Tens of thousands of people have rallied again in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, denouncing this week’s military coup and demanding the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Protesters marching in Yangon for a second consecutive day on Sunday carried red balloons – the colour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – and chanted, “We don’t want military dictatorship! We want democracy!”
They walked under bright sunshine in the middle of the road, waving NLD flags and making the three-figure salute that has become a symbol of protest against the February 1 coup. Drivers honked their horns and passengers held up photos of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“We will move forward and keep demanding until we get democracy. Down with the military dictatorship,” said protester Myo Win, 37.
The scenes broadcast on Facebook were some of the few that have come out of the country since Myanmar’s military authorities shut down the internet and restricted phone lines on Saturday.
Netblocks, a United Kingdom-based service that tracks internet disruptions, said “a near-total internet shutdown” was in effect in Myanmar by Saturday afternoon, with connectivity falling to just 16 percent of normal levels.
The broad outage followed military order on Friday to block Twitter and Instagram because some people were trying to use the platforms to spread what authorities deemed fake news. Facebook had already been blocked earlier in the week – though not completely effectively.
Update: A near-total internet shutdown is now in effect in #Myanmar.
Network data show a collapse of connectivity to 16% of ordinary levels from ~2 pm local time 📉
The information blackout is likely to severely limit coverage of anti-coup protests 📵
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) February 6, 2021
The communication blackout has lent greater urgency to efforts to resist the coup. The rally on Sunday followed the largest protests to date on Saturday, when tens of thousands came out in cities across the country to condemn the coup that brought a 10-year experiment with democracy to a crashing halt.
In Yangon, thousands of people – factory workers and students prominent among them – marched down a main street on Saturday, chanting, “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win”.
— Cape Diamond (@cape_diamond) February 6, 2021
Similar-sized demonstrations took place in at least two other areas of the city. At Yangon’s City Hall, protesters presented flowers to police, some of whom carried assault rifles.
Thousands more also took to the streets in Myanmar’s second city Mandalay and its military-built capital Naypyidaw, home to the nation’s government servants, where demonstrators chanted anti-coup slogans and called for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release.
“#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.
Despite the large-scale deployment of riot police – backed by water cannon – there were no reports of major clashes.
‘Heinous and reckless’
The civil disobedience movement has been building in Myanmar all week, with doctors and teachers among those refusing to work. And every night people bang pots and pans in a show of anger.
As the protests gathered steam, the military ordered telecomms networks to freeze access to social media platforms, which have been critical sources of independent news as well as organising tools for protests.
“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 a statement, Twitter said it was “deeply concerned” about the blockage order and vowed to “advocate to end destructive government-led shutdowns”. Its spokesman said the blockages “undermines the public conversation and the rights of people to make their voices heard”.
Facebook also urged the military to reverse its decision.
“At this critical time, the people of Myanmar need access to important information and to be able to communicate with their loved ones,” Facebook’s head of public policy for Asia-Pacific emerging countries, Rafael Frankel, said in a statement.
Amnesty International meanwhile called the shutdown “a heinous and reckless decision” at a time when Myanmar was coping with the coup, years of civil conflict and the COVID-19 crisis.
Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power on February 1, accusing Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), of failing to act on its complaints that last November’s election was marred by fraud. The election commission said it had no found no evidence to support the claims.
The military announced a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hand over power after new elections, without giving a timeframe.
Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, has been charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkies, while removed President Win Myint is accused of flouting COVID-19 restrictions. Neither has been seen since the coup. Their lawyer said they were being held in their homes.
The coup has sparked international outrage, with the United States considering sanctions against the generals and the UN Security Council calling for the release of all detainees.
It has also deepened tensions between the United States and China, which has close links to Myanmar’s military. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in a phone call on Friday to condemn the coup, the State Department said.
The generals have few overseas interests vulnerable to sanctions but the military’s extensive business investments could suffer if foreign partners leave – as Japanese drinks company Kirin Holdings said it would on Friday.
Meanwhile the office of Australia’s foreign minister said in a statement on Saturday that the government was “deeply concerned about reports of Australian and other foreign nationals being detained arbitrarily in Myanmar”.
The statement said the government was concerned in particular about one Australian who was detained at a police station.
The Reuters news agency identified him as Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi.
Australian academic Sean Turnell has been detained in Myanmar.
— 9News Melbourne (@9NewsMelb) February 6, 2021
Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest after leading pro-democracy protests against the long-ruling military junta in 1988.
After sharing power with a civilian government, the army began democratic reforms in 2011. That led to the election of the NLD in a landslide victory four years later.
November’s election was meant to solidify a troubled democratic transition.