Myanmar citizens oppose military takeover on social media
Nikkei Reporters Sample 250 Million Tweets Protesting Crackdown
TOKYO -- It has been a year since the military seized power in Myanmar on Feb. 1, 2021. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group, has tallied 1,513 deaths by army gunfire or torture as of Feb. 3 this year. Citizens are resisting the takeover and continuing their campaign for democracy. Protesters, especially young people, have chosen social media as their main battlefield.
TOPIC 1:Citizens post 250 million tweets over the past year
Protesters have shared tweets widely after deadly incidents. A Nikkei team of reporters focused on the frequently used hashtag #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar. A total of nearly 250 million tweets with that hashtag were posted between Feb. 1, 2021, and Jan. 18, 2022, including retweets and replies, according to data from TrackMyHashtag.
Feb. 20, 2021 saw the highest number of tweets in a single day, at 3,06 million. That was the day after the first confirmed fatality among protesters.
There were 47,8 milion tweets in May 2021, the highest monthly figure. That is probably because rallies were held on "Spring Revolution Day" around the world that month to denounce military oppression and call for support of the national unity government formed by the pro-democracy camp in Myanmar.
The number of tweets began falling after last May. The daily tally had fallen to around 100,000 to 200,000 by December.
But on Dec. 5, a military vehicle rammed into a group of young protesters in Yangon, according to local media reports. A video capturing the moment was widely shared. On that day alone, 502,275 tweets were posted.
Tweets say the incident occurred in Kyimyindaing Township near central Yangon. Local media outlet Khit Thit Media posted a video provided by a citizen on Facebook. The phrase "Spring Revolution" is written in Burmese on the road. Satellite imagery shows that the protest was recorded on Pann Pin Gyi Street in the township.
The Nikkei reporting team requested an interview with Khit Thit Media on Facebook. The organization replied that the photos and videos it publishes are taken by its staff or citizen journalists.
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Smartphone use took off in Myanmar around 2014, with many subscribers using Facebook as a source of information. But since the coup the number of Twitter users has been rising. The military cut access to social media in February 2021, but many citizens take advantage of free virtual private networks (VPNs) to sidestep the restrictions and continue using social media. Many of the people who use #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar have opened Twitter accounts since February 2021. They are believed to have switched from Facebook, on which they mainly write in Burmese under their real names. Twitter enables people to post messages in English anonymously.
TOPIC 2:People risk their lives to post anti-military tweets
The Nikkei reporting team tried to contact 107 people who frequently tweet under the #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar hashtag. Of the 52 people the team was able to reach, 20 responded to questions, including about the situation in Myanmar.
Of the 107 people contacted, 45 listed their address as outside Myanmar. Asked where they actually live, some said they are living in the country. But many declined to give details, apparently for security reasons.
One Twitter user requested that we communicate through Telegram, saying that exchanging direct messages on Twitter poses a risk. Another has multiple accounts, switching to dummy accounts to evade military censorship.
One account was closed immediately after the team contacted the user, possibly because the user wanted to erase any record of having communicated with the Nikkei team, or the person may be changing accounts regularly.
Below are some of the comments from the protesters contacted by the reporting team.
"Soldiers are carrying guns and stopping people on the street. What is most terrifying is that they are drunk and beat people [for] no reason. Sometimes they demand money. I was searched by a group of soldiers several months ago. They were looking for something related to pro-democracy movements. I wasn't arrested at that time, but a girl was arrested after soldiers found something on her mobile phone. There were about 25 soldiers and police officers. We could do nothing. It was a horrifying experience."
CDM Student from Myanmar
"It's a tough situation for a 17-year-old student. I can't work, so I can't make any money. Even a smartphone costs a lot of money. The military tries to send us to school, but the current educational environment is very bad since we are not taught by teachers but by military supporters. We are fighting for [the] future at the expense of our own."
@yteews11 (Doctor, lives in Yangon)
"The omicron variant has started to spread, but the Health Ministry is not functioning and the military has no interest in COVID-19. With about 70% of medical professionals taking part in the civil disobedience movement (CDM) in response to the coup, there is no way to run hospitals. The military is trying to find medical personnel who've joined the CDM and arresting them. Doctors are CDM leaders and resisting the military. I want to ask Japan and the international community to cut the flow of all funds into the military and refuse to recognize the military regime as a legitimate government."
