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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar protesters stage 'flash mobs' to avoid bullets

Activists return to street after ASEAN summit, focused on democracy over Suu Kyi

Young people stage a flash mob protest in Yangon on April 30, gathering and dispersing quickly to avoid arrest.

BANGKOK -- Protesters in Myanmar have adopted guerilla tactics that resemble flash mobs in response to the junta's bloody crackdown against anti-coup demonstrations in the country.

As heavy rain blanketed Yangon on Friday morning, a few youths stood at a bus stop, pretending to wait for their ride. Others went through the motions of lining up for an ATM. Suddenly, a group unfurled a banner and marched swiftly down the thoroughfare. It served as a cue for others on standby to silently join in, until the number of demonstrators reached at least 100.

"Boycott, boycott! Strike, strike!" the protesters yelled. "The revolution must win! Are all the people united? Yes, we are!"

Residents and passersby appeared stunned by the spectacle. But once they knew the marchers were demonstrating against Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, the onlookers clapped and extended their arms in a three-fingered salute, the symbol of resistance against the junta.

The march lasted less than 10 minutes. Participants scattered when security personnel stationed at a nearby market approached the snap procession.

The tactics are a wild departure from the protests seen over the past three months.

The military's takeover of the civilian government Feb. 1 triggered massive demonstrations that peaked at more than 1 million participants. As security forces violently cracked down on protesters in March, demonstrators set up barricades in alleys and clashed directly with armed units.

But the Tatmadaw has used firearms indiscriminately to suppress the protests, and demonstrators became less visible in urban areas. Authorities have pressured supermarkets, malls and restaurants to reopen, another factor in the reduction of demonstrations in downtown areas.

Pedestrian and automobile traffic have returned to earlier levels in city centers. Some restaurants at malls have filled to capacity during weekdays.

Tatmadaw spokesperson Capt. Aye Thazin Myint cast the demonstrations as "riots" during an online news conference Thursday.

"For the most of the people who want stability in Myanmar, their participation in the riots is declining," she said.

Soldiers have de-escalated from their most brutal conduct, when they entered residential areas during March to crack down on the protesters and set barricades on fire. But the lives of ordinary Myanmar citizens have not returned to normal. While there are fewer reports because mobile internet connectivity has been cut, the forces shoot randomly at houses during the night, a resident in Yangon said.

The protests started to regain steam on April 24, when junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing attended a leaders summit hosted by the Association of Southeast Asia Nations. The general agreed with other ASEAN leaders on five points of consensus, including the "immediate cessation of violence" by all parties and a "dialogue process" mediated by a special envoy of the association's chair.

Yet many people fear that ASEAN's face-to-face meeting with Min Aung Hlaing amounts to tacit recognition of the junta, which would betray the popular will expressed in Myanmar's November 2020 election.

"We can't stay silent," a leader of the flash mob protests in Yangon, a 26-year-old man who goes by "K-2," told Nikkei. He said it is "very important that the youth need to get in the street to defy the dictatorship."

K-2 emphasized the duties of Generation Z -- those born in the mid-1990s and later -- to the movement.

"It isn't like they asked for the responsibility, but the responsibility came to them," he said. "Youth must lead this revolution."

With police watching the activities of residents and gathering intelligence on protest groups through informants, caution is the byword for activists.

"We are mainly contacting each other through the ones we trust. We only let them know what we will do," then they tell those whom they trust, and so on, K-2 said. "We have to be very careful if the information is going to be leaked."

As the protesters' methods change, their message has evolved as well.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, the release of ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a top priority. Some demonstrators carried flags with the logo of Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy.

But now, with more than 700 people killed in the crackdown by security forces and mobile internet access cut off, young people in Myanmar are driven by their fury at the loss of basic freedoms and a sense that their future has been taken.

"What we all protesters want now is federal democracy," K-2 said. "It is not that important whether Aung San Suu Kyi is released or which party we voted for. It is to defeat the military regime and get federal democracy."

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a group formed by NLD lawmakers after the coup, has responded to this shift. In mid-April, junta opponents announced the formation of a new, pro-democracy National Unity Government with diluted NLD influence.

Ei Thinzar Maung, deputy minister of women, youth and children's affairs, is among the figures in this parallel government who reflect the reduced emphasis on the NLD. The 26-year-old activist ran for office in November as part of an opposition party, and previously blasted Suu Kyi's administration over its handling of the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority population.

Suu Kyi was long a totemic figure in Myanmar's pro-democracy activism, but some young people see her differently, as unwilling to listen to the views of others.

"She has the mentality that people will follow whatever she does," a 30-year-old business owner in Yangon said. "That's the reason we are at this point."

A changing of the guard is underway as youth take the reins of the anti-coup movement. "Today's situation," the man added, "is showing us the country can go forward without Suu Kyi."

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