The day after Thingyan, the festival of water that marks the Burmese New Year, Win Ko Ko Aung slipped across the Burmese border into Thailand, hidden among a group of migrant laborers. He had no passport — the workers were entering illegally anyway — because he’d left it in Yangon when he fled that city in a hurry in early April. Since then, he’d been moving from town to town, never staying in the same place for more than a few days.
Right before the festival, a source inside the military junta had warned Win Ko Ko that his name had been added to the “505A list,” a register named after the section in the Burmese penal code that criminalizes online dissent. State television would soon broadcast that he was a wanted man and was marked for arrest. Even if he had a passport, he never would have been able to leave the country through an airport or border checkpoint.
“I had only two options in my mind, either stay here, in Myanmar, and try and live place to place, and one day get arrested,” he told Rest of World over a Telegram call from Bangkok, where he is seeking asylum. “Or take the risk, leave the country. … I picked option two, and decided to survive.”
Before the Burmese military seized power on February 1, Ko Ko Aung was an author, digital creator, and social entrepreneur. His Facebook feed, which has more than 485,000 followers, featured a mix of selfies, book endorsements, inspirational quotes, and records of his skincare regime. He was never particularly interested in politics, but like many young Burmese people, the past few months jolted him out of his indifference. “I didn’t accept it personally,” he said of the coup. “It’s an injustice. … I know the difference between justice and injustice.”
The day the military took over, he posted a picture of himself to Facebook giving the three-fingered salute that has become a symbol of the protests. Then, he turned his page over to pictures of mass protests and messages denouncing the junta. Three months later, he was a refugee in a foreign country.
Ko Ko Aung knew it was time to leave after two of his close friends — Win Min Than, a makeup artist and blogger, and Mae Toe Khaing, a model and fashion influencer — were abducted by the regime and charged under 505A. Another friend had been arrested and beaten, his bloodied face shown on national television.
“There are a lot of stories that they will arrest you at night and dump your body tomorrow. That’s very scary,” Ko Ko Aung said. “Everything is upside-down.”
Yangon’s digital community of activists, entrepreneurs, and tech workers has been traumatized by the recent coup and the ensuing violence. Many of its members have been thrust into literal firing lines as soldiers turn guns and grenades on peaceful protests. After sweeping up opposition politicians and dissidents, the junta began actively targeting young, connected people, snatching them from the streets and their homes, and rewriting laws to criminalize their online activities. Every night, state TV broadcasts the names of those on the 505A list, which now includes food bloggers, makeup vloggers, influencers, actors, beauty queens, tech entrepreneurs, activists, and opposition leaders — basically anyone with a profile and an opinion. Many of the country’s most prominent digital media and tech figures are on the run or in jail.
The junta’s direct attacks on free media, activists, and the infrastructure they use to communicate, have gutted a generation that had only begun to assert itself politically, socially, and economically. Over the past decade of civilian-led governance, Myanmar’s young people learned to use the country’s new openness and connectivity to advocate for their rights, build businesses, and push for political reform. In just over three months, the military has torn down everything they built.
“[Our] empowerment was for a fleeting moment,” Nandar, a women’s rights activist and podcaster who fled Yangon and is now in hiding, told Rest of World. “There are so many activists like me. They are jailed, they are detained, they are sexually harassed. Many of them are fleeing the country. … Many people died, and many people are grieving.”
When military rule came to an end in Myanmar in 2011, it was as if all the lights had been turned on in Yangon. For the previous five decades, the army, known as the Tatmadaw, had tried to maintain control by hermetically sealing the country. Telecoms, the media, and the internet were tightly restricted. All news reports had to be approved before publication by a state censor. The Burmese internet was shallow and narrow, but few could get onto it anyway, since connections were rare and prohibitively expensive.
Then, facing pressure from a resurgent pro-democracy movement led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the Tatmadaw partially ceded power to a civilian government. Restrictions on free speech were relaxed, and international companies were allowed to enter the country and set up mobile networks. The proportion of people with internet access grew from 1% in 2011 to 43% in 2021. Educated Burmese, many of whom had fled the country after a student uprising in 1988 was brutally suppressed, returned. Through social media, young people connected to global culture en masse. These forces combined to create a thriving digital ecosystem in which entrepreneurship, activism, pop culture, and media overlapped and fed off one another.
