Biggest protests in Myanmar since 2007 draw tens of thousands

YANGON (REUTERS, AFP) : Tens of thousands of people rallied across Myanmar on Sunday (Feb 7) to denounce last week’s coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in the biggest protests since the 2007 Saffron Revolution that helped spur a transition to democracy. 

In a second day of widespread protests against the military junta, crowds in the biggest city, Yangon, sported red shirts, red flags and red balloons, the colour representing Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD). They chanted, “We don’t want military dictatorship! We want democracy!” 

On Sunday afternoon, the junta ended a day-long blockade of the Internet that had further inflamed anger since the coup last Monday that has halted the South-east Asian nation’s troubled transition to democracy and drawn international outrage.

Massive crowds from all corners of Yangon gathered in townships and headed toward the Sule Pagoda at the heart of downtown Yangon, also a rallying point during the Buddhist monk-led 2007 protests and others in 1988. 

They gestured with the three-finger salute that has become a symbol of protest against the coup. Drivers honked their horns and passengers held up photos of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Suu Kyi. 

Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021.
Protesters take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

Demonstrators say they are taking to the streets to fight for their future.

“We don’t want a dictatorship for the next generation,” said 21-year-old Thaw Zin. “We will not finish this revolution until we make history. We will fight to the end.” 

“We cannot accept the coup,” said a 22-year-old who came with 10 friends, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “This is for our future. We have to come out.”

A woman in her early 30s who brought her family said they had not joined protests a day earlier but refused to be afraid. “We have to join the people, we want democracy,” she said. 

​There was no comment from the junta in the capital Naypyidaw, more than 350km north of Yangon.

An internal note for UN staff estimated that 1,000 people joined a protest in Naypyidaw while there were 60,000 in Yangon alone. Protests also were reported in the second city of Mandalay and many towns across the country of 53 million people.

Protesters hold up the three finger salute and placards during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP
Riot police block the street as protesters hold a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP
A monk holds up the three finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP
A protester holds up a sign during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP
People are seen during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021.
People are seen during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

“They already started shutting down the Internet – if they rule more they will repress even more on education, business, and health,” said 57-year-old demonstrator Thu Thu, who was arrested by a previous junta during pro-democracy protests in the late 1980s. “This is why we have to do this.”  

“I completely despise the military coup and I am not afraid of a crackdown,” said university student Kyi Phyu Kyaw, 20. “I will join every day until Amay Suu (Mother Suu) is freed.” 

By mid-morning about 100 people had taken to the streets on motorbikes in the coastal town of Mawlamyine in the south-east, and students and doctors were gathering in the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar. 

Another crowd of hundreds spent the night outside a police station in the town of Payathonzu in Karen state in the south-east, where local NLD lawmakers were believed to have been arrested. They remained outside in the morning, singing pro-democracy songs. 

Protesters hold placards and flowers during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on Feb 7, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The demonstrations have largely been peaceful, unlike the bloody crackdowns seen in 1998 and 2007. But shots were heard in the southeastern town of Myawaddy as uniformed police with guns charged a group of a couple of hundred protesters, live video showed. There was no immediate report of casualties.

“Anti-coup protests show every sign of gaining steam. On the one hand, given history, we can well expect the reaction to come,” wrote author and historian Thant Myint-U on Twitter. “On the other, Myanmar society today is entirely different from 1988 and even 2007. Anything’s possible.”

“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.

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 Ms Suu Kyi and other senior leaders last Monday.

“Partial restoration of Internet connectivity confirmed in #Myanmar from 2pm local time on multiple providers following information blackout,” Internet monitoring service Netblocks said on Twitter on Sunday.

Netblocks said social media platforms remained off limits on Sunday afternoon. But mobile phone customers using services with MPT, Ooredoo, Telenor and Mytel were now able to access mobile Internet data and Wi-Fi.

Earlier on Sunday, Netblocks said connectivity in Myanmar was at 14 per cent of usual levels.

Despite the Internet blackout, several live Facebook feeds were broadcast of the tens of thousands of protesters marching in the streets of Yangon.

Online calls to protest the army takeover have prompted bold displays of defiance, including the nightly deafening clamour of people around the country banging pots and pans – a practice traditionally associated with driving out evil spirits.

With no Internet initially and official information scarce, rumours swirled about the fate of Suu Kyi and her cabinet. A story that she had been released drew crowds out to celebrate on Saturday, but it was quickly quashed by her lawyer.

Suu Kyi, 75, faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkies and is being held in police detention for investigation until Feb. 15. Her lawyer said he has not been allowed to see her.

She spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during decades of struggling to end almost half a century of army rule before the start of a troubled transition to democracy in 2011.

Army commander Min Aung Hlaing carried out the coup on the grounds of fraud in a Nov 8 election in which Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide. The electoral commission dismissed the allegations of malpractice.

More than 160 people have been arrested since the military seized power in the early hours of Monday, said Mr Thomas Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar. 

“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,” he said in a statement on Sunday. “We must all stand with the people of Myanmar in their hour of danger and need. They deserve nothing less.”

THE STRAITS TIMES

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