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Myanmar Protest Leader Wants The Military Out And Isn't Interested In Negotiating

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today the Biden administration said it will grant temporary protected status to people from Myanmar. That's as rallies against the military continue in the country. Security forces have killed at least a dozen protesters just this week. Demonstrations there are largely driven by young people, Gen Zers quick to post videos of crackdown. Michael Sullivan has this profile of one protest leader.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Thinzar Shunlei Yi is 28 and has been a human rights activist for the past decade. In the past month or so, she's had to up her game as the military's upped the stakes in the battle for the future of Myanmar's nascent democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

THINZAR SHUNLEI YI: (Chanting in Burmese).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Burmese).

YI: (Chanting in Burmese).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Burmese).

YI: (Chanting in Burmese).

SULLIVAN: Here she is in one of the first demonstrations on February 7, urging people to defy the military. She's not interested at all in suggestions from international actors for a dialogue with the military to help end the violence.

YI: No. Military has no place. They have already destroyed their legitimacy, so they have no place in the political dialogue.

SULLIVAN: She's no fan of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy either but respects the outcome of the November election that saw the NLD win in a landslide.

YI: I stopped supporting her long time ago after the Rohingya crisis. And - but they are the reality. They are the legitimate government, so we have to accept them.

SULLIVAN: But Suu Kyi's party, she says, also has to acknowledge and embrace other political stakeholders, like the ethnic minority groups who've been fighting the Myanmar military for decades.

YI: So in that sense, if we make a clear decision within ourself and a clear goal, then we can play our own rules to overthrow the military junta once and for all.

SULLIVAN: So far, it's been young people in construction helmets with homemade shields who've been at the forefront of the popular uprising, young people who've grown up in an era of relative freedom and democratic transition after decades of military rule - but young people, she says, who know what the stakes are.

YI: If we don't fight and if we don't make sure right now, then we will end up in the darkest days. There will be a lot of violations, and our freedom will be restricted. So we are worried about the future. That's the basic instinct.

SULLIVAN: At the same time, she's frustrated that young people are taking most of the risks. More than half the protesters killed by security forces since the coup have been under 25 years old, many just teenagers.

YI: Why young people always out there when we have to die, like, out in the streets, you know, but we're not taken seriously in the political process? We are always being denied. You're not - you're still young. You're inexperienced and so on. But now when we are get on street and get killed, we become heroes.

SULLIVAN: She doesn't want to become a hero. She says her parents worry, as does she, but not enough to make her stop.

YI: Because if I get arrested, somebody else will be doing the same thing as I'm doing, so I'm not worried about what I'm doing. I think I'm even more worried about the political things than my own personal security.

SULLIVAN: But she knows she has to be careful and doesn't sleep in any one place for very long. More than 2,000 people have been detained by the military so far.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW JACKSON SONG, "PUT THE LOVE IN IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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