Myanmar restricts internet access as thousands protest for the first time since coup
After days of pent-up tension, thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Myanmar’s largest city Saturday to demand the return of a democratically elected civilian government deposed in a military coup earlier this week.
The tense but peaceful protests in Yangon came as the military junta began restricting access to the internet, largely shutting off the country of 54 million from the outside world.
The nation’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, placed leaders of the ruling National League for Democracy party, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, in detention Monday and announced a year of emergency military rule.
The putsch ended a decade of flawed democracy in the country, which is also known as Burma, after nearly 50 years of military dictatorship.
In the first of two major protests in Yangon on Saturday, thousands of demonstrators marched down Insein Road, a major traffic artery, in the morning to try to occupy the campus of Yangon University.
Burmese punk band Rebel Riot’s lead singer embodies the growing outrage over the military coup. He’s now rallying others to resist.
The crowd was blocked by at least 100 riot police officers carrying long guns, prompting a tense standoff that attracted more demonstrators and the screams of supporters in passing buses and cars.
Students, construction workers, factory laborers, shopkeepers and passersby joined the protest, chanting, “No more dictatorship,” and flashing a three-fingered salute that was borrowed from pro-democracy protesters in neighboring Thailand and inspired by the “Hunger Games” films.
“I’m here to encourage the people. We fight for our justice and rights. We want to free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” said a bank manager, using an honorific for Suu Kyi.
A 35-year-old woman who identified herself as a protest organizer said the demonstration would be the first of many to come.
“This is the first day for all the people in Myanmar to come out to the streets and protest,” said the woman, who like many interviewed declined to provide a name for fear of arrest. “I’m so glad we have a lot of power. We have a lot of people who are young and who are against the military and want to take back our freedom.”
Dressed in magenta uniforms, workers for the food delivery app Foodpanda handed out stickers with pro-democracy slogans at the demonstration.
Nearby at the Hledan Center, a multistory shopping mall, at least a thousand police were surrounded by peaceful demonstrators singing protest anthems and chanting, “Stand with the people.” The protesters offered bottled water and cigarettes to police officers and placed flowers at their feet.
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There were no reports of mass arrests in Yangon, which is also known as Rangoon, by Saturday evening as the protests began to dissipate.
Demonstrations took place in other parts of the country, according to the news magazine Frontier Myanmar, including in Magway and Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
The growing opposition to the military raises the specter of reprisals against organizers and a crackdown on street demonstrators. Uprisings in Myanmar have been brutally suppressed in the past by the Tatmadaw, including in 2007 and 1988.
The coup has been condemned by the United States and other Group of 7 nations as well as by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who have all called for the release of Myanmar’s civilian leaders.
Human rights observers say the shuttering of internet access was an ominous sign the military junta was hoping to stall organized opposition and block the world from following developments in the country.
“A news and information blackout by the coup leaders can’t hide their politically motivated arrests and other abuses,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The military should immediately release those arrested, restore access to online information, and protect the right to free expression.”
Norway-based Telenor Group, a major telecommunications provider in Myanmar, said in a statement Saturday it was ordered by the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications to shut down services to stop the “circulation of fake news” and for the “stability of the nation and interest of the public.”
“We have emphasized to the authorities that access to telecom services should be maintained at all times, especially during times of conflict, to ensure people’s basic right to freedom of expression and access to information,” the company said. “We deeply regret the impact the shutdown has on the people in Myanmar.”
The Myanmar military has taken control of the country under a one-year state of emergency, and detained political leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi.
In a separate development Saturday, Reuters reported that authorities had detained Sean Turnell, an Australian economic advisor to Suu Kyi.
“I guess you will soon hear of it, but I am being detained. Being charged with something, but not sure what. I am fine and strong, and not guilty of anything,” he texted Reuters, adding a smile emoji.
The Australian Foreign Ministry confirmed that one of its nationals had been detained Saturday, but declined to identify the person.
Special correspondent Nachemson reported from Yangon and Times staff writer Pierson from Singapore.
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