The SAC’s brutal crackdowns on Myanmar protestors have had limited effect on the creative ‘silent strikes’ organised on three occasions since February 2021. Townships throughout the country became ‘ghost towns’ to protest the SAC’s atrocities, and there are hints that these actions have unsettled some within the regime.
Myanmar’s history as a nation-state is full of mass movements for independence and democracy. The Nay Thurein meeting in 1945 intimidated the Attlee Government into granting Burma independence, while mass protests under successive military regimes ended in massacres.
After the early phases of the Myanmar Spring Revolution (the protests in early 2021) , the armed resistance against the State Administration Council (SAC), the SAC has continued Myanmar’s bloody legacy with the cowardly killings of hundreds of defenseless civilians on the streets. The brutality of the SAC in attacking peaceful protestors in Hlaing Thar Yar, a suburb of Yangon and Bago shifted protests from the streets onto social media. The junta’s opponents have conducted small-group ‘strike-and-run’ protests in urban centres, and daily street strikes in rural areas protected by local guerrilla forces. While evading mass arrests, this adoption of online strikes and campaigns did not hit the regime hard. The SAC trumpets the empty streets without protestors as a sign that it is governing Myanmar.
In this context, the silence that overtook the normally busy Sule Pagoda Road in Yangon along with other streets and markets across Myanmar on 24 March 2021, 10 December 2021 and 1 February 2022, was noteworthy. On these three days, huge numbers of Myanmar people observed ‘silent strikes’.
Before the first silent strike, the SAC’s local administrators tried to intimidate the people by warning them with loudspeakers not to close their shops. Leading businesses such as City Mart, Orange, ABC Stores, and Grab taxi services mainly operating in Yangon declared however that they would shutter their operations for a day. The resulting ‘ghost cities’ embarrassed the SAC, and security forces detained the staff of shuttered businesses overnight. The following night, a crackdown on a strike in Kyauk Pa Daung in central Myanmar killed one and injured three villagers. According to Saw Wunna, a freelance analyst, and Data for Myanmar, some 113 townships participated in this strike.
Overall, the first silent strike was widely observed by people in Myanmar’s Bamar-majority regions and even by some in Kachin State and Chin State. From video footage uploaded onto Facebook taken through their windows at home, it was apparent that people were amused to witness how the SAC forces seemed frightened by the quiet and frustrated by the absence of protestors on the streets. The SAC soldiers then stole and destroyed the people’s property. The strike organisers’ message ‘No Chance to Govern the Country’ was successfully conveyed to the regime.
In the second strike, the SAC intensified its threats to businesses. The second strike was sparked by the people’s hatred towards the SAC after a spate of brutality, including the arrest of guerrilla leader Zayyar Thaw on 19 November 2021, the killings of five peaceful protestors on 5 December 2021, the sentencing of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint to four years’ imprisonment each on 6 December 2021, and the massacre in Done Taw Village in Sagaing on 7 December 2021. The loathing spread swiftly and led to a massive turnout, where 224 townships went on strike, including in Yangon and Mandalay, and towns in the Irrawaddy Delta and Chin State, Kayin State, Mon State and Kachin State. Significantly, prisoners in Yangon’s Insein Prison joined the second strike, and 90 participating prisoners were put in solitary confinement. The SAC could not find anyone on the streets to arrest but locked up some protesting prisoners.
By the third strike, the SAC was prepared with its intimidation tactics and arrested strikers while sponsoring counter-protests and using persuasion. When the General Strike Coordination Body began its preparatory mobilisation on 22 January 2022, SAC Minister of Home Affairs Lt. General Soe Htut convened a coordinating meeting discussing how to counter the strike. In his speech at this meeting, which was leaked to Khit Thit Media, Soe Htut sounded in turns angry, anxious, fearful, and disbelieving. He ordered his team to destroy and seize the strike participants’ property and to detain anyone by using laws prohibiting sedition, and even to cite them as terrorist accomplices and violators of telecommunication laws. The SAC subsequently arrested 193 civilians for sharing Facebook posts on the strike.
By organising these ‘silent strikes’, the determined and unbroken Myanmar people have thwarted the SAC’s brutality.
On the day of the third strike, the SAC organised pro-junta protest cars, bicycle and running races, rice donations, and tried to persuade motorcyclists to drive on the streets during the strike by offering one free litre (worth about US$1) of 92 octane gasoline per rider. The local authorities intensified their pressure on markets and bazaar sellers to go on with their usual business. In fact, these vendors opened their businesses just for show, but deliberately did not showcase their products, as a gesture of defiance.
At least 185 townships participated in the second and third strikes, underscoring the nationwide opposition to the SAC regime. No matter how pre-emptive the SAC tried to be, it could not prevent the people from abandoning the streets. By organising these ‘silent strikes’, the determined and unbroken Myanmar people have thwarted the SAC’s brutality. Crackdowns do not work on a nationwide network of deserted streets and townships, as these three days of peaceful mass silent protests have shown. If the measure of success for the silent strikes is that they make the SAC feel that they cannot govern the country, the industrial actions should be seen as successful.
Aung is a Myanmar civil-society practitioner now living in Buffalo, New York.