(Click here for a Burmese translation. Translator: Nu Nu Lusan.)
The opening scenes of Burma Spring 21 are deafening. They show citizens and residents of Burma protesting the February 2021 coup d’état by banging pots and pans from their windows and on the streets. Since the 1830s, when opponents of Louis Philippe I of France banged pots against his regime, it has become a key form of political protest across the world. In Burma, as commentators have pointed out, it is also a “traditional ritual way” to ward off evil spirits. “Let’s bang pans and pots tomorrow to drive away the evil dictatorship,” urged the anti-coup Civil Disobedience Movement on July 3, 2021, the birthday of the Junta’s chief General Min Aung Hlaing. In the Burmese news website The Irrawaddy’s analysis, banging pots and pans in Burma has had, in this regard, “a mystical as well as a political purpose.” But there is a purpose thereof that has been largely neglected by scholars, pundits, and political commentators. The “new sound” of the Burmese protests has served to alert one’s fellow neighbors of the arrival of policemen and soldiers often in the dead of the night.
Since February 13, 2021, activists and human rights organizations have denounced the ways in which the military has “kidnapped” and “night-dragged” those who have participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement. As a Burmese activist wrote on Twitter, the “Burmese police are starting to kidnap community leaders, fire civil servants who are in the Civil Disobedience Movement. Neighbors bang their pots and pans to scare them away. We’re told to be alert. We feel very, very unsafe.” Or as Nant, the young protagonist of the documentary feature Padauk: Myanmar Spring, says, “When they roam the streets at night searching homes and shooting into windows, we call them dogs and bang on pots in protest.”
The military, in turn, has sought to impede citizens from doing so. As one activist commented on Twitter, “they shot with GUNS and used SLINGSHOTS only because people are banging pots to alert that the police was there.” As more and more people were reported to have disappeared, another Twitter user pleaded for international solidarity by insisting that “citizens are trembling & stay alert & can’t sleep at all.”
Posters that have been used in marches and demonstrations show how this state of alertness has characterized the politics of civil disobedience in Burma following the coup d’état. In them, the night is usually represented as the moment in which vigilance against the military must be reinforced. One of these posters denounces, in this sense, the ways in which the “Myanmar military is kidnapping people at night.” It shows three gigantic, faceless soldiers hidden in the shadows, behind the illuminated streets and houses where Burmese citizens live and rest.
In another poster, we see a frightened family: a young boy cries while his mother consoles him, and his father, with a pot and a wooden spoon in his hands, seems ready to bang the former with the latter. The poster reads: “They shoot in day; they steal at night. Let there be light; let there be democracy.” The window is here, to use Sujata Mukherjee’s concept, a “medium of vigilance:” it allows the soldier to watch from outside the family’s home and the family to watch from inside the actions of the soldier. The interplay between visual and sonorous metaphors also sheds light on the dynamics of vigilance at stake in the resistance against the military. The loud sound of pots and pans raises the alarm on the silent actions of the soldiers. By breaking the silence on these actions, the pots and pans bring them – to mix metaphors – to daylight, which the poster’s rhetoric associates with democracy. The tension between violent and nonviolent means is at the center of the visual narrative of the poster as well. Whereas the gun represents the violence of the military, the pot and the spoon exemplify the nonviolent resistance advocated and practiced by the Civil Disobedience Movement.
But are pots and pans, in this context, only means, symbols, or instruments of protest? Western scholars and political commentators have tended since the 1960s to characterize civil disobedience as only or mainly a form of expressing dissent. Banging pots and pans is, to be sure, a creative form of being heard and an inclusive form of protest. As Phyu Phyu Oo has compellingly argued in an article for The Interpreter,
“This form of protest facilitates the broader participation of civilians during an ongoing pandemic, including women (in care roles at home), youth, aged and disabled, in their political opposition against the regime (…) Furthermore, while the movement allows inclusive participation, it also keeps them safe from the threat of Covid-19 or violating the military curfew and the risk of imprisonment.”
But Burmese activists have also shown that civil disobedience can be more than a form of expressing dissent. It can also have as its end to protect others from harm in face of a perceived, often imminent threat. It prefigures, in this sense, a political community based on mutual care and responsibility. When such a community already exists, even if incipiently, civil disobedience often contributes to strengthening it. In its most powerful forms, civil disobedience is, in this sense, the cornerstone of often unexpected forms of solidarity and collective action under conditions of oppression.
The roaring sounds of pots and pans during the Burmese nights reveal, therefore, that there is often more than one reason for citizens to seek to be heard. By making noise to alert against potential danger, the Burmese show to their fellow citizens that they feel responsible for their safety and that they are ultimately part of the same struggle for freedom.
Eraldo Souza dos Santos is a Ph.D. candidate at the Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne with a dissertation on the history of the concept of civil disobedience. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Collaborative Research Center 1369 “Cultures of Vigilance”.
Featured image by scottmontreal on Flickr.
Cite this article as: Eraldo Souza dos Santos, “We’re Told to Be Alert”: Pots, Pans, and the Ends of Civil Disobedience, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 14/07/2021, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/1695.