A Gen Z Resistance, Cut Off From Data Plans

In the night, the mountain air not quite chill enough to still the insects, young people gathered around a glow. The light attracting them was not a phone screen, that electric lure for people almost everywhere, but a bonfire.

From around the blaze, music radiated. Fingers strummed a guitar. Voices layered lyrics about love, democracy and, most of all, revolution. Moths courted the flame, sparking when they veered too close, then swooning to their deaths.

For months now, these hills of Karenni State in eastern Myanmar have been severed from modern communications. The military junta that seized power in a coup three years ago, plunging the country into civil war, has cut off the populations most opposed to its brutal rule. In these resistance strongholds, where people from around the nation have congregated, there is almost no internet, cell service or even electricity.

The return to a pre-modern age carries awful consequences for people’s lives. When a baby’s fever spikes, there is no way to call a doctor. Rebel fighters, who have overrun dozens of Myanmar military bases in recent offensives, cannot contact battle commanders from frontline outposts. Students cannot attend online classes, which in some places in Myanmar are the only educational option.

News — who survived an airstrike, whose village was burned, whose daughter has fled the country for work abroad — travels at a pedestrian’s pace or, if expensive fuel can be found, by motorcycles bumping along jungle paths.

Yet the communications blackout has brought one unexpected benefit. Without the distraction of hand-held devices, people talk to each other, in person, with eye contact. They joke. They sing. They dance. They play the guitar.

Only a war, it seems, can break the engrossing command of a tiny screen.

In what people in Karenni call the B.C. years — that’s Before Coup — nearly everyone was on Facebook. Then, in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 1, 2021, the junta pulled the plug on telecommunications. That was the first sign of trouble. By the morning, most of the nation’s elected leadership had been arrested. They remain imprisoned today.

Since the coup, internet and cell services have been restored in most other parts of the country, but Facebook and other social media are banned. In regions where militias have repelled the junta’s forces — like parts of Karenni State (also known as Kayah State) in the east, Rakhine State in the west, and the Sagaing Region and Chin State in the northwest — entire townships are still in the dark.

Without online games to play or videos to stream on phones, the shadowed space at night is filled most often by homegrown music.

On the front lines, when the thud of artillery recedes for the day, or the hour, resistance soldiers trade AK rifles for guitars. A rebel army commander slaps a beat on a cajón, the Afro-Peruvian instrument. At a hospital, emergency supplies are lined up against a wall made of leaves: bandages, rubber gloves, rubbing alcohol — and a ukulele.

After serving rebel soldiers a meal of spicy noodles with foraged herbs, Emily Oo picked up a guitar resting on the dirt floor of a security outpost captured last year by opposition forces. A few years ago, she was a middle school student in Loikaw, the state capital of Karenni, studying English and TikTok dance moves.

Last year, she and her family fled home as fighting between resistance soldiers and the junta’s forces engulfed her neighborhood. Most people in Karenni are now displaced, living with a few bundles of their most valuable possessions, including, surprisingly often, a guitar.

“History is written with our blood,” she sang. “The heroes who lost their lives in the battle for democracy.”

The lyrics, part of a well-known revolutionary anthem, were written by candlelight in 1988 when Myanmar was consumed by another national uprising against an earlier military dictatorship. After that protest movement was violently crushed, Myanmar seemed to slip further back in time, while most of Asia urbanized and prospered.

A dozen years ago, the junta then ruling Myanmar priced SIM cards at roughly four times the country’s average annual income, preventing all but the richest from connecting with the world.

So most people’s source of news — or an amalgamation of fact, rumor and rhetorical flourish — was the local tea shop, as it had been for decades. People sat on plastic stools around plastic tables, leaning in close to avoid military intelligence spies who might be listening in. The tea, either milky sweet or bracingly bitter, grew cold. The gossip was hot.

As political reforms brought in a quasi-civilian administration in 2016, internet access became cheaper. Facebook accounts proliferated. So did online disinformation. Falsehoods about sexual violence fanned the flames of genocide against a Muslim minority.

Today, in Karenni, Myanmar’s smallest state and one of the least developed even before the online blackout, innuendo again stands in for truth. Conspiracy theories multiply. But amid the uncertainty and paranoia, music acts as a salve.

“Every day I heard the sounds of bombs, airplanes and gunshots,” said Maw Hpray Myar, 23, who fled a junta-controlled city and started a music school in the forests of Karenni. “When we hear the sounds of music, our fears go away a little bit.”

When there is the uncommon chance to access the internet, the appeal of getting online can pose its own dangers.

In January, members of the resistance assembled at a secret command post in Loikaw. They were not there for battle strategy but for access to Wi-Fi, courtesy of Starlink, a satellite internet service used in conflict zones worldwide.

The resistance forces binged on Facebook. They hearted photos of newborn babies and images of other rebel recruits posing, young and resolute, in their camouflage uniforms. Some were so absorbed by their online forays that they didn’t notice the whirring nearby, one soldier who was there recalled.

He and others escaped the armed drone dispatched by the junta’s forces. But three people too tethered to the internet did not and were injured in the attack, one seriously.

On the night of the third anniversary of the coup, opposition soldiers gathered in the rebel-controlled town of Demoso to celebrate the marriage of Augustine and Josephine, whose names were proclaimed on a sign at the venue. Augustine was heading to the front soon, and many of the other militia members were enjoying a couple days’ respite from battle. Generators lit up the tent, and soldiers occasionally glanced at the sky to ensure no fighter jet was targeting the bright festivities.

As the partygoers knocked back shots of whiskey before crowding the dance floor, Ko Yan Naing Htoo sat on a plastic stool, smoking. In the B.C. years, he had been an accountant. Then he joined a rebel army. A land mine claimed his leg.

“I feel very sorry that I cannot fight alongside my comrades anymore,” he said.

A commander boogied over to Mr. Yan Naing Htoo and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. They nodded to the music, the lyrics about missing home for a people displaced from theirs. Then a wave of song carried the commander back to the dance floor.

Marooned on his plastic stool, Mr. Yan Naing Htoo sucked on his cigarette. His hand went to his pocket and pulled out a phone, a vestigial motion from another era. He swiped the device. It was dead. He put it away and watched as men swayed and sang, so near but just out of reach.

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