Myanmar: Pro-democracy demonstrators’ winning the social media battle to keep hopes alive

Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

By Louise Palmer

The rise of social media as a platform for organised resistance has changed the context in which all authority operates. Apps such as Facebook and Tik Tok have the potential to mobilize greater numbers of people in less time than ever before. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the crucial role social media played in driving the Arab Spring, as it gave protesters a way to contact each other and plan mass protests. Today, pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar are using similar tactics as they engage in what appears to be a David vs Goliath struggle against the military coup d’état.

On the 1st February 2021, the Myanmar military staged a swift and effective take over of power. Claiming electoral fraud, the military ousted the democratically-elected National League for Democracy (NLD) on the premise that elections would be held again in a year’s time. Unfortunately, this development did not come as a shock as the military previously executed a successful coup d’etat in 1962. Myanmar was ruled by a military junta from 1962 until 2010, when some authority was transferred to a civilian government controlled by the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). This transition was well-received by the international community, especially after the 2015 general election returned an overwhelming victory for the NLD. Although positive in many respects, the military retained a level of autonomy which allowed it to operate at will. Ethnic minorities within Myanmar, particularly Rohingya Muslims, were faced with what the UN characterised as military efforts at ethnic cleansing

The current coup d’etat has once again demonstrated the determination of the military to retain power and protect its own interests. The 2021 seizure of power was triggered by NLD’s decisive victory in the 2020 general election over the military’s USDP. To many observers the election results signalled that the people of Myanmar were firmly backing increased democracy. From the military’s point of view, increased democracy was a threat and the solution was a coup. The military is currently in power in Naypyidaw, a purpose-built capital, and has detained opposition members including the most prominent NLD leader, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The challenge that platforms such as Facebook posed to military authority was recognised by command who ordered widespread internet disruption across the country as news of the coup broke. However, in the age of social media pacifying a population who are unwilling to quietly accept military rule has proven challenging. 

Much has changed in Myanmar since the military last held what appeared to be absolute power. Most notably access to the internet and use of social media has grown exponentially. In Myanmar, Facebook has become one of the most commonly used forms of communication. The BBC claimed that it is synonymous with the internet for about half the population. Since the coup started, military control of state media, internet blackouts and restrictions on social media have been a part of daily life. The strongest restrictions so far have coincided with the larger protests as the military clearly attempts to stop protestors from coordinating. Despite these measures, it currently seems like the military have underestimated the will of the protestors whilst simultaneously overestimating their ability to control social media.  

Demonstrators have been able to get around many restrictions with the use of VPNs apps allowing social media to act as a crucial platform in increasing support for and coordinating protests. In early February a civil disobedience movement saw doctors, teachers and students go on strike in protest. The civil disobedience group behind the initial strike was set up on Facebook. By late February, this had inspired a nationwide general strike that brought the country to halt as hundreds of thousands protested despite military threats of violence. Moreover, as one of the key platforms for communication Facebook has become a site of protest within itself. At the end of February, Facebook banned the Myanmar military from its official account.

The nature of the pro-democracy movement has been highly influenced by the strong youth presence. The intelligent use of slogans and symbols has meant that demonstrations can translate powerfully on social media. A good example is the appropriation of the three finger salute from the Hunger Games by pro-democracy protesters. Another example can be found at protests where young demonstrators have been pictured with slogans such as “I don’t want a military dictatorship. I just want a boyfriend” which has invariably caught international attention. The humorous tone which accompanies the serious message is a key feature of younger demonstrators and has proven the perfect recipe for social media. This approach is also illustrated in anti-military memes which have bypassed restrictions to become popular in Myanmar and around the world.  

Younger demonstrators have made the Myanmar pro-democracy protests a trending topic on many social media platforms. By appealing to a global audience protesters have found support in unexpected places such as the Milk Tea Alliance. Although seemingly apolitical, the trending #MilkTeaAlliance is used to unite pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar. For others outside of Myanmar, Tik Tok has become one of the most influential platforms. On this app the algorithms have helped to spread the #Savemymyanmar messages created by many young diaspora in an attempt to attract international attention to the protests.It would seem then that the pro-democracy protesters have mobilised social media to their advantage, effectively winning the battle for hearts and minds against military controlled state media. In doing so they have given democracy a glimmer of hope against an overwhelming military force. The use of symbols, humour and slogans has given the pro-democracy movement a unique character that can translate easily from protests to social media. At this time protests have become a daily occurrence within many major cities of Myanmar and at least 54 people have been killed with the military showing no signs of relenting. Pro-democracy protesters have succeeded in grabbing the world’s attention and they don’t seem ready to give up on freedom and democracy yet.

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