Braving military junta’s threat of force, protests swell in Myanmar
Protesters gathered in Myanmar’s biggest city Monday despite the ruling junta’s thinly veiled threat to use lethal force if people answered a call for a general strike opposing the military takeover three weeks ago.
Despite roadblocks around the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, more than a thousand protesters gathered there, while 20 military trucks with riot police arrived nearby. Protests continued in other parts of the city, including next to Sule Pagoda, a traditional gathering point.
Factories, workplaces and shops were shuttered across the country Monday in response to the call for a nationwide strike. The closings extended to the capital, Naypyitaw.
The junta had warned against the general strike in a public announcement Sunday night on state television broadcaster MRTV.
“It is found that the protesters have raised their incitement towards riot and anarchy mob on the day of 22 February. Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life,” the on-screen text said in English, replicating the spoken announcement in Burmese.
The junta’s statement also blamed criminals for past protest violence, with the result that “the security force members had to fire back.” Three protesters have been shot dead so far.
Myanmar’s military already held vast economic and political power. Now it has to govern a country grappling with health and economic crises.
Trucks blaring similar warnings cruised the streets of Yangon on Sunday night.
The protest movement, which seeks to restore to power the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, has largely embraced nonviolence. The nationwide strike was dubbed Five Twos, for the five twos used in the numeric form of Monday’s date.
“I am joining the 22222 nationwide protest as a citizen of the country. We must join the protest this time without fail,” said 42-year-old Zayar, who owns a bottled water business in the capital. “So I’ve closed down my factory and joined the demonstration.”
Zin Mi Mi Aung, a 27-year-old saleswoman, also joined the strike.
“We don’t want to be governed by the regime,” she said as people marched and chanted behind her. “We will fight against them until we win.”
Thousands of people gathered in Naypyitaw’s wide boulevards, many on motorbikes to allow swift movement in the event of any police action.
Staged car breakdowns, blocked railway tracks and civil servant strikes are putting pressure on the junta and raising fears of a harsh crackdown.
Reports and photos of protests, some very large, in at least a dozen cities and towns were posted on social media. There were pictures of a particularly colorful event in Taunggyi, the capital of Shan state, where scores of small red hot-air balloons were set aloft. A bigger one was adorned with a drawing of the three-finger salute adopted by the anti-coup movement. The city is famous for its annual hot-air balloon festival.
In Pyinmana, a satellite town of Naypyitaw, police chased people through the streets to arrest them.
The general strike was an extension of actions called by the Civil Disobedience Movement, a loosely organized group that has been encouraging civil servants and workers at state enterprises to walk off their jobs. Many transport workers and white collar workers have responded to the appeal.
On Saturday, a General Strike Committee was formed by more than two dozen groups to provide a more formal structure for the resistance movement and launch a “spring revolution.”
The ominous signs of potential conflict drew attention outside Myanmar, with the U.S. reiterating that it stood with the people of Myanmar.
A funeral was held for the first person killed in protests against the military coup in Myanmar. It came one day after security forces shot dead two more protesters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter that the U.S. would take firm action “against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government.”
“We call on the military to stop violence, release all those unjustly detained, cease attacks on journalists and activists, and respect the will of the people,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Twitter.
On Sunday, crowds in Myanmar’s capital attended a funeral for the young woman who was the first person confirmed to have been killed in the protests.
Demonstrators also turned out in force in Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, where security forces shot dead two people Saturday near a dockyard where the authorities had been trying to force workers to load a boat. The workers, like railway workers and truckers and many civil servants, have joined the civil disobedience campaign.
Myanmar’s ousted leader faces a charge that’s been used to prosecute people who have broken COVID restrictions. She could be detained indefinitely.
The junta prevented Myanmar’s parliament from convening Feb. 1, contending that elections last November, won by Suu Kyi’s party in a landslide, were tainted by fraud. The election commission that affirmed the victory has since been replaced by the junta, which says a new election will be held in a year’s time.
The military takeover was a major setback to Myanmar’s transition to democracy after 50 years of army rule that began with a 1962 coup. Suu Kyi came to power after her party won a 2015 election, but the generals retained substantial power under a military-drafted constitution.
Under the new ruling junta, 640 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced, with 593, including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, still in detention, according to the independent Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners.
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