The environment was far from free and open — ethnic minorities were still aggressively persecuted, women’s rights were restricted, and journalists were routinely harassed and arrested for doing their jobs. But there was all of a sudden a sense that change was possible, which was enough to convince Thin Thin Aung to come home.
As a student, she was a member of the so-called 8.8.88 movement, named after activists who took to the streets on August 8, 1988, to protest military rule. When the demonstrations were quashed, she fled across the border to the state of Mizoram in India. Thin Thin Aung studied business, got a degree, and started working as a journalist for the BBC, while continuing to agitate for democracy and women’s rights. In 1998, while still in exile, she and another activist, Soe Myint, launched Mizzima, one of Myanmar’s first digital media outlets.
“She continued her efforts to fight for democracy and human rights, especially gender equality,” Naw Hser Hser, Aung’s friend and general secretary of the Women’s League of Burma, a campaign group, told Rest of World. “Till today, she’s fighting for that.”
After the transition, Thin Thin Aung and Soe Myint returned to Myanmar and set up a Mizzima office in Yangon.
“We were very clear it wasn’t democracy that we were going back to. It was the beginning of the long road to democracy,” Soe Myint told Rest of World. “We were going back because we thought there was a limited space in which we could continue the struggle for democracy and media freedom and human rights.”
Having launched the website in India with only a single donated laptop, they created a media empire. They hired and trained local reporters and IT staff and established their own TV channels — one on the national broadcast network, another on satellite television. They printed newspapers in Burmese and English. They branched out into entertainment, importing Bollywood movies and TV series. They borrowed several million dollars and invested it into equipment and staff. Across all their various platforms, Soe Myint estimated that they had an audience of around 20 million.
“We put our lives and our colleagues’ lives and their families’ lives into Mizzima,” he said. “Into what Mizzima was before the first of February.”
They were not the only ones. At the same time, other independent media outlets, large and small, were taking root across the country. After so long without freedom of expression, journalism and human rights activists were suddenly everywhere, giving voice to people who had been silenced under the junta.
Nandar, the women’s rights activist who fled in the wake of the coup, was among those who used this new connectedness to build digital communities and address issues considered taboo in Myanmar’s patriarchal, often openly misogynistic society. Her Purple Feminists Group campaigned to end the stigma around menstruation, which remains so strong today that protesters hang sanitary products on their makeshift barricades to trigger soldiers’ superstitious fears that menstruating women will diminish their virility. She translated and performed The Vagina Monologues in Yangon. On her podcast, G-Taw Zagar Wyne, she hosted discussions about consent and abortion, which remains illegal in Myanmar.
“Generally, we were able to express all we think, out and loudly, without fear of getting arrested or getting killed or being taken away,” she said of the period before the coup. “I know some journalists faced that during that time as well, but as someone doing women’s rights work, I didn’t really feel threatened.”
Being able to access the internet without restrictions made women in Myanmar more aware of international norms around rights. The country quietly had its own #MeToo movement in 2018 and 2019, backed by social media campaigns and amplified by a documentary that ran on Mizzima TV.
“Being open to the internet, to the outside world, not only because of the work that we were doing … made them realize that their rights matter, that their voices matter, that they need to stand up,” Nandar said. “They [saw] a lot of examples from outside the country due to the access of the internet.”
The morning after the coup, Nandar said she was “frozen” for a week, unable to emotionally process what was happening. Only 25, she hadn’t been born when the army last put down a protest movement. But when she first spoke to Rest of World the weekend after the army took over, she was almost jubilant, talking about a carnivalesque atmosphere on the streets, as hundreds of thousands of protesters went out to march. “This empowerment, even for a time, it came back to me; it felt like we can do something; we can win,” she recalled, during an interview in early May.
That didn’t last. The junta repeatedly cut the internet and blocked social media, limiting activists’ ability to organize. On February 9, Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, a 19-year-old protester, was shot in the head during a march. She died 10 days later, becoming the first martyr for the anti-coup movement. Since then, more than 750 people have been killed, and nearly 5,000 have been arrested.
“Our energy is solely focused on those things they have taken away from us,” Nandar said. “How will we be able to focus on creating and producing other things, when we are so invested in anger?”
