“Enabling Activist Resilience against Repression: Emergence and Effects of Bystander Protection during Protest Crackdowns in Myanmar”
What accounts for the survival and long-term commitment of activists to contentious movements under repression? I argue for the role of an important yet oft-neglected player: civilian bystanders and observers of activism. I propose that, mainly motivated by victim-oriented sympathy, bystanders engage in high-risk protection that helps activists to escape crackdowns and bolsters their attachment to the movement. To test my theoretical claims, I examine hard cases for activist survival at the height of state violence during military rule in Myanmar between 1988-2010, with an original qualitative dataset consisting of semi-structured interviews and written accounts by more than 100 protest observers and former pro-democracy activists. The novelty of this dataset is the unprecedented number of voices from the average, non-contentious general public, which are mostly missing in existing research on social movements. This approach generates a fresh perspective to better understand opportunities and constraints around movement entrepreneurs in hostile environments.
“Provoking Civilian Distrust and Disruption Toward Popular Protests: The Role of Counter-Mobilization Strategies by Myanmar Military”
Organizers of contentious protest movements face a wide range of counter-mobilization tactics by the state. Most of the existing studies have focused on analyzing the more straightforward tools of repression by the security forces and violence contractors, however much less is understood about its more deceptive strategies to provoke anti-protester hostility among the public – despite the common occurrence of this phenomenon. In this paper, I aim to shed light on the effects of three counter-mobilization strategies (framing protesters as violent, framing protesters as agents of foreign interests, and enabling widespread violent crimes) by juxtaposing two most-similar cases of popular pro-democracy protests under military-ruled Myanmar: the Four-eight Uprising in 1988 and Saffron Revolution in 2007. By analyzing state media as well as original interviews and written accounts by more than 100 civilians who witnessed or participated in the protest events, I find that autocrats’ orchestration of a spike in violent crimes at the height of mass protests is likely to fuel distrust and suspicion among society and turn people against unfamiliar protesters, leading to disruption of protest events. As this strategy engenders atomization of activist groups, it hinders the growth and formation of a broad-based contentious front under authoritarianism.
“Organic Online Politics: Farmers, Facebook and Myanmar’s Military Coup” (with Dr. Hilary Faxon, Kendra Kintzi, Casper, and Swan Ye Htut)
Despite perennial hope in the democratic possibilities of the internet, the rise of digital authoritarianism threatens online and offline freedom across much of the world. This article advances the concept of “organic online politics,” a term that underscores how digital interaction is rooted in the evolving material conditions of particular, grounded sites. To understand how social media reflects and shapes social mobilization in the agrarian communities that comprise much of the Global South, we examine social media interaction in the wake of the 2021 military coup in Myanmar, an agrarian nation with recent, rapid digital connection that corresponded with a decade-long democratic turn. Employing mixed methods analysis of an original archive of over 2,000 Facebook posts collected from popular farming pages and groups, we find, first, a massive drop-off in online activity after the military coup, a trend that corresponds to authoritarian efforts to strangle the internet. Second, we analyze the shifting temporalities of digital mobilization, tracing the rise, fall, and changing themes of political content. Third, we highlight the embeddedness of online interaction within the material concerns of specific communities, examining how social media become a key forum for negotiating political crisis through existing repertoires of resistance in Myanmar’s countryside. Together, these findings call attention to less visible digital subcultures as fertile sites of investigation and point towards the need for future research on online politics that integrates the global political economies of the internet, the national trajectories of revolutionary projects, and the material concerns of rooted agrarian struggles.
“Democratic backsliding disrupted: The role of digitalized resistance in Myanmar” (with Megan Ryan)
More than one year since its coup, the Myanmar military has neither established effective control of the territory nor crushed online dissent. What factors have enabled the resistance forces to deny the consolidation of military rule and disrupt democratic backsliding online and offline? We address this question by building a novel theoretical framework that incorporates the role of long-standing digitalized prodemocracy activism and by employing a mixed-method analysis that includes an original, largely representative sample of public Facebook posts in post-coup Myanmar. We find that the development of online and hybrid pro-democracy activism against digital abuse and other illiberal policies under previous quasi-civilian governments plays a crucial role in enabling anti-coup resistance forces to thwart the military’s more significant attempt of authoritarian revival later on. Our research findings deepen understanding of Myanmar’s post-coup contestation dynamics as well as other cases of unpopular autocratization in the current-day digital era.
Non-Peer Reviewed Publications
"Digital Contention in Post-Coup Myanmar." New Mandala. 2022. (with Megan Ryan)
“Myanmar’s Military Has a History of Using Deceptive Tactics against Protesters. Now It Has Social Media, Too.” The Washington Post. 2021.
“To Understand Post-Coup Myanmar, Look to Its History of Popular Resistance, Not Sanctions.” The Brookings Institution. 2021.
“Understanding Malaysia’s Pivotal General Election.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 2013. (with Vikram Nehru)
“Building Peace in Southeast Asia’s Conflict Areas.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 2012. (with Vikram Nehru)
“More Hills to Climb for Aung San Suu Kyi.” East Asia Forum. 2012. (with Vikram Nehru)