There is something uncannily familiar about the courageous protests against the army’s coup in Myanmar. They echo the country’s previous expressions of anti-military defiance. But they also evoke other scenes that played out more than 1,000 miles away. The helmets worn by those on the frontline, the walls bedecked with scrawled slogans on colourful sticky notes, and the flashmob-style demonstrations are all straight from the playbook of activists in Hong Kong in 2019 – literally. A manual of tactics, translated into Burmese, was shared thousands of times on social media.
In Thailand too – where pro-democracy protesters have demanded reforms to the monarchy and the removal of the prime minister, who originally took power in a coup – Hong Kong’s influence was evident, with the use of hand signals on the streets and votes on whether to take particular actions. It is not just an Asian phenomenon. Demonstrators in Belarus also held up umbrellas as security forces fired teargas. In Lebanon, they too used tennis rackets to hit back teargas canisters. The crackdown has silenced the streets of Hong Kong, with last year’s imposition of a draconian national security law followed by sweeping arrests. Yet the movement that swept through the city almost two years ago has found a strange afterlife, with activists around the world drawing not only upon specific tactics but above all upon its “be water” ethos of fluid, fast-shifting methods of protest and informal organisation.
The Hong Kong protesters themselves looked closely at Taiwan’s youthful “sunflower movement” of 2014 and Ukraine’s Maidan protests, seeing parallels in the David and Goliath story. There is nothing remotely new about uprisings drawing inspiration from each other, even across vast distances – as when the American revolution fuelled France’s. The difference is the sheer speed with which ideas can now spread. Long boat or train journeys to meet the like-minded have been replaced by exchange online. This month, a tweet by the pop singer Rihanna drew instant global attention to the cause of India’s protesting farmers.
The Arab spring began in Tunisia, but it reverberated much further away; people in Myanmar took immediate note when military rule was toppled in Egypt. This time, activists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand quickly invited those in Myanmar to join their “Milk Tea Alliance”. They have also spread footage and shared the message globally, as they did with protests in Belarus.
Yet if protesters have secure messaging apps like Telegram, the authorities they confront have well-developed surveillance networks as well as large security forces, and vast coffers to fund the purchase of tools and technologies. What they lack in agility, they more than make up for in the sheer amount of power and resources on their side. And they too learn from and support each other – studying what tactics have worked against uprisings elsewhere, offering diplomatic cover at the United Nations, and trading coercive software and weapons. (Too often, they also benefit from democratic countries selling them the tools to suppress grassroots movements.)
The glaring difference between this wave of protest and that seen a decade ago is that, for the most part, activists are not seeking greater freedom but trying to defend what space they have against increasing encroachment as the authoritarian tide has risen around the world. Ten years on, almost all the Arab spring’s uprisings have ended in war or even more punitive and ruthless rule. Unscrupulous governments have exploited the pandemic to tighten controls further.
Where once campaigners sought a new realm of liberty after decades of autocracy, many of them would now be elated if they could restore what they had relatively recently. They protest less in hope than from a sense that they have little other option. When they hand on their ideas and techniques, they are not only recognising a common cause, but giving meaning and life to their own struggles even as they are crushed. In keeping the flame of resistance alive, they hope that somewhere, sometime, it will light the way to new political possibilities worldwide.