The military of Myanmar, which is also known as Burma and is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, has repeated its promise to hold new elections and relinquish power as anti-coup protests continue. What is the coup exactly, and how is a new generation of protestors using memes as their voice of choice?
According to the BBC, army spokesman Brig Gen Zaw Min Tun claimed that the military took control after alleged voter fraud during elections, but did not provide any evidence to back the claim up. A criminal charge had also been filed against the detained opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and since 1 February 2021—which is the day the military seized control—mass protests have been taking place.
Effectively, the military have toppled the government for the time being, and Zaw Min Tun stated in the military’s first news conference that the armed forces would not remain in power for long, and promised to “hand back the winning party” after a reelection had been planned. To the people of Myanmar, this is assumed to be a coup. Zaw Min Tun accused the anti-coup protesters of violence and intimidation against the security forces.
One police officer who had been monitoring the protests has been wounded, and later died, from “lawless actions,” Zaw Min Tun continued to say in the conference. Because of the rising tension on the streets, tear gas and rubber bullets are being used to disperse crowds, and now one 19 year old protestor, Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, is in critical condition after being shot in the head.
Much like ‘people in power’ have done elsewhere before, the Myanmar military has gifted itself power to make arrests, carry out searches and hold people for more than 24 hours at a time without a court ruling, all while telling journalists not to describe the military takeover as a coup.
What’s impacting this particular protest is the new, young generation of people who have taken to the streets, and the growing numbers are bringing a new way of protesting as well. They are drawing on a range of internet memes, slogans, cartoons and cultural symbols to make themselves heard.
The three finger salute—initiating from The Hunger Games trilogy and first appropriated into real life by the Thailand protesters in 2014, when they were facing their own military coup—is a shared signal of defiance. It names and demands equality, freedom and solidarity.
Cartoon characters that include Pepe the Frog and the internet memes Doge and Cheems are being used to ridicule the senior general Min Aung Hlaing as well as other military leaders. The place cards they hold above their heads are written in not only Burmese, but English too, suggesting that they want a worldwide reach. They hold phrases such as, “The situation is so bad, even the introverts are here.” Songs are also being set for the protests that were previously used by generations of pro-democracy activists such as western rap and hip-hop soundtracks.
As The Conversation puts it: “Myanmar’s young protesters epitomise a culture of transnational activism now favoured by a generation of technically savvy and increasingly cosmopolitan young people intent on resisting the imposition of authoritarian agendas.”
Authorities have suspended the internet and blocked social media platforms such as Facebook twice from being used, so many anti-coup protesters are turning to VPN access in order to share what their country is going through via Instagram or TikTok.
Not for the first time, young people are playing a decisive role in Myanmar’s growing civil disobedience movement, demanding independence and democracy. Student protests have come around like a pattern, first in 1920, then 1936, 1962, 1974, 1988, 2007 and 2015. Thanks to the power of social media and the technological global connectivity that it provides, protests are starting to no longer be left up to one country’s people alone, but instead individually part of something much bigger.
The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the hands of white Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin are carrying on in the US and around the world, demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism. In response, and somewhat unsurprisingly, police violence has been the main reaction to the demonstrations, with continuing attacks towards protestors perpetrated with the use of so-called ‘non-lethal’ weapons, which are also known as ‘less-lethal’ weapons for a more accurate definition.
Despite their deceitful name, non-lethal weapons can do severe damages and lead to death, which is why their abuse should not be underrated. Pepper spray, tear gas, tasers, sound cannons, rubber and wooden bullets, and batons are just some of the many weapons the police in the US are using to disperse and suppress protesters, injuring thousands of people, and in some cases killing them too.
While not all non-lethal weapons are equally dangerous, according to the 2015 annual report written by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for the United Nations General Assembly, “Almost any use of force against the human person can under certain circumstances lead to loss of life or serious injury.”
In 1990, in an attempt to reduce the use of firearms by the police, the United Nations adopted the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, but despite its forward-looking intention, the promotion of non-lethal weapons ended up enabling the use of excessive force by police, which we are yet again witnessing during these new anti-police and anti-racism protests.
Take tear gas for instance, which is the chemical weapon that was utilised to disperse protesters minutes before President Trump gave his infamous speech holding an upside-down bible on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, and whose use was actually banned from warfare under the Geneva Convention. Although it remains classified as a non-lethal weapon, tear gas can lead to death, as we saw in the case of Sarah Grossman, a 22-year-old woman who died last week after her asthma was triggered by the tear gas sprayed during the protest she was attending in Ohio. Tear gas can strongly endanger someone with respiratory problems, which makes it even more dangerous in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among other popular non-lethal weapons currently being used during the protests is the baton, which falls under the category of ‘kinetic impact weapons’ (alongside non-lethal guns which use projectiles such as rubber and wooden bullets), which differ from those defined as ‘physiological weapons’ such as sound cannons. Also called Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs), sound cannons are extremely loud speakers initially developed to send messages and warning tones over longer distances or at a higher volume than normal loudspeakers.
Used by the police against protesters, their sound is so loud and unbearable it is used to disperse crowds. But as reported by Amnesty International in The human rights impact of less lethal weapons and other law enforcement equipment, sound cannons can inflict long-term (and, in some cases, permanent) damage to someone’s hearing. Less common than other non-lethal weapons, LRADs have recently been used by police in Miami and Denver, as well as in 2014 during the protests following Eric Garner’s death by New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo.
As the conversation surrounding the US police is set to shed light on its systemic violent structure, the abuse of non-lethal weapons should not go unnoticed either. When the police are allowed to use force in the name of state security, armed with both lethal and non-lethal weapons, the basis of that same institutional body should not only be questioned but reconfigured once and for all.
Having to confront strategic violent attacks when protesting for an end to police brutality is the tragic paradox that validates—not that there was any need for extra validation—the requests made by the Black Lives Matter movement. The array of weapons that are handed to the US police speaks of the intrinsic coercive attitude of this state body, and as necessary as it is for the police and its use of weapons (lethal or non-lethal) to be regulated, it is its whole structural violent attitude that needs to change.
Because, as we’ve unfortunately witnessed, it can take only a knee to end a life. Imagine what you can do with an endless supply of so-called ‘non-lethal’ weapons.