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We 'Have the Mind to Win This Battle' - Myanmar Activist Speaks Out About Coup, Crackdown

FILE - Anti-coup demonstrators hold makeshift shields during a protest in Yangon, Myanmar, March 9, 2021.
FILE - Anti-coup demonstrators hold makeshift shields during a protest in Yangon, Myanmar, March 9, 2021.

Since the Myanmar military overthrew the country’s democratically elected government on February 1, thousands of coup protesters have resisted the junta daily, despite the increasing bloodshed.

The Myanmar military has occupied the streets with armored vehicles, while openly repressing demonstrators by firing live ammunition that has left scores dead.

The protesters re a main defiant, though they don’t have one formal leader, and Myanmar’s high-profile activists have played a prominent role in resisting the military’s overhaul of the country.

Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a youth activist and television host, is a well-known name in Myanmar. Her efforts resisting the coup are widely followed, and they include organizing and leading demonstrations on the ground.

But the 29-year-old told VOA in an audio call, her activism has been a long time coming.

“I’ve been hearing all these news things a long time ago, so I became an activist. The first thing I’ve been hearing was from the civil war. Now I feel like the coup took all of our hopes, put us all in the darkest place, it is totally mentally disheartening, depressing. I felt I couldn’t find a way out of it anymore,” she said.

Thinzar Shunlei Yi says her activism stems from when she was attending university in Yangon. At just 18 years old, she was giving a presentation about voter education before one of her teachers hushed her off stage, insisting she couldn’t talk about politics or parliamentary issues. She remembered feeling “embarrassed,” though it only served to motivate her even more.

“I felt angry to do more,” she said.

Her many advocacy roles have included being a member of various youth forums and of the U.S. Ambassadors Youth Council, which highlights human rights and discrimination issues in Myanmar.

But despite her growing international profile, Thinzar Shunlei Yi admits being a female activist has its challenges, and she still feels the discrimination.

“If I’m the organizer that’s OK, because people know who I am. But if I just try to get into a random protest, they will just treat me like a woman—like the woman they believe I should be. I think they are over-protecting, but I think this is a traditional kind of thing,” she said.

Notably, two young women in Myanmar have been killed during the coup that began about six weeks ago, sparking an international outcry.

In February, Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, 20, was the first protester who was shot and killed during a demonstration in Myanmar’s capital city, Naypyitaw. In early March, Ma Kyel Sin, 19, reportedly was seen running away from the military forces, only to be fatally shot.

Thinzar Shunlei Yi said women might have been targeted by the military in efforts to “scare” other women from taking part in protests.

The military’s tactics have included soldiers raiding households at night, despite night curfews because of precautions against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nights are even harder. Every night I’m sleeping in my hideout place, I know I can get arrested. They are shooting around my house, looking for something always, it can be me, it can be someone else. It is mentally painful these days. I cannot eat or sleep well,” she admitted.

The political conflict in Myanmar has spanned more than seven decades. In 1948, Burma as it was formerly known, gained independence from Britain. There has been a series of insurgencies since then, largely ethnic-based hostilities.

In 2015, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, her National League of Democracy (NLD) party won the country’s first open democratic election.

But in last November’s general elections, the military contested election results, claiming widespread electoral fraud, without evidence. On February 1, the Myanmar military, also known as Tatmadaw, removed the NLD government. Leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were detained and have since been charged.

Thinzar Shunlei Yi was once dubbed “the new Aung San Suu Kyi” and has admitted the NLD leader has been a huge influence.

“I become who I am because of Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s so rare for us to see a woman recognized internationally, and an educated woman, a brave woman. I respect her a lot,” she told VOA.

But with the NLD leader still detained, protests are continuing daily, with news of arrests and deaths now a recurring theme. According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners Burma (AAPPB), there have been 2,092 people arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup, with more than 70 fatalities.

And with Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day approaching on March 27, featuring an annual military parade, there are concerns the day could be significant.

“The Tatmadaw is aggressive, we will never underestimate them. I think in terms of their behavior, they already ruined their reputation. They are already in their worst forms, they have already shown their true colors,” says Thinzar Shunlei Yi.

But she admitted the coup has “pushed us to be more united.”

“We have a long-time mission and vision,” she said. “I see a peaceful country, where everyone despite their ethnicity, religions or sexual orientation, can have an equal chance if they want to. It can be accomplished when we agree with a federal democratic nation.

Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution provides the military with a quarter of the seats within the country’s parliament, seen as preventing the nations democratic progression.

“Our future must be defined by the civilians, not by the soldiers. In Myanmar, we have no choice, and we already have the mind to win this battle.”