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After a decade of change in Myanmar, fear of the past drives anti-coup protests

(Reuters) - A communications blackout, the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi without word, wild rumours fed by a paucity of information.

FILE PHOTO: People rally in a protest against the military coup and to demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 7, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

All recalled the darkest days of a succession of military juntas that ruled Myanmar during half a century of ruinous isolation - driving many people to mass protests in fear that such times could return.

That included a Generation Z who grew up with somewhat greater freedom and prosperity in what nonetheless remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest and most restrictive countries.

“We don’t want a dictatorship for the next generation or for us,” said Thaw Zin, a 21-year-old among the sea of people massed in the shadow of Sule Pagoda in the center of the commercial capital of Yangon on Sunday.

Some carried posters that read: “You fucked with the wrong generation”.

Shaking with emotion, Thaw Zin said, “If we don’t stand this time for our country, our people, there is no one. Evil will fall on us. We will never forgive them for the trouble they have brought to us.”

Myanmar’s army seized power last Monday, detaining Suu Kyi and halting an unsteady transition to democracy, citing unsubstantiated fraud in the election landslide won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in November.

Successive military juntas ruled Myanmar from 1962 until 2011, when a quasi-civilian government started opening up the country and its economy after Suu Kyi was freed from a spell of what totalled nearly 15 years under house arrest.

In 2012, only 1.1 per cent of the population used the internet and few people had telephones, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

But after liberalisation in 2013, the price of SIM cards dropped from more than $200 to as little as $2 almost overnight. By 2016, nearly half the population had cell phones and most were smartphones with internet access.

Pre-publication censorship was abolished and private media proliferated. While journalists remained under heavy scrutiny and arrests continued, it was a far cry from the days when the only news was state-produced propaganda that glorified the generals and lambasted “foreign axe-handles of the West”.

After the military seized power, activists responded with calls for a mass civil disobedience movement that spread rapidly online, something that would not have been possible before.

The parliament that had been due to be sworn in on Monday, the day of coup, held a symbolic first session by Zoom.

Anger over the internet shutdown on Saturday – so reminiscent of the old days – drove both older generations all too familiar with isolation and younger ones suddenly cut off.

“Most of us youths work at I.T companies,” said one 22-year-old protester. “Since the whole server is shutdown, we can’t do anything. It affects our business as well as our opportunities.”

‘WE HATE DICTATORSHIP’

“We all know how terrible it was,” said 40-year-old Maw Maw Aung, who was also among the crowds beside Sule Pagoda, of direct army rule. “We cannot live under the boot of the military. We hate dictatorship. We really hate it.”

She remembered the legacy of crippled education and healthcare systems under the junta. When the World Health Organization last did rankings, in 2008, Myanmar’s health system came last.

“We lived in fear everyday,” she said. “We are behind our neighboring countries in everything.”

As the generals shut the internet on Saturday, echoes of the old era reappeared.

Activists and politicians went into hiding. Wild rumours began to spread: that various high-profile NLD leaders were dead, that Suu Kyi had been freed, and the army chief toppled.

Without explanation on Sunday evening, the internet was switched back on. But there was no sign of the protests abating. Many are fearful about what comes next: previous uprisings against the military – in 1988 and 2007 – have been subdued with deadly force.

“With the anti-coup protests gaining steam, we can well imagine the reaction to come,” author and historian Thant Myint-U wrote on Facebook.

“But Myanmar society is completely different from 1988 and even 2007,” he said. “I have tremendous faith in today’s younger generation. Anything is possible.”

Reporting by Reuters staff, Writing by Poppy McPherson, Editing by William Maclean

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