Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of major cities in Myanmar on Wednesday, protesting against the military coup amid rising concern of violence in the troubled Southeast Asian nation.
The demonstrations were some of the largest since the military seized power on February 1 and came after protesters urged people to turn out en masse and shatter the military’s claim that the public backed its decision to seize power from civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD).
“We love democracy and hate the junta,” Sithu Maung, an elected NLD member told tens of thousands of people at the Sule Pagoda, a Yangon landmark. “We must be the last generation to experience a coup.”
The NLD won the November 8 election in a landslide, but the military claimed there was fraud, using the allegations to justify the coup. The claims have been rejected by the elections commission.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling council, maintained that the military’s seizure of power was in line with the constitution and that the military was committed to democracy.
He also claimed 40 million of the country’s 53 million people supported the coup.
Sithu Maung poked fun at that saying: “We’re showing here that we’re not in that 40 million.”
The largest anti-coup protest during this week in downtown Yangon is going on.
— Myanmar Now (@Myanmar_Now_Eng) February 17, 2021
The turnout in Yangon appeared to be the biggest so far in the city, Myanmar’s largest.
Along with the larger crowds, some people also stopped their cars in the streets or at key junctions – their bonnets open in mass “breakdowns” – as a way of blocking off streets from security forces.
In the capital Naypyidaw, thousands marched down its wide boulevards, chanting for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint who have been detained since the coup.
Protesters also poured into the streets of Mandalay, where on Monday security forces pointed guns at a group of 1,000 demonstrators and attacked them with slingshots and sticks. Local media reported that police also fired rubber-coated bullets into a crowd and that some people were wounded.
‘Potential for violence’
Tom Andrews, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said earlier he was “terrified” of an escalation in violence, saying he had received reports of troop movements around the country and feared the protesters were facing real danger.
“I fear that Wednesday has the potential for violence on a greater scale in Myanmar than we have seen since the illegal takeover of the government on February 1,” Andrews said in a statement.
“I am terrified that given the confluence of these two developments – planned mass protests and troops converging – we could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar.”
People are saying their cars have collectively broke down near central bank. When asked by police, the owners say their cars appear to suffer from MAL-itis, a mysterious disease spreading through the nation since Feb 1. #CDM #CivilDisobedienceMovement #WhatsHappeninglnMyanmar pic.twitter.com/1F9R8X92xg
— Civil Disobedience Movement (@cvdom2021) February 17, 2021
— Kim Jolliffe (@Kim_Jolliffe) February 17, 2021
Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country for decades before the transition to a quasi-civilian government began in 2011, has a history of violence and impunity.
Armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, also directed the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya minority in the western state of Rakhine, which the United Nations has said was carried out with “genocidal intent“.
“The security forces’ approach could take an even darker turn fast,” the International Crisis Group warned in a briefing released on Wednesday.
“Soldiers and armoured vehicles have begun to reinforce the police lines and, should the generals become impatient with the status quo, could easily become the sharp end of a bloody crackdown, as has happened in the past.”
The February 1 coup, which took place on the day the new parliament was supposed to sit, has halted Myanmar’s fragile progress towards democracy.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Zaw Min Tun told reporters that an election would be held and power handed to the winner. He gave no timeframe.
In 1990, the military held an election, but then refused to accept the result after the NLD, then a newly formed party, swept the elections.
It had earlier used force against protesters in 1988 and did so again in 2007 when a hike in fuel prices triggered mass demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, is thought to be under house arrest and on Tuesday was charged under the National Disaster Management Law with breaching COVID-19 regulations while campaigning for the elections. She has also been charged with illegally importing walkie-talkies that were found in her home.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned the legal move.
“New charges against Aung San Suu Kyi fabricated by the Myanmar military are a clear violation of her human rights,” he tweeted. “We stand with the people of Myanmar and will ensure those responsible for this coup are held to account.”
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the world body stood by its condemnation of the coup and has called for charges against Aung San Suu Kyi to be dropped and for her to be released.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which is keeping track of those taken into custody, says 452 people have been detained since February 1. Some 417 remain in detention.
Those arrested include the NLD’s senior leadership and members of the election commission.
Internet networks were also taken down for the third night in a row, but connectivity was restored on Wednesday morning, according to NetBlocks, which monitors disruption and outages, and images of the rallies widely shared.
As well as the demonstrations in towns across the ethnically diverse country, a civil disobedience movement has brought strikes that are crippling many functions of government.
Actor Pyay Ti Oo said the opposition could not be quelled.
“They say we’re like a brush fire and will stop after a while but will we? No. Won’t stop until we succeed,” he told the crowd.