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How the people of Myanmar are using a festival of lights to call for democracy

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Nearly nine months after a military junta overthrew the Myanmar government, pro-democracy activists marked Thadingyut, the festival of lights, by illuminating the night with displays celebrating their cause. These displays were a way for them to continue to resist the military government, after months of violent clashes that have resulted in thousands of arrests and hundreds of deaths. 

Burn the dictators with revolutionary flames,” reads a message carefully spelled out in candles by pro-democracy activists in Myanmar to mark Thadingyut, the festival of lights and second-most important holiday in Myanmar, after the Lunar New Year. The festival celebrates the Buddha’s return to earth after visiting the heavens. 

Each year, people all across the country illuminate the night by placing thousands of tiny candles next to their homes or alongside roads, often using the lights to make designs or spell out words. 

This year, however, the festival took on a certain hue. A military junta has controlled the country since last February, when it staged a coup to overthrow the recently re-elected government of former leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In the months since, the military government has been cracking down on popular, pro-democracy resistance to their rule. More than 1,000 people are thought to have been killed, according to a tally activists made in August 2021.

The pro-democracy activists are trying every means possible to resist the new government. They hold nearly daily protests and frequently organise acts of civil disobedience. Many of these protests are both visual and creative. They’ve also been using social media to spread the word, often using the hashtags  “#WhatIsHappeningInMyanmar” and “#[date]Coup” on Twitter.

>> Read on the Observers: Protesters in Myanmar ‘troll’ police with creative forms of civil disobedience

To mark Thadingyut, which took place on October 20, many protesters held demonstrations with candles or lanterns. Images of these protests were posted on social media accounts dedicated to the movement.

Villagers in Dawei, a region located in the south of Myanmar, used candles to spell out “NUG” and “PDF” to show their support for the National Unity Government (NUG), which ran the country before last year’s coup. The PDF refers to the People’s Defence Force, the armed branch of the NUG, which the military junta considers a terrorist organisation.

Candles, traditionally used to outline huge designs on the ground, were arranged to form anti-junta messages or pro-democracy symbols. 

In Natmauk, on October 21, protesters used candles to draw hands holding three fingers up, a sign of revolt in the Hunger Games saga that has been picked up by the pro-democracy movement in Southeast Asia. Another design showed Suu Kyi’s face.

Pro-democracy protesters in the town of Launglon pose with lanterns alongside the flag of the National League for Democracy, the majority party overthrown in the coup.

A number of people pose amongst candles spelling out the words “NUG” and “spring revolution” – in reference to the protests held in the spring of 2021 across the country – in this photo taken on October 22 in Paungbyin, located in the north of the country. They also made the hand gesture with the three fingers.

Other people expressed their support for the movement in posts on social media, often showing themselves holding a candle in one hand and three fingers up in the other, along with the hashtag #CandleStrike.

These photos were posted along with the hashtag #CandleStrike on Instagram.
These photos were posted along with the hashtag #CandleStrike on Instagram. © Observers

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The Groucho

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