Friday, June 25, 2021

in-focus

Tens of thousands of protesters return to Myanmar streets to oppose the military coup


YANGON, Myanmar - Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, for the second day in a row on Sunday in defiance of the military's overthrow of the democratically elected government and demanded the release of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

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The largely peaceful protests, which happened despite a shutdown of the internet over the weekend until late Sunday afternoon, represented the biggest display of resistance against the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, since the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests. Those demonstrations in 2007, like every other popular uprising in Myanmar's recent history, were brutally crushed - raising the stakes for what follows and how the military government will respond. Many in the international community, including Pope Francis on Sunday, have expressed support for the protesters.

Myanmar's military seized power from the democratically elected civilian government, led by Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, in a pre-dawn raid on Monday. The military and its proxy political party had for months before the coup complained of widespread fraud in November elections, with little evidence, in an apparent effort to discredit the NLD's landslide win and claim power for themselves.

Since the coup, a steady drumbeat of resistance has been building in the country, where Suu Kyi is singularly beloved, with a civil disobedience movement that swelled this weekend into street protests. Suu Kyi remains in detention, along with Myanmar's president Win Myint. The government is now controlled by Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the military, who has also replaced the cabinet with former generals.

The military "thinks they can break the law and do whatever they like," said a 23-year-old student, who only gave part of her name, Thu, out of fear of repercussions. "We won't accept it. Our leader is our hope," she added, referencing Suu Kyi.

Protesters flowed in from townships on Yangon's fringes and all over the city, converging on the area around Sule Pagoda, a sparkling golden stupa that is the heart of the city center. They held up the three-finger salute, a gesture of resistance popularized by the Hunger Games movie trilogy and later also used by anti-junta protesters in Thailand. Residents who were not already at the demonstrations rushed out from their homes in support of the protesters, while cars honked their horns in support and cheered them on.

Police, armed with water cannons, largely stood by, watching, barricading off important landmarks in Yangon like City Hall and stopping protesters from marching toward the U.S. Embassy. Protesters offered water, snacks, flowers and cigarettes to the officers, chanting that they should be for the citizens and stand on their side.

There were also protests in numerous other cities outside of Yangon. In Pathein, a city in the country's delta region 120 miles west, people began to gather at around 8 a.m. Some 400 people, many riding motorbikes and also holding the three finger salutes in the air, choked the streets in a show of defiance.

"Some people who experienced the '88 revolution don't dare go out," an owner of a rice shop said, referencing the 1988 uprising when millions took to the streets before the military opened fire on them, killing hundreds. "But young people are not afraid of the military."

"They blocked the internet, whatever, we will keep going," she added, speaking on the condition of anonymity similarly fearing repercussions.

When the first signs of resistance and civil disobedience campaigns began emerging on Facebook, one of the main online platforms in Myanmar, authorities moved to block access, and later expanded that to other social media sites like Twitter and Instagram. Then on Saturday, all mobile internet connectivity was disrupted. Netblocks, a website that tracks real-time Internet disruptions, said Sunday that connectivity was just 14 percent of ordinary levels.

By late afternoon Sunday, Telenor, one of Myanmar's telecommunications operators, announced they had restored the network, following instructions from authorities.

International pressure, meanwhile, is growing. United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, pointed out that more than 160 people have been arrested since the coup - including representatives of the elected government and prominent activists. He urged the Human Rights Council to hold a special session on the crisis.

"The military must accept public acts of opposition for what they are, a peaceful demand for justice and democracy," he said. "We must all stand with the people of Myanmar in their hour of danger and need."

In his Sunday address in St. Peter's Square, the pope said he was following the situation "with deep concern" and expressed solidarity with the people of Myanmar.

Published : February 08, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Andrew Nachemson, Shibani Mahtani