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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar junta's crackdown fuels defiant Generation Z

Resistance led by people in their 20s as shootings of civilians continue

Anti-coup protesters take up positions behind a makeshift barricade during a protest in Yangon on March 28.   © AP

BANGKOK -- The military junta in Myanmar is intensifying its crackdown, with 114 people killed on Saturday, the bloodiest day since the Feb. 1 coup.

But Myanmar's young Generation Z, born after the millennium, is defiant, coming up with numerous novel ways to protest. This cohort of young, who are seen by opponents of the junta as brave and determined, have continued to call for the release of the country's civilian leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

On Sunday, many funerals were held for those killed the day before. Many young people took part, chanting slogans and singing songs in an ongoing challenge to the junta.

The younger generation call the protests a revolution, in an echo of the 1988 uprising led by the youth of that era, and the 2007 "Saffron Revolution," mainly led by Buddhist monks. Myanmar also has a history of student and youth protests from its days under British and Japanese rule.

In the latest uprising, activists have urged civil servants and bankers to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) to oppose military rule; the movement has been nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. In the nominating letter, Generation Z was cited for its crucial role in the protests. 

Peaceful protesters have faced jail or worse since the movement began. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 2,559 people have been placed in detention and 459 killed since Feb. 1.

"The youth know what freedom, equality and respect are. I do have a strong belief that Generation Z could be the one to knock out the dictatorship," Zun Moe Thet Hlaing, a 24-year old protester in Yangon, told Nikkei Asia.

While youths and pro-democracy activists battle Myanmar's military rulers directly, even some of those in the military and their families are fighting against the reimposition of dictatorship in their own way.

One family member of a soldier told Nikkei that she strongly condemned the generals killing people to hold on to power. "They are dragging us and our children into the darkness again. I can't let this happen again," said the 26-year old woman, whose father is on active duty. "We have already lost our future since the coup." 

"There are some youths like me who want democracy, not a dictatorship. But we can't go out [on the streets]. So we do what we can on social media." She said she is actively working on campaigns to support the movement, as she cannot leave the military compound where she lives.

During the 1988 uprising, around 3,000 people were killed. At least 3,000 people were arrested and some 10,000 activists were forced to flee Myanmar. People in their 30s and 40s remember the grim period under military rule that finally ended in 2011. The severity of that crackdown makes them more reluctant to take to the streets again.

But those in their 20s grew up under democracy and they are looking at novel ways to support the resistance. On March 22, activists declared a "silent strike," urging people to stay home and keep shops closed. As the crackdown has intensified, people have staged candlelight vigils.

Another effort involves supporting workers who have joined the CDM, collecting donations for them. Workers who take part in the CDM face pressure from the junta to return to their jobs. Supporters offer them a place to lie low away from the authorities.

More than 1,000 doctors at 70 hospitals in Myanmar spearheaded the movement, along with other civil servants, just days after the coup.

"We are supporting them because it could lead to stopping the junta's rule," a 23-year-old who gave her name as Phyu told Nikkei. She said there is a risk the CDM workers will go back to work, but she remains confident. "If the junta keeps the governing mechanism rolling, we won't be able to solve the issue."

"I know this generation is fighting for its future. We have to support them. They know what's right and what they should not accept," said Win Htun Soe, a 36-year old member of the Rohingya Muslim minority, which has suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the Myanmar military.

Young people "can't be fooled by any institution, like the army or a political party. In this digital era, [Generation Z] can get information about what's happening and they are always looking for the brighter side. Even if the junta tries to divide them with fake news, that won't happen," Win Htun Soe vowed.

Since the coup, many protesters and bystanders have died in the unrest, including a 7-year-old child who was killed in Mandalay.

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