In a safehouse in Yangon last Thursday morning, a small group of 20-somethings gathered to assemble a portable radio transmitter. For several hours, they broadcast translations of international news into Burmese—tributes to protesters killed by the armed forces, revolutionary songs and poems, and interviews with the leaders of Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement that has sprung up to oppose the military junta that seized power in February.
Then, they dismantled the equipment, each person taking a different piece by a different route to another safe location where they store it. Security is tight. They never broadcast from the same place twice, and the group use aliases, even among themselves. This is Federal FM Radio, live on 90.2 MHz.
Its name betrays its politics. Support for a federal Myanmar, one which rejects the state’s majoritarian Bamar identity and strives for true ethnic unity, has surged in the months since the coup. It is a message that does not sit well with the military government, which has responded with violent repression and internet blackouts. But young dissidents like these refuse to be silenced and have turned to old technologies to spread the word.
“This radio was born out of Myanmar’s Spring Revolution,” said one of its founders, who goes by “Mulan.” “This is revolution radio.”
The junta has imposed nightly internet blackouts to disrupt the protest movement, preventing people from organizing and communicating with the outside world. Social media platforms have been blocked, although many people continued to access them through virtual private networks.
However, on April 2, the mobile internet in Myanmar was completely switched off. Fixed-line connections are rare, and the move left millions of people unable to access news or to communicate with one another. In the vacuum, State media has broadcast propaganda that underplays the scale of the crisis, portrays protesters as “terrorists” and foreign agents, and blames the civil disobedience movement for recent violence on the streets.
“Our people need to get information, real information, because the military spread out fake news on their own media,” Mulan said. She and her colleagues were able to source radio equipment from a friend of the movement — they won’t say precisely who, for obvious reasons. The team is entirely made up of young, digital natives, and most of them were working for civil society organizations before the coup. None of them knew how to operate the gear, but they found technicians willing to train them. “So now, we are learning, like, a radio crash course,” Mulan said.
During Myanmar’s last period of military rule, between 1962 and 2011, radio played a role in distributing anti-government messages. Activists set up transmitters in Thailand, which they used to get around the junta’s tight controls on the media.
The army’s disruptions to social media and the internet has led activists to look again at radio as well as handbills, printed bulletins, and mass SMS alerts. Federal FM Radio’s broadcasts are a mixture of practical information for people caught up in the violence, inspiration and encouragement for protesters. It’s also a source for news reports and didactic programming about the need for greater representation in Burmese politics.
Many of the protesters believe that the numerous ethnic armed organizations that have been fighting insurgencies on Myanmar’s periphery for years are the country’s best hope for dislodging the military junta. “People want a federal army. They don’t want to live under the dictatorship. They want to abolish the military regime,” Mulan said.
The Tatmadaw, as the military is known, has already begun offensives against ethnic armed organizations, and analysts fear the country could be moving toward a full-blown civil war — although several federalists who spoke to Rest of World contend that the country has been at war for years. If that happens, it is likely that the military will tighten its controls on telecoms and possibly shut down the internet entirely, as it did for more than 18 months in parts of the Chin and Rakhine states during an escalation of conflict there.
Federal FM Radio is planning for that scenario. Its low-tech approach has the great advantage that it is hard to block without physically locating the equipment. They are currently raising money from donors to try to acquire more transmitters so that they can set up alternative sites around the country, increasing the range of their broadcasts and making the organization harder to dismantle.
“We want to broadcast to all states and all regions, nationwide. … We want to broadcast, because we want to win, and we want to end the dictatorship,” Mulan said. “We are trying not to be arrested.”