Two weeks after the coup, Myanmar’s protesters are undaunted – but how far can the military be pushed?
- Amid internet blackouts, clashes with security forces and the deployment of soldiers, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to denounce the military coup
- But analysts say the generals will do what it takes to stay in power, and they have been unresponsive to past sanctions, threats or criticism from the international community
Suu Kyi, detained since the February 1 coup against her elected government, had been expected to face a court on Monday in connection with charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkies, but a judge said her remand lasted until Wednesday, according to her lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw.
The coup and the arrest of Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi and others have sparked the biggest protests in Myanmar in more than a decade, with hundreds of thousands taking the streets to denounce the military’s derailment of a tentative transition to democracy.
“This is a fight for our future, the future of our country,” youth activist Esther Ze Naw said at a protest in Yangon, the country’s largest city. “We don’t want to live under a military dictatorship. We want to establish a real federal union where all citizens, all ethnicities are treated equally.”
In the city of Mandalay, security forces on Monday evening used rubber bullets and catapults to disperse protesters, wounding two people, according to local media and residents.
Myanmar coup: junta cuts internet as troops open fire to break up protest
The unrest has revived memories of bloody outbreaks of opposition to almost half a century of direct army rule over the Southeast Asian nation, which ended in 2011 when the military – known locally as the Tatmadaw – began a process of withdrawing from civilian politics.
As well as the demonstrations in numerous towns and cities, the military is facing a strike by government workers, part of a civil disobedience movement that is crippling many government functions.
More than a dozen police trucks and four water cannons were deployed on Monday near the Sule Pagoda in central Yangon, one of the main demonstration sites in the city, where protesters had gathered outside the central bank and the Chinese embassy.
At the bank, several hundred people quietly held up signs calling for colleagues to join the CDM – the civil disobedience movement. An armoured vehicle and about six trucks carrying soldiers were parked nearby, a witness said.
Police in the capital, Naypyidaw, detained about 20 high-school students protesting by a road. Social media posts by one of the students showed them chanting slogans of defiance as they were taken away in a police bus.
“Remember, we don’t swear at the police and don’t sign anything at the police station,” one student can be heard saying.
Media also showed orderly ranks of protesters marching in Naypyidaw, bearing pictures of Suu Kyi with the message: “We want our leader.”
The army has been carrying out nightly arrests and has given itself sweeping search and detention powers. At least 400 people have been detained since the coup, the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said.
‘TENACIOUS AND RESILIENT’
“They will struggle ‘to the end of the world’, as reflected by the lyrics to the popular resistance song Kabar Ma Kyay Bu that is resounding through streets across the country,” Thame said.
Adapted from the 1977 classic Dust in the Wind by American band Kansas, the song is emblematic of the 1988 protests in Myanmar and is said to capture the country’s sense of hope for democracy.
Nicholas Farrelly, social sciences head at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said protests were now held not just across the length and breadth of Myanmar but also across generational, ethnic, religious and ideological divides.
“Myanmar’s young people are clearly not willing to watch quietly as democratic rule fades away,” he said.
Noting that some police and government officials had stood up to defy their superiors, Farrelly said there did not yet appear to be any breakdown in the army’s ranks. “I can imagine some soldiers are very apprehensive about the situation they face. The level of opposition goes far beyond what the army will have anticipated.”
The protests in the country have drawn comparisons to what is popularly referred to as the Milk Tea Alliance, a movement pushing for democratic change in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Farrelly said taking on the might of the Myanmar military was never easy, so “it helps to have strong allies and friends”. However, he added that young people in the country were aware that their counterparts in Hong Kong and Thailand had taken on “well-entrenched and often brutal regimes” and had fought “losing battles”.
While the military has restricted online communications, Farrelly said the first few weeks of widespread protests against the coup had shown that there was no loss of momentum simply because the army “had switched off the internet”.
“People are now understandably angry that the information is being limited by the junta in such a self-serving manner,” he said. “Of course, this generation of Myanmar protesters are savvy about technology and can make use of it even under these dire conditions.”
‘DAY AND NIGHT PRESSURE’
Sonny Swe, CEO of Frontier Myanmar Weekly Magazine, said while it had been a fortnight since the coup, the tempo of protests was still high – even if there were fewer people on the streets on Monday due to the military’s “day and night pressure on demonstrators”.
“I’m sure [the demonstrators] will go as far as possible,” he said, adding that he feared the military would do likewise as it was a “do-or-die situation for army chief Min Aung Hlaing”, the general who seized power from the National League of Democracy (NLD) headed by Suu Kyi.
Swe added that Sunday night’s eight-hour internet blackout, the second since the coup, had “another huge negative impact on the citizen and economy”.
May Sabe Phyu, director of the Yangon-based Gender Equality Network, said the internet shutdown had created fear and insecurity as people were unable to contact and communicate with those outside the country – and that people would get angrier if it continued.
She said young people and protesters would go on until the military leaders returned power to the NLD. “How long it will take we don’t exactly know, but we will fight until we win.”
On the association with the Milk Tea Alliance, Phya said it was helpful for the movement as the regional support and the people power it generated would apply further pressure on the military.
“The space for the junta is now getting narrower since people are united regionally and globally [against the coup),” she said, adding that the military should be censured internationally. “The world should not just sit back and watch innocent people killed by the military.”
However, Farrelly from the University of Tasmania said in the past, the country’s generals had proved unresponsive to international pressure, whether in terms of sanctions, threats, or criticism.
Thammasat University’s Thame said the military was aware that a bloody crackdown such as those that took place in 1988 and 2007 “would hasten nascent revolutionary conditions”.
“That’s why they are taking a leaf out of the playbook of more sophisticated authoritarian states such as those of China and Thailand with the cybersecurity bill,” he said, referring to the first piece of legislation the army is looking to pass. Human Rights Watch said the bill would give authorities “sweeping powers to access user data, block websites, order internet shutdowns and imprison critics and officials at non-complying companies”.
Su-Ann Oh, a visiting fellow of the Myanmar Studies Programme at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, wrote in an article published by the institute on Monday that the ongoing anti-coup protests were qualitatively different and posed a bigger challenge to Myanmar’s military rulers than earlier protest movements.
She said the scale and nature of the ongoing civil disobedience were unprecedented due to economic changes over the past decade, such as increasing urbanisation and expanded opportunities for political participation.
“The NLD, other political parties, and civil society organisations have spent this time organising the public, which now believes more strongly that they can make a difference politically,” Oh wrote.
Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated Press