The military has tried to put a chokehold on the country's Internet access, but users circumvented a nationwide blackout as well as social media restrictions wit
Protesters blocking a bridge with their cars during a demonstration in Yangon yesterday. The military has tried to put a chokehold on the country's Internet access, but users circumvented a nationwide blackout as well as social media restrictions with virtual private networks, foreign SIM cards and other measures before access was restored. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Protesters holding signs of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in Yangon yesterday. Social media has linked them to Hong Kong and Thai users who have swopped tips on staying safe during protests.
Protesters holding signs of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a demonstration in Yangon yesterday. Social media has linked them to Hong Kong and Thai users who have swopped tips on staying safe during protests. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Protesters blocking a bridge with their cars during a demonstration in Yangon yesterday. The military has tried to put a chokehold on the country's Internet access, but users circumvented a nationwide blackout as well as social media restrictions wit
A satellite image released by Maxar Technologies showing a bird's-eye view of a street mural that reads "We Want Democracy" in Yangon on Tuesday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGON • Their signs say it all: Myanmar's ruling junta is worse than a former boyfriend, fouler than fish curry, rejected by millions and more painful than a period.

As they flood streets across the country to protest against the Feb 1 military coup, a younger generation of Myanmar protesters are cracking jokes at the military's expense and winning fans on social media with their colourful, witty and often explicit signs.

The situation is so bad, "even the introverts are here", as one demonstrator's poster put it.

"My ex is bad, but Myanmar military is worse," said another.

Scorn has been heaped particularly on army chief Min Aung Hlaing, now in charge after the coup deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

"Our dreams are higher than MAL's height," read a handwritten cardboard sign, a reference to the commander-in-chief's diminutive stature.

"Min Aung Hlaing I hate you more than my periods," said another held out of a car window.

Photos of the relatable, sly remarks have been shared thousands of times on social media, with retweets and comments from users in Hong Kong, the United States and elsewhere.

This social media-savvy campaign "is a new, creative type of protesting for Myanmar", said Ms Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development, a Yangon-based digital rights group. "The younger generation... are on Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Discord mobilising other young people," she said.

Unlike previous generations largely cut off from the world during the 49 years of military rule from 1962 to 2011, these younger protesters came of age plugged into the Internet zeitgeist.

In one widely shared sign, a woman reinterpreted "WAP" - American rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's sexually explicit summer hit - to mean "We Are Protesting Peacefully".

Many of the signs are in English, highlighting the desire to appeal to an international audience.

Social media has not only spread their message, but also connected the protesters to Hong Kong and Thai users who have swopped tips on staying safe during protests.

None of this would have been possible a decade ago.

Before Myanmar began its democratic transition in 2011, cyber cafes dotted major cities, but Skype, Gmail and Facebook were restricted under the military-imposed isolation.

Despite smartphone usage exploding around the world, only North Korea had fewer mobile phones than Myanmar, where SIM cards cost thousands of dollars.

That changed in 2013, when the government ended the state monopoly on telecommunications and SIM prices plummeted while cheap Chinese smartphones - with Facebook pre-loaded - became widely available.

Eager to connect after years in the dark, the country came online virtually overnight and was soon inundated with ride-hailing apps, food delivery services and money transfer platforms in an Internet gold rush.

Pulling the plug on all this connectivity will be hard, if not impossible, said Ms Htaike Htaike Aung.

The military has tried to put a chokehold on the country's Internet access, but users circumvented a nationwide blackout as well as social media restrictions with virtual private networks, foreign SIM cards and other measures before access was restored.

As one of the tongue-in-cheek signs proliferating across the country put it, the military "has messed with the wrong generation".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2021, with the headline 'Myanmar's Web-savvy youth take on the military'. Subscribe