Tens of thousands rally in growing protests against Myanmar coup

Internet blackout fails to stifle outrage

08 February 2021 | International

NAMPA/AFP





YANGON

Tens of thousands of anti-coup protesters in Myanmar poured back on to the streets yesterday as an internet blackout failed to stifle growing outrage at the military's ouster of elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

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.

Backed by a din of car horns, tens of thousands of chanting protesters in Yangon held up banners 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."

The Yangon protesters had started gathering at City Hall in the afternoon, after their paths to downtown Yangon blocked at many points by riot police.

"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."

Bold displays of defiance

The surge in popular dissent over the weekend overrode a nationwide internet blockade, similar in magnitude to an earlier shutdown that coincided with the arrest of Suu Kyi and other senior leaders on Monday.

Online calls to protest have prompted bold displays of defiance, including the nightly deafening clamour 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 (UN) human rights office tweeted after Saturday's protests.

There was a smaller protest in Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city, and a non-governmental organisation worker told AFP around 400 demonstrators rallied in the city of Mawlamyine.

In Yangon, many 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.

Around 300 people gathered at the UN office in Bangkok yesterday to protest against the coup, prompting Thai authorities to deploy riot police though there was no clash.

Facebook frozen

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, healthcare professionals and teachers to show their dissent by boycotting their jobs.

Yesterday, 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.

The military had widened its efforts to quell organised dissent on Friday when it demanded new blocks on other social media services including Twitter.

Monitoring group Netblocks yesterday said Myanmar "remains in the midst of a nation-scale internet blackout", with connectivity at 14% of usual levels.

"The generals are now attempting to paralyse the citizen movement of resistance - and keep the outside world in the dark - by cutting virtually all internet access," said Tom Andrews, UN 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 on Saturday that more than 150 people were still in custody.

‘In good health’

Rumours 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 she was "in good health" on Friday.

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 timeframe.

The coup has been widely condemned by the international community, with US president Joe Biden leading calls for the generals to relinquish power and release those arrested in the post-coup crackdown.