@SaveMM99 (22 years old, university student)
"Every day is a nightmare. My heart is shattered as I see unarmed citizens continue to be killed. We are living in fear under military oppression. Military personnel can arrest or kill us anytime, without reason. We young people are sacrificing our lives to fight against the inhumane military regime."
"The State Administration Council is taking whatever measure it can to suppress people. But with even a ridiculous new law that requires [a] license to use VPNs, it can never stop our movement and revolution."
"Life in Myanmar is really tough. High inflation is pushing up gasoline prices. Business is bad. Many people in conflict zones are losing jobs. Food prices are rising every day."
B (28 years old, lives in Yangon)
"Security forces search citizens' belongings night and day. When something deemed to be anti-coup is found, people are arrested without explanation. In the worst case, they are subject to violence. Also, power outage[s] occur almost every day without prior notice. It's a huge trouble, because my grandmother is using an oxygen inhaler."
"I am one of around 300 students who were sent to prison on March 3, 2021, and spent three weeks there. I was spared torture and was not injured as I was a student. But I was homesick and cried all the time. The prison still appears in my dream almost every night."
"The photos I tweet come from a local independent media outlet. Now people only stage "flash mob" protests. There are no large-scale rallies like those held between February and March. When the third wave of COVID-19 infections hit the country in June and July, thousands of people died due to oxygen supply shortages. Hospitals are functioning, but the number of doctors and medical treatment are insufficient."
"Now is the time of despair. No income, no job opportunities. If you are working for the military, you have to obey its rule. You have to work under fear. Only people who have connections with the military can get a comfortable future. But everyone looks down on and hate[s] those who work for the illegal military government."
"To describe life under this terrorist government, 'tragic' is the most suitable word. Education, medical services -- almost everything has collapsed. Power outages are taking place frequently. Now I am writing this in darkness."
"My town is without electricity four to five hours a day. Other towns experience longer power outages. Electicity will be cut off if you don't pay for it to the military. We are intimidated with weapons, and if we refuse to pay [the] power supply is cut off. Days under dictatorship feel pretty long. I'm struggling to bring back democracy, but I feel gloomy and hopeless. We need genuine help, not just words, from the world. I want the international community to impose effective sanctions that can cut off the military from its financial sources."
C (24 years old, living in Yangon)
"I initially hoped that the international community [would] take action over military torture, but I've realized I was wrong. We must fight for democracy and justice by ourselves. That's why many young people have joined [the] fighting. The military has ignored this despite international condemnation. It is carrying out indiscriminate killings and rape. Some were burned alive. Please support the national unity government."
"The anti-coup campaign is still active. Amid cruel crackdowns and violence, fearless youth and students are advancing towards democracy and freedom. I'm taking part in digital strikes, actively tweeting what is happening in Myanmar. There are many displaced people who are struggling to secure food, medicine, housing and safety."
"The military brutally took the lives of more than 1,400 innocent people, including women and children. Thousands of people have been forced to abandon their homes for fear of danger. Internet communication has been cut off in many places to stop the flow of information and to hide military's violence."
Facebook (now Meta) banned Myanmar's military from using its services, both its namesake social media platform and the photo and video sharing service Instagram, in February 2021. Media outlets controlled by the military are also subject to the ban. In December, Meta deleted the accounts and pages of military-linked enterprises. YouTube followed suit, banning the military from using its service in March. Barred from Western social media, the military now posts public relations videos in Burmese on the Russian free messaging app Telegram.
TOPIC 3: Myanmar expats in Japan pray for their homeland
Thant Zaw Htet, 35, is the head of Revolution Tokyo Myanmar (RTM), a Japan-based group calling for democratization in Myanmar.
"Free Free Our People!" the native of Yangon chanted on the front line of a rally held in front the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Jan. 15. About 120 people, including Myanmar citizens living in Japan, took part. Some protesters livestreamed the rally on Facebook and other social media platforms.
RTM started with five or six people and now has around 40 members. The group announces its activities on Facebook and holds rallies in front of the Myanmar Embassy and elsewhere at least twice a month. Thant Zaw Htet strongly believes the military government must not continue into his children's or grandchildren's generation. He made up his mind to help bring an end to the military's rule when his daughter, who was watching a TV news bulletin, said, "We would be arrested if we returned."
He stopped making direct contact with his grandmother and relatives in Myanmar about a week after the military takeover because they would be in danger if their ties with him were discovered. "I'm worried about them, but I have to be patient," he said.
He urged the people at the Jan. 15 rally to observe a moment of silence for the victims of clashes with the military. They responded by making the three-finger salute and closing their eyes.