Mizzima’s media license was revoked on March 8, along with four other independent outlets. Many international and independent media companies are officially blocked in the country. The junta has confiscated broadcast equipment and closed their offices. Reporters continue to work, a large number from hiding. Some publications have switched entirely to Facebook, which, though officially banned, can be accessed via virtual private networks. Others have gone low-tech, moving onto radio or back to print. At least 40 journalists are in custody, many charged under section 505A, which was broadened after the coup to criminalize almost all criticism of the regime and support for civil disobedience.
Official state television, the only thing still viewable on mainstream channels, has taken to projecting a kind of earnest stupidity: a mix of “everything’s fine here” stories, awkward raps about the state of the economy, picture parades of brutalized captives, and lists of people wanted by the regime.
There are persistent rumors among digital rights activists that the junta is preparing a new firewall and may even start whitelisting websites. If this were to happen, it would give the military near total control over the Burmese internet.
On March 9, Mizzima’s office in Yangon was raided. The authorities had hoped to seize equipment and personnel, but they found the premises mostly empty. In January, the Tatmadaw had conspicuously refused to rule out taking power by force, so Soe Myint and his colleagues had come up with a contingency plan. After February 1, they scattered across Myanmar and into neighboring countries.
Six Mizzima journalists have been arrested, and another eight, as far as Soe Myint knows, are on the 505A list. Soe Myint is in hiding, as are most of Mizzima’s 100 or so remaining employees and volunteers. The company has gone from a multiplatform media business to a guerilla operation. Its TV station is still broadcasting, for now, using a Thai satellite, and its journalists are still publishing online.
“With this stroke of the coup, they destroyed everything. Mizzima could have just collapsed,” Soe Myint said. “We are wanted. They … want us to be silenced. They want us to disappear. But we didn’t. We’re just fighting back.”
Thin Thin Aung didn’t make it to safety. It was only a matter of time before she was added to one of the junta’s lists, either for her activism or for her journalism. “They had targeted people who had leadership roles,” Naw Hser Hser said. “Automatically, she was targeted.”
Thin Thin Aung had taken precautions to stay ahead of the authorities, according to Naw Hser Hser, who said her friend had been moving from one place to the next and avoiding her own home. On April 8, the military caught up with her. Thin Thin Aung was arrested while out buying food in Yangon. She was interrogated for two weeks in Yangon, before being transferred to the notorious Insein Prison, where she will face trial at the end of May.
After the 1988 uprising, the military also arrested activists and journalists, packing the jails with political prisoners. This time, however, the junta hasn’t stopped with obvious political enemies.
“In the beginning, we could see the pattern of arrests — these people are targeted because of their activism or because of their social work,” said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, a UK-based activist. “But later, in February and March, we couldn’t see the pattern anymore, because they were grabbing everyone they saw.”
Wai Hnin’s father, Mya Aye, one of the leaders of the 8.8.88 movement, was arrested on the day of the coup and is currently being held in Insein Prison. Since then, he has been joined by TV stars, influencers, and ordinary citizens caught up in nightly sweeps.
“We keep teasing each other that Oh, you’re not famous until you’ve got a warrant out under 505A,” Wai Hnin said.
Yan Paing Hein’s friend occasionally slips into the past tense as he speaks, quickly correcting himself from “Yan Paing was,” to “Yan Paing is.”
The friend, a leading digital entrepreneur in Yangon who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, first met Hein five years ago at a tech industry event. Hein was 19, fresh out of high school, and desperate to break into tech. “He kept messaging me about how he wanted to be an iOS engineer and build iPhone apps, because that was a cool thing back then,” the entrepreneur said, when he spoke with Rest of World in late April.
The two became close, and the entrepreneur mentored Hein as he used online tutorials and YouTube videos to learn how to code. Like so many others in Myanmar’s tech community, Hein was a bootstrapper by necessity, a striver who thrived in the sudden flowering of the open internet. “These [businesses] didn’t exist,” the entrepreneur said. “Most of the people in the digital industries are self-taught.”
People like Hein — ambitious, creative, driven — blossomed in the newly opened economy. He found work at tech companies in Yangon started by locals or returnees, of which there were suddenly many. Last year, he decided to take a career break to learn new skills. “He was almost having a quarter-life crisis at 24,” his friend said. “We joked about it quite a lot.”
