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Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Mandalay on Feb. 22, 2021.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators filled streets across Myanmar on Monday in a mass general strike on a scale not seen since an uprising in 1988 that was crushed by a bloody military crackdown.

Myanmar’s generals, who seized power in a coup Feb. 1, have so far shown restraint. The military has threatened force, and deployed its 33rd Light Infantry Division, notorious for brutality against Rohingya and other ethnic groups, to urban protest sites. At least three people have been killed at protests. Dozens have been beaten and hundreds arrested. Police are also accused of shooting a 30-year-old man in the back of the head over an alleged curfew violation, killing him.

On Monday, demonstrators wrote their own blood types on their hands in anticipation of violence. But by evening, no deaths had been reported.

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The armed forces amassed around the country “are just not using a bloody crackdown” – yet – said Soe Myint, a former activist who has for decades led Mizzima, an independent news organization.

Instead, “they are trying to see how they could use different ways and means to stop the violence and to stop the protest,” he said, speaking from a hideout – Mizzima is now broadcasting from a temporary location after its signal was pulled from government-owned distribution channels. The regime has arrested political leaders and influential cultural figures, including director and actor Lu Min. It is “an information war,” Mr. Soe Myint said, predicting that parliamentarians elected in last year’s election – its results now abrogated by the military, which claimed election fraud – may be arrested next.

Of course, he added, a deadly move to quell the protest “cannot be ruled out. Then what will happen in the next stage? Because the military is as ruthless as it was.”

The protests have created an intense pressure on those now ruling the country. The normal function of cities and towns alike has been suffocated by repeated rounds of demonstrations, with young people demanding the preservation of democratic liberties the country has enjoyed for only a few years.

Myanmar’s military leaders “now face a choice between cracking down hard on these demonstrations, which will imply significant loss of life, or allowing them to continue to build momentum,” said Richard Horsey, Myanmar adviser to International Crisis Group.

The latter has its own risks. A civil disobedience movement that has emerged in parallel with the protests is “really paralyzing not only government, but the economy as well,” he said.

But for the military to beat back a generation of protesters connected through social media and capable of responding to troop movements at lightning speed is no certainty. What has emerged on the streets of Myanmar “is not an outpouring of anger against a backdrop of ongoing authoritarian rule,” Mr. Horsey said. “This is a country that has tasted a decade of relative liberalization, and it’s very hard to put that genie back in the bottle,” Mr. Horsey said.

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Among those demonstrating is Minn Thant, 30. Before the coup, he had never joined a demonstration. On Monday, he marched on the streets with his wife, not knowing what might happen.

“While we’re afraid of incarceration and torture and death, we have the numbers. They can’t put us all into jail,” he said. He feels the stakes keenly. “It’s either we win, or spend another one or two decades under military dictatorship.”

Hanging in the balance is not just the political optimism that surrounded the country when the military allowed a general election in 2015 that resulted in the elevation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the long-imprisoned democracy icon now back in custody.

The emergence from military dictatorship has “been a huge catalyst for modernization,” said Hal Bosher, who spent years running a bank in the country and is now chairman of a Myanmar mobile payments company.

The Myanmar military has promised stability, with junta chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing saying earlier this month there would be no change to political and economic policy under military rule. It’s not clear, however, how much of that agenda the generals can deliver if they continue to remain in charge.

In the meantime, the protests continue, seeking to force the hands of the generals. “The new generation, they are very disciplined. They are only shouting slogans and very peacefully demonstrating their wishes,” said Ko Ko Gyi, one of Myanmar’s best-known democracy activists, who spent 17 years in prison after participating in the 1988 uprising and other protests in subsequent years.

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He called for the military to begin negotiating with those elected last year and for demonstrations to continue until that happens.

“The street protests and civil disobedience are the means, not the ends,” he said. “These are the pressure mechanisms.” For people seeking to restore democratic rule, “we are trying to find a proper solution to achieve our goal,” he said.

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