The head of Myanmar’s new military government has warned civil servants to return to work and urged people to stop mass gatherings to avoid spreading the coronavirus, as a sixth day of protests against army rule spanned the country.
Meanwhile, the US has imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s acting president and several other military officers as Washington seeks to punish those it deems responsible for the military coup in Myanmar.
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The February 1 coup and the detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, along with scores of others, have prompted the biggest demonstrations since a 2007 “Saffron Revolution” that ultimately became a step towards democratic reforms in a country that spent decades under military rule after a 1962 coup.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing addressed the protests for the first time in public on Thursday, blaming “unscrupulous persons” for work stoppages in a growing civil disobedience movement by medics, teachers, railway workers and many other government employees.
“Those who are away from their duties are requested to return to their duties immediately for the interests of the country and people without focusing on the emotion,” he said.
In a statement issued by the army’s information service, he also urged people to avoid gatherings, which he said would fuel the spread of the coronavirus.
Protesters, however, gathered across the country on Thursday.
Hundreds of workers lined a road in the capital, Naypyidaw, chanting slogans against the military government and carrying placards supporting Aung San Suu Kyi, who had spent some 15 years under house arrest during a struggle against previous military governments before the troubled democratic transition began in 2011.
Thousands also demonstrated in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
“What a joke! He must be completely delusional to ask people who are protesting against him to come back and work,” said one Twitter user, who identified as Nyan Bo Bo, in response to Min Aung Hlaing’s statement.
The protests have revived memories of almost half a century of direct army rule, punctuated by bloody crackdowns, until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.
Joining trade unions and groups of workers already taking part in the movement, some police officers in Kayah State broke ranks and joined the protesters – calling themselves “the police of the people”.
Soe Aung, a human rights activist who participated in a 1988 student uprising that ended in a violent military crackdown, said this movement has much broader support.
“I think that the military will not be able to use its might in full extent,” Soe Aung said.
“The time is different, the world is different,” the activist added, noting the “strong statements” by the international community against the coup.
On Thursday Washington blacklisted eight individuals, including the defense and home affairs ministers, imposed additional sanctions on the top two military officials and targeted three companies in the jade and gems sector, according to the Treasury Department’s website.
“The US Department of Treasury designated 10 individuals and three entities, for their association to the military apparatus responsible for the coup. Three entities, wholly owned subsidiaries of a conglomerate owned or controlled by the Burmese military have also been designated,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
“Additionally, as the President announced the US government has also taken steps to prevent the generals from improperly accessing more than $1bn dollars in Burmese government funds held in the US, the Department of Commerce is also taking immediate action to limit exports of sensitive goods to the Burmese military and other entities associated with the recent coup.
“In addition, we’re freezing US assistance that benefits the Burmese Government, while maintaining our support for our healthcare civil society groups, and other areas that benefit the Burmese people directly. We will also continue our support for the Rohingya and other vulnerable populations,” Psaki said.
Min Aung Hlaing and other top generals are already under US sanctions imposed in 2019 over abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities. Sanctions could also target military holding companies with investments spanning banking, gems, copper, telecoms and clothing.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, said it was also considering measures it could apply to punish the coup.
Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters also demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in Yangon, accusing Beijing of supporting the military government despite Chinese denials. They held up pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi to demand her release.
The military launched the coup after what it said was widespread fraud in a November election, won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in a landslide. The electoral commission had rejected those claims.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was swept to power following a historic election victory in 2015, faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios.
Former minister Kyaw Tint Swe, regarded as her right-hand man, was arrested in another sweep overnight, a senior NLD official said. He had been one of her representatives in crunch talks with the military before the coup.
NLD information committee member Kyi Toe said Kyaw Tint Swe and four other people linked to the removed government had been taken from their homes overnight, and the top leadership of the former electoral commission had all been arrested.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners rights group said at least 220 people had been arrested since the coup.
Al Jazeera’s Scott Heidler, who has reported extensively on Myanmar, said sanctions and a potential return to pariah status to most of the outside world could undo the economic progress Myanmar – one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia – has made since the election in 2015.
“But for now, the message and the goal for the protesters are clear: get as many people as possible out on the streets, while at the same time, drawing in more international attention and involvement,” Heidler said.
The United Nations’ top human rights body is to consider a resolution on Friday drafted by the UK and the European Union condemning the coup and demanding urgent access for monitors.
The text “strongly deplores” the coup, in language that appears to be somewhat watered down from an initial draft circulated informally that would have condemned the coup, but still calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials, as well as access for UN human rights monitors to the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for campaigning for democracy and remains hugely popular at home despite damage to her international reputation over the plight of the Rohingya.