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A year into its fight to overturn a military coup that forced Myanmar’s democratically-elected leaders from power, the Burmese civilian resistance movement is being driven by its younger members, who are harnessing the power of social media. Special Correspondent Kira Kay and videographer Jason Maloney report in association with the Bureau of International Reporting.
Correction: The website for the Myanmar Information Management Unit (MIMU) shown in this story, is administered by the United Nations for development organizations, not for the Myanmar government.
After more than two weeks of fighting, the war in Ukraine could become a protracted one.
In the country of Myanmar, the fight to overturn a military coup that forced the country's democratically-elected leaders from power is now into its second year. But youthful resistance leaders are harnessing the power of social media in the hope of eventually returning their nation to civilian rule.
NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kira Kay has our story, produced with videographer Jason Maloney in association with the Bureau for International Reporting.
Over the last year, Myanmar's young people have poured into the streets to oppose their country's military takeover. Some protesters were killed in the brutal response, including this young woman, in her painfully optimistic T-shirt. One of the leaders of this so-called "spring revolution" was Thinzar Shunlei Yi.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi:
The coup attempt was something that we didn't expect. But at the same time, we finally turned this challenge into an opportunity. Everybody was so determined that this is going to be the final revolution for us. We are going to overthrow them.
It felt like a last chance.
Yes. The last chance, the last battle, the last bloodshed. That's why many people invested everything they have: their jobs, their life, their family, everything.
Thinzar is familiar with the unpopular side of difficult issues. In 2017, the human rights activist joined a campaign to give white roses of friendship to the persecuted Rohingya muslim minority, when many of her fellow citizens turned against them. She was a thorn in the military's side, reminding them not everyone was free and safe in the country. A few months into the protests, she learned there was an arrest warrant in her name.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi:
I knew that some of my friends were already abducted by the military; I was thinking, when would be my time, would they come to me today or tomorrow? My family was pushing me to move out.
The daughter of a military officer, at first she wanted to join the citizen militias who are taking up arms against the Myanmar military.
I was in the jungle for one month. I was trained and I was reflecting on myself, what will be my best fight? How could I contribute to the revolution? I choose the political fight as my fight.
She also made the difficult decision to flee her home country. Now in exile, Thinzar has turned to one of the most potent weapons new generation activists have for their revolution: social media. Young Burmese are voracious users, despite military attempts to cut the service. She ensures the military's atrocities stay in the news through tweets and Facebook posts, collected from her sources still inside the country… and rallies the civil disobedience movement with Zoom speeches.
One of her weekly broadcasts supports a new front in the war for hearts and minds in Myanmar: spreading the word of recent defectors from the country's armed forces. They are coaxing others to join them in the resistance.
I was born inside the military. And I managed to defect and managed to change myself to become a human rights activist. So I truly believe our young generations could do that because the soldiers and the policemen, they have a good intention when they join the institution. It is just the system and the institution, who brainwash them, to become who they are right now.
Lin Htet Aung:
We stand firmly with the people. This logo honors the people and our commitment to support them in this revolution.
Lin Htet Aung was an army captain. But on the night of January 31st 2021, he realized his country, and his life, was about to change.
Lin Htet Aung:
We received an initial order the evening before that all battalions should be ready for something but we didn't know what for. At midnight I was informed by my fellow soldiers that a coup would be launched the next day. I knew that many people would be killed and tortured.
He defected in April and has created an organization called "People's Embrace" from his exile in Thailand, he uses his Facebook and Zoom to urge his former comrades to join his side.
Gen-Z soldiers have their own morals and beliefs, gained during the years where our young democracy was flourishing in the country. I believe that a third of the military personnel share these same positions.
Lin Htet Aung is now partnering with political leaders also in exile to provide an underground railroad for defectors, to the free zone on the border between Myanmar and Thailand. While it is impossible to verify the numbers, he estimates 2.000 military and 6,000 police officers have joined him in the resistance over the past year. It is a precise process that starts when he is contacted by somebody who is ready to flee.
We have an initial interview by online meeting. We only bring them out to the liberated areas when we feel that this person is considered safe for our networks. But that doesn't mean that we have full trust in them. We go through all the available documents presented by them as well as background searches with the help of intelligence experts. We then closely watch these newcomers.
Even if the resistance accepts them, they won't be trusted to engage in combat. But, he says, they do still support the civilian militias, to big impact.
Defections make the Myanmar military very angry, extremely angry. Some of our victories are because defected soldiers share their past combat experience and some even bring their own weapons and ammunition taken from the military.
But the battles rage on, with the Myanmar military increasingly using airstrikes and ratcheting up attacks against civilians in regions where the up-risings are strongest.
You are looking for these colors.
Myanmar Witness Researcher:
Yes, these colors.
So a new team of cyber sleuths called Myanmar Witness, which is funded by the British government, is documenting and verifying these attacks using what is called open source intelligence information available to the public if you know how to find it.
Myanmar Witness Researcher:
We use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter. We collect video recordings, audio files, photo evidence. Then we verify when, where and how these incidents happened.
This Myanmar witness researcher, who wants to remain anonymous, talked me through a tough case that required several online resources. It started with a Facebook post alleging that the military burned 100 homes in a small village. But there was a problem, the village didn't show up on maps. He turned to a detailed Myanmar government database and found it listed, along with the village's coordinates.
Then he went to Google Maps, and bullseye, a temple from the photograph. Our researcher had the location, now he needed independent corroboration of the attack. So he turned to NASA's fire database that indeed confirmed a blaze at the exact coordinates, on December 13 at 12:37pm, what the initial post had alleged.
So far, Myanmar witness claims to have verified 800 attacks by the military including the burning of humanitarian aid workers in their vehicles… and the destruction of houses of worship, a formally recognized war crime.
There are many victims in Myanmar and I am afraid that their suffering will disappear before justice can happen and it will be in vain. So we keep all these records of evidence with the hope and belief that one day we can bring justice to the victims. It motivates us to keep doing this job.
The military didn't expect the power of technology and social media; they didn't expect that it would be like that. And that is how they are showing their true colors, they use brutalities because they have no other things.
Thinzar Shunlei Yi and her fellow next generation activists say they will win their resistance battle and restore Burmese democracy.
As a young generation, we feel really burdened and pressured that we have a lot of work to do. In the future, we don't want one single leader. We want collective leadership where everyone can play a role, can make a decision together.
The website for the Myanmar Information Management Unit (MIMU) shown in this story, is administered by the United Nations for development organizations, not for the Myanmar government.
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