Protesters in Myanmar have started gathering across the country’s largest city of Yangon for a fourth day, defying a ban on gatherings of five or more people and threats from coup leader Senior General Minh Aung Laing to take “action” against large rallies.
In San Chaung township, dozens of teachers marched on the main road, waving a defiant three-finger salute, a gesture borrowed from pro-democracy movements across Asia.
“We are teachers, We want justice”! “Free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!” they yelled as they marched down the main road, where cars passing by honked their horns in support.
“Down with the military dictatorship!”
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader and founder of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) was detained along with dozens of members of her government as the generals moved to seize power last week.
— soe zeya tun (@soezeya) February 9, 2021
A video posted on social media also showed hundreds of people gathered on the side of a highway near Yangon. Some of them occupied the street at some point, slowing down traffic.
Early on Tuesday morning, authorities also temporarily shut several bridges connecting the country’s biggest city to three outlying districts, but the bridges were later reopened to traffic as people angrily protested against the closures, news media said.
Martial law, curfew
Across town, another group gathered in front of the headquarters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party.
Wearing red – the NLD’s colours – the protesters carried Aung San Suu Kyi’s portraits and chanted for the military to free her.
Despite a tarnished reputation in the West for her handling of the Rohingya crisis, the woman known as “The Lady” remains an immensely popular figure in her own country, with her party sweeping more than 80 percent of the votes in November’s election.
On Monday, Myanmar’s new military rulers imposed martial law and a curfew in Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest city, in a bid to quell growing protests against the coup.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader, also appeared on television repeating the unsubstantiated claim that there were irregularities in November’s election.
A one-year state of emergency is currently in effect in the country, and aside from the curfew and the ban on mass gatherings, motorised processions have also been prohibited.
The military warned of action against protesters, saying there had been violations of the law and threats of force by groups “using the excuse of democracy and human rights”.
Many of the protesters were wearing hard hats and running shoes, and appeared more prepared for the risk of violence, according to reporters on the ground.
For the first time since the coup, authorities fired water cannon at protesters on Monday. There were reports they were used again on Tuesday.
“Security forces have a moral and legal obligation to defy any unlawful orders to use excessive force against peaceful protests in Myanmar,” Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar wrote on Twitter. “All in the chain of command can be held liable for committing crimes against humanity. ‘Following orders’ is no defense.”
Pressure is also growing on the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Myanmar joined in 1997, to use its leverage to ensure the military refrains from violence. During previous demonstrations in 1988 and 2007, the military response left thousands dead.
“As peaceful demonstrations grow, the risk of violence is real. We all know what the Myanmar army is capable of: mass atrocities, killing of civilians, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests, among others,” said Tom Villarin, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
The United Nations’ Human Rights Council is due to hold a special session to discuss Myanmar on Friday with rights groups urging action against the military including selected sanctions against senior generals and their families.
On Tuesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that her government would suspend all high-level political and military contact with Myanmar and impose a travel ban on its military leaders. Ardern told a news conference that New Zealand would ensure its aid programme does not include projects that are delivered with the military government or provide benefits to the generals.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a separate statement that New Zealand does not recognise the legitimacy of the military-led government and called on the army to immediately release all detained political leaders and restore civilian rule.
Myanmar was under military rule for decades after a 1962 coup that led to international isolation and economic decline.
A slow transition to democracy began a decade ago with the NLD securing a foothold in parliament in by-elections in 2012 and winning a landslide in the first full elections in 2015. In November’s poll, it further increased its vote share to the detriment of the military’s proxy party.
The constitution ensures the military maintains significant power, however, with the control of key ministries and a quarter of seats in parliament.