February 08, 2021
Protesters march during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 7, 2021. (Photo by Ye Aung THU / AFP)
YANGON, Myanmar – Tens of thousands of anti-coup protesters in Myanmar poured back onto the streets Sunday, as an internet blackout failed to stifle growing outrage at the military’s ouster of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The protests were the biggest demonstrations in the country since the 2007 Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution.
The fresh rally followed large protests on Saturday across the country condemning the coup that brought a 10-year experiment with democracy to a crashing halt.
There was no comment from the junta in the capital Naypyitaw, more than 350 km (220 miles) north of Yangon.
Backed by a din of car horns, tens of thousands of protesters in Yangon held up banners on Sunday saying “Justice for Myanmar” and “We do not want military dictatorship,” while others waved the signature red flags of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
“I completely despise the military coup and I am not afraid of a crackdown,” said Kyi Phyu Kyaw, a 20-year-old university student.
“I will join every day until Amay Suu (Mother Suu) is freed.”
Many demonstrators also flashed the three-finger salute inspired by the “Hunger Games” films, which became a symbol of resistance during the pro-democracy protests in Thailand last year.
The path of the protesters to Yangon City Hall was blocked at several points by riot police, but some managed to get there by early afternoon. Other groups were still on their way.
“We will fight until the end,” said Ye Kyaw, an 18-year-old economics student.
“The next generation can have democracy if we end this military dictatorship.”
The surge in popular dissent over the weekend overrode a nationwide blockade of the internet, similar in magnitude to an earlier shutdown that coincided with the arrest of Suu Kyi and other senior leaders last Monday.
Online calls to protest against the army takeover have prompted bold displays of defiance, including the nightly deafening clamor of people banging pots and pans — a practice traditionally associated with driving out evil spirits.
“#Myanmar’s military and police must ensure the right to peaceful assembly is fully respected and demonstrators are not subjected to reprisals,” the United Nations Human Rights office tweeted after Saturday’s protests.
Protesters also gathered in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, to demand the release of detained leaders.
“We cannot accept this unlawful military coup,” said Win Mya Mya, a member of parliament from Mandalay.
As protests gathered steam this week, the junta ordered telecom networks to freeze access to Facebook, an extremely popular service in the country and arguably its main mode of communication.
The platform had hosted a rapidly growing “Civil Disobedience Movement” forum that had inspired civil servants, health care professionals and teachers to show their dissent by boycotting their jobs.
On Sunday, live Facebook video feeds showed the Yangon protesters as they marched through the streets. It was not immediately clear how they bypassed the government block. Speaking as he filmed the streets, the broadcaster said getting information out might help keep the protesters safe.
“They already started shutting down the internet — if they rule more they will repress even more on education, business, and health,” said Thu Thu, a 57-year-old who was arrested by a previous junta during pro-democracy protests in the late 1980s. “This is why we have to do this,” he said.
“We cannot accept the coup,” said a 22-year-old who came with 10 friends, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “This is for our future. We have to come out.”
The military had widened its efforts to quell organized dissent on Friday when it demanded new blocks on other social media services including Twitter.
Monitoring group Netblocks said Sunday that Myanmar “remains in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout”, with connectivity at 14% of usual levels.
“The generals are now attempting to paralyze the citizen movement of resistance — and keep the outside world in the dark — by cutting virtually all internet access,” said Tom Andrews, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.
In addition to Suu Kyi and some of her top aides, dozens have been detained so far.
The precise number of arrests is not yet known, but monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said Saturday that more than 150 people were still in custody.
Rumors that Suu Kyi had been released triggered brief but raucous street celebrations among her supporters on Saturday, before they were denied by her lawyer who said she remained in detention.
An immensely popular figure despite a tarnished reputation in the West, Suu Kyi has not been seen in public since the coup, but a party spokesman said Friday she was “in good health.”
Two days after the coup, criminal charges were filed against her related to the illegal import of a set of walkie-talkies.
The military had hinted at its coup intentions days in advance, insisting that the NLD’s landslide victory in the November elections was the result of voter fraud.
Following the takeover, the junta proclaimed a one-year state of emergency after which it promised to hold fresh elections, without offering any precise time-frame.
The coup has been widely condemned by the international community, with U.S. President Joe Biden leading calls for the generals to relinquish power and release those arrested in the post-coup crackdown.