Yangon, Myanmar – As thousands of protesters again take to the streets across Myanmar in escalating protests against last week’s military coup, some have been met with force by the police for the first time.
Videos on social media showed police firing water cannon at protesters in the isolated capital of Naypyidaw, as they demanded an end to military rule and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s leader and founder of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), who is under house arrest in the city.
On Sunday, some protesters were also dispersed by warning shots fired into the air in Myawaddy, on the border with Thailand. So far however, there have been no reports of force in Yangon where huge crowds were again gathering on Monday.
At the colonial-era City Hall in Myanmar’s largest city, hundreds were on the streets, with more police at hand and water cannon again on standby. Crowds were also forming elsewhere in the city, including the Hledan Center where youth activists have been demonstrating for the past three days.
Their placards urged the police to stand with the protesters, as part of a growing civil disobedience movement that has already won support from doctors, teachers and other government workers.
Now in #Naypyidaw. Police use water canons against protesters. A guy goes down bleeding at the end of the clip. Such use of force and proximity of the water cannon to civilians is cause for serious concern. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar #Myanmarcoup #CivilDesobedienceMovement pic.twitter.com/i1bz0MwiPt
— Rin Fujimatsu (@rinfujimatsu) February 8, 2021
Protesters seemed to be hoping to separate the police force from the military, despite the 2008 military-drafted constitution giving the armed forces authority over the police. Rank-and-file members of the police force are thought to be more sympathetic to the cause of the pro-democracy protesters.
Political analyst Khin Zaw Win said the “police are closer than the military” to Aung San Suu Kyi and would be more “likely to stand with protesters” than soldiers.
“Whether larger numbers join the protesters depends on senior officers coming in, on the duration of the protests, and the incidence of violence,” he said.
‘Stand with the people’
On Saturday a crowd of protesters confronted security forces – the first time since the military wrested power in a coup on February 1. As thousands of protesters came face to face with the police on Yangon’s Insein Road, the situation became increasingly tense.
“Stand with the people,” many of the protesters chanted angrily, repeating demands to end the dictatorship and implement full democracy.
“There are another 1,000 students and workers on the other side,” one of the protest organisers, a 23-year-old student, told Al Jazeera. “So we are planning to sandwich them.”
One of the tattooed demonstrators, clad in a black hoodie, walked to the front of the protest and held up a sign which appeared to address the police. It read: “Which side will you stand for? The oppressor or the oppressed?”
As the protesters became increasingly agitated, a senior police officer approached one of the other protest leaders, in a conversation Al Jazeera recorded.
“Are you guys going to go peacefully?” the officer asked.
“Let us protest peacefully, I promise there will be no trouble. We just want our leaders back,” the protester said, asking the officer his name. He then identified himself as U Soe Oo, the chief of the western district police force.
“I understand the situation clearly because I’m also a citizen even though I’m from the administration,” U Soe Oo said.
For nearly one hour heavily armed police, holding plastic shields and clad in riot gear, stood behind barricades in a line facing angry protesters who sang and chanted. Buses and cars that could not move further blared their horns in solidarity with the protesters, with one bus even inching forward to shield those on the front lines.
As the situation gradually cooled down, one young demonstrator went for a cigarette.
“I’m only 17-years-old, I’m underage. I couldn’t vote but I want to join with [the protesters]. I am against the military coup,” he said, his hands shaking.
Myanmar’s armed forces have committed many human rights abuses and brutally suppressed its citizens during some 50 years of military rule. The previous military government killed thousands when it cracked down on mass rallies in 1988 and in 2007, when the demonstrations, which began after a jump in fuel prices, were led by Buddhist monks.
On Saturday at Hledan Center, protesters again confronted police not far from their first standoff.
This time, there were hundreds of police, some waiting in trucks while others went up to groups of demonstrators. Groups of 20 or so police found themselves surrounded by hundreds of protesters, who sang the revolutionary anthem.
“Police should be for the citizens,” they shouted, leaving flowers, bottles of water, snacks, and cigarettes at the feet of the officers.
Similar scenes played out on Sunday, first when protesters attempted to march towards the US embassy and again when they gathered outside City Hall. In both cases, dozens of armed police set up barricades while trucks mounted with water cannon waited on the side, as protesters shouted at police and encouraged them to join the side of democracy.
“General Aung San’s training is to protect, not to kill,” the crowd at City Hall shouted, in a reference to Aung San Suu Kyi’s late father, Myanmar’s independence hero and founder of the Myanmar armed forces.