Myanmar’s spring revolution


The Myanmar military’s decision to seize power on 1 February 2021 triggered a wave of resistance across the country. By the end of June, over 4,700 anti-coup demonstration events were reported in Myanmar.1 The military has responded with a campaign of violence and mass arrests. Despite the crackdown, anti-coup activists have continued to demonstrate, and some have armed themselves in self-defense. The military coup has also re-ignited conflicts in areas of the borderlands that had until recently been on the wane. As calls for international action increase, diaspora communities have organized and joined demonstrations across the globe in solidarity with those inside the country. This report examines the political disorder in Myanmar brought about by the military junta and analyzes the resistance — both armed and unarmed — to the coup.

Pro-Military Demonstrations Before the Coup

Despite rumors of a military coup in January 2021, it was not clear until the early morning of 1 February that the military would go forward with upending the political environment they created more than a decade ago to maintain power. The 2008 constitution, passed during a rigged referendum in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, guaranteed the military 25% of the seats in parliament. The rigged elections in 2010 further allowed them to consolidate the political field to their advantage. Still, the overwhelming popularity of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, resulted in the formation of an NLD government after the 2015 elections.

In the lead-up to the November 2020 general elections, the military began planting seeds of doubt around the upcoming elections, knowing the NLD was headed for another victory. In August 2020, the leader of the military coup, Min Aung Hlaing, held a meeting with several pro-military and opportunist political parties to raise doubts about the Union Election Commission, whose members were appointed by the NLD (Irrawaddy, 15 August 2020).

Shortly after the November 2020 election, which the NLD decisively won, there was an increase in demonstrations by supporters of the military claiming election fraud. These demonstrations were often organized by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). ACLED records at least 45 such demonstration events between the 8 November election and the coup on 1 February 2021. The demonstrations became more violent in the weeks right before the coup, and, immediately after the coup, pro-military demonstrators were seen intimidating and attacking anti-coup protesters. Reports circulated of demonstrators being paid 5,000 kyat ($3 USD) to participate in pro-military demonstrations, a common tactic used by the military in the past to manufacture support (Myanmar Now, 27 February 2021).

On 1 February 2021, the military seized power, detaining President U Win Myint, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, members of the NLD, and other activists. While announcing that elections would be held again in a year, the military has since acted to install itself in power for the long term. Nonetheless, widespread public opposition to the coup has undermined the military’s plans, with a range of different communities engaging in various forms of resistance to prevent the coup from succeeding.

Peaceful Anti-Coup Protests Met with Excessive Force

Resistance to the military coup started as people around the country began banging pots and pans outside their homes every night to express their dissatisfaction with the coup. Health workers, who had been leading the NLD’s coronavirus vaccination efforts, and civil servants began gathering and flashing the Hunger Games inspired three-finger salute. The first street protests were recorded in Mandalay on 4 February, led by a young doctor (Reuters, 4 February 2021). Protests in Yangon and around the country soon followed.

The large-scale protests were joined by a wide section of society. A deep sense of unity in opposition to the coup emerged. In several cases where the military tried to arrest protesters, people surrounded authorities or gathered in front of places where people were detained to demand their release. Many of the young protesters — proudly identifying as Gen Z — were cheered on and supported by their parents, many of whom lived through the 1988 nationwide uprising against one-party rule, which was crushed by the military (BBC, 13 July 2021). At the same time, a Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) began with civil servants refusing to work, further undermining the military’s ability to consolidate power.

The vast majority of anti-coup demonstration events since 1 February — 98% — have been peaceful on the part of the protesters (see figure below). Nevertheless, the military has used excessive force against demonstrators, often training their guns and shooting live rounds directly at demonstrators’ heads (Reuters, 26 March 2021), suggesting that the intention of the military’s response has been to kill, not to disperse.