“He’s a very nice guy; he’s very warm. I guess the most striking thing is he’d always have this smile. He would just meet and greet different people, even strangers. The sad thing is, ultimately that’s the reason he ended up in jail.”
On March 10, police entered Hein’s neighborhood in Yangon, wearing civilian clothes and driving unmarked cars. Local residents stopped them. Finding weapons and uniforms in their vehicles, they tied the officers up and took them captive. Curious, Hein went down to watch. Friends saw him speaking to the police, apparently trying to reassure them. At one point, he returned to his flat to get them bottled water.
Then, just before 1 a.m. on March 11, soldiers broke down the door of Hein’s apartment and dragged him away, apparently because of his presence on the street earlier that night. As they did, he told his sister not to worry. It was nearly a week before his friends found out where he was. They sent gifts addressed to him to the prison where they suspected he was being held. For five days, the gifts were returned — he wasn’t there. On the sixth day, they weren’t.
A few weeks later, the entrepreneur said, another friend was picked up on the street: Min Gaung, a musician who had reinvented himself as a creative director of a digital marketing company. He had been arrested with two friends in downtown Yangon. The irony, the entrepreneur said, was that Min Gaung had been working on advertising campaigns for Dagon Beer, a brewery owned by the Tatmadaw.
The authorities seem to be targeting anyone who looks young, or, like Min Gaung, were visibly nonconformist — he was covered in tattoos after years of singing in a rock band. This approach now means that everyone feels threatened. “That’s the reality that we’ve now accepted,” the entrepreneur said. “I think, until about two weeks ago, everyone was trying to figure out how we make sure we don’t get arrested. Now, we’ve just accepted that the chances are 50-50, regardless of what we do.”
Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, the U.K.-based activist, said she thinks that this randomness is part strategy, part panic. In 1988, the junta was confident that it could control the flow of information and kneecap the protest movement by arresting or intimidating its leaders. Now, faced with a fluid, leaderless opposition, they are using arbitrary arrests and violence to try to deter people from speaking out or joining protests. “It’s a threat … if you’re going out against the military, this is what you’ll face, torture and humiliation,” Wai Hnin said.
At the same time, targeting anyone who posts online is a sign that the junta underestimated the organizing power of social media, and the commitment of a younger generation that is still, after months of brutality, turning out to oppose the coup.
“I think, this time around, social media is a big threat for the military,” Wai Hnin said. “I don’t think they know how to manage the spread of information and the people mobilizing and supporting each other, so they’re targeting anyone that they see.”
As they did in 1988, young Burmese are already fleeing the country. Rest of World has spoken to dozens of activists, journalists, and tech workers who have escaped or are currently trying to get out. The difference this time, they said, is that today they have the tools to keep up the resistance from overseas.
Four days after he made it out of Myanmar, Win Ko Ko, the influencer, was named on state TV. By then, he had already set himself up in Thailand. He blocked his mother on social media so she wouldn’t worry, moved her to a safe house, and started broadcasting anti-coup messaging. “These terrorist guys couldn’t arrest me, so they could go to my mum. But I have a moral responsibility to raise my voice,” he said.
The junta’s attempts to block the internet and control social media have not succeeded in cutting the country off from the outside world, but they have crashed the economy. Continuing to restrict communications, on which so much business depends, is unsustainable in the long term.
Members of the Burmese diaspora have been strong supporters of the civil disobedience movement since it began, raising both money and awareness. A new rush of evacuees are joining their ranks, many regrouping in the Thai city of Chiang Mai. A unity government in exile has been established, its members scattered across the world and advocating hard over Zoom calls to take the junta’s place at international forums.
Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Myanmar is getting worse every day. Each time the mobile internet comes back to life after an outage, social media is flooded with images of death and injury: bodies left in the street with signs of torture, corpses burned beyond recognition. Peace deals that limited open conflict between the Tatmadaw and armed ethnic groups in border regions have collapsed, and a 70-year-old civil war is raging again. But the new generation of activists, even those who have gone into hiding or exile, say that they want to keep fighting and will keep looking for glimmers of light.
“There is hope in the midst of the chaos,” Nandar said. “I’d like to think that things we are doing and the sacrifices that we are making for this movement are going to matter. … Even if we cannot eradicate the system, or eradicate this coup, we can still stay as the scratches on the wall.”