For the second year in a row, the Myanmar public rejected the annual Thingyan water festival activities organised by the junta as battles between the military and resistance forces raged throughout the New Year period.
From Wednesday until Sunday—New Year’s Day, according to the Myanmar calendar—people across the country would have normally reunited with family members, visited monasteries, and splashed water on one another in the streets in celebration of Thingyan.
The public first refused to commemorate the festival last year—one of many acts of defiance that followed the military coup staged on February 1, 2021, in which the army ousted the elected government headed by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
This year, the streets again remained dry and “eerily deserted,” as one Yangon taxi driver said.
In an effort to normalise its administration—widely seen as illegitimate—the junta ordered the construction of Thingyan pavilions in townships across the country at which people could celebrate with water play and take in concerts. The largest events were expected to be held in Yangon, Mandalay, and the military capital of Naypyitaw.
Yet few musical performers, largely those seen as sympathetic to the military, were seen on these junta-sponsored stages attended by sparse crowds guarded by armed troops.
Locals told Myanmar Now that roads and streets had been blocked off by the military around Yangon’s biggest Thingyan pavilion, located in front of City Hall, and that pedestrians were required to obtain permission from soldiers to enter. Others reported being questioned or subjected to searches as they passed through the area.
Previously popular festival locations such as Yangon’s downtown, Inya Road and Kandawgyi Park were also largely empty, they said.
“Only the military’s people have gathered around the City Hall. There are no vehicles filled with ordinary people going out to be splashed with water,” Yangon resident Tun Tun told Myanmar Now.
“This Thingyan is totally lifeless,” he added.
As a challenge to the junta, opponents of the coup regime urged people to boycott not only the events at the military-sponsored pavilions but also to refrain from celebrating locally in their own neighbourhoods.
“We can barely hear Thingyan music this year,” a 50-year-old woman from Yangon’s North Okkalapa Township said.
A young man from Dawbon Township noted that Yangon had become more heavily militarised during the New Year period, with soldiers deployed on streets across the city, adding to people’s reluctance to appear in public.
“Nobody dares to go out as they could arrest or even kill us for no reason at all,” he said. “The worst thing is, if we get killed, we would be regarded as junta supporters for taking part in the festival, so nobody wants to celebrate this year.”
A spokesperson for the strike committee of the Yangon Revolution Force—a resistance group—explained to Myanmar Now that residents of the city were engaging in a “silent strike,” or non-participation in public activities, as a show of solidarity in rejection of military rule.
The committee has continued to organise daily protests in spite of brutal crackdowns carried out by junta forces over the last year.
“We rallied the people to not take part in the Thingyan celebrations in order to not fall for the military’s propaganda efforts. It is now evident that our efforts were not in vain,” the strike committee representative said, speculating that military commander-in-chief and coup leader Min Aung Hlaing would be “humiliated” by the public boycott.
“The people are laughing at his insanity. He was humiliated multiple times by the previous silent strikes and this is going to be another blow to him,” he said.
Even in the military capital of Naypyitaw, non-compliance with the junta’s New Year plans was visible. In videos filmed on Wednesday and Thursday and seen by Myanmar Now, armed soldiers and police guarding the junta-appointed mayor’s own pavilion outnumbered the revellers engaging in festivities there.
“It seemed like they built those pavilions themselves and their soldiers were guarding them,” a taxi driver in Naypyitaw told Myanmar Now anonymously.
A resident of Dekkhinathiri Township described festival sites as “nearly empty,” with the sparse attendance visible even in photos and video footage released by military-controlled media.
“People are having food and beverages at home quietly or gathering at their friends’ places. We are seeing very few people outside,” the local said.
A Mandalay-based poet, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told Myanmar Now that amid ongoing violence perpetrated by the military, the people of the region—which has seen high numbers of arrests, extrajudicial killings, and incidents of torture—had no reason to celebrate.
“People are getting arrested and killed every day. Homes are torched and destroyed. The public no longer has freedom, a sense of security, or peace of mind. These are the consequences of the military coup,” he said.
A doctor from Mandalay participating in the ongoing general strike in accordance with the Civil Disobedience Movement told Myanmar Now that he remains traumatised by the brutality he witnessed during the armed forces’ crackdowns on peaceful protests last year.
“Who would have imagined that a doctor like me who lives in the city had to treat bullet wounds? Whenever I think about those experiences, I feel like I am holding crushed skulls and bones,” he said.
While boycotts and private commemorations were the norm in cities such as Mandalay this week, fierce clashes with the military continued to be reported in rural areas and territory controlled by ethnic resistance forces.
A four-hour battle broke out on Thursday night near Lay Kay Kaw in Karen State between junta troops and a resistance coalition made up of the Karen National Liberation Army—the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU)—fighting alongside a local defence force called the Cobra Column. The alliance claimed to have seized supplies and ammunition from the Myanmar army following the clash.
It was the second incident of fighting between the forces in the area in recent days. On April 10, some 40 junta soldiers were reportedly killed when a 300-troop military column clashed with the same coalition.
Two 18-year-old resistance fighters were killed during the battle and four others injured, a spokesperson for the Cobra Column told Myanmar Now, adding that a junta captain was also captured alive, along with multiple weapons.
Now all I can think about is revolting against the dictatorship. Those fun things can wait – a young man currently seeking refuge from the military in KNU-administered territory
Anti-junta People’s Defence Forces in Yangon and Bago regions also reportedly killed at least 10 junta troops on Wednesday during an attack on a military checkpoint 40 miles east of Yangon in Kayan Township’s Zwe Ton village.
Another reason opposition forces called on the Myanmar public to boycott Thingyan festivities was to act in solidarity with members of resistance forces and persecuted communities unable to celebrate or reunite with their own families for the New Year period.
Soe Thu, a young man currently seeking refuge from the military in KNU-administered territory, said that the water festival he once enjoyed as a youth had transformed into a reminder of his commitment to fighting the coup regime.
“I want to go back home when the New Year comes. I want to pay respect to my parents and have fun with my friends. But now, I have left everything behind and live in the jungle,” he said.
“Now all I can think about is revolting against the dictatorship. Those fun things can wait.”