Myanmar’s junta struggles to prevent protests planned for coup anniversary

Junta warns public not to take part in planned ‘silent strike’ and arrests business owners who vowed to close on 1 February

Myanmar’s military junta has threatened sedition and terrorism charges against anyone who shuts their business, claps or bang pots on Tuesday, as it tries to stamp out any protests planned to mark the one-year anniversary of the coup.

The military, which ousted the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on 1 February 2021, continues to face defiant opposition including peaceful protests and an armed resistance.

On Tuesday, activists plan to hold a “silent strike” and have called for members of the public to stay at home between 10am and 4pm. At the end of the strike, people will clap or bang pots, an act that is traditionally thought to drive out evil spirits, and which is often used as a form of protest against the military.

The junta has warned the public not to participate in such protests, announcing in junta-controlled media that people who do so will face a variety of legal charges. Over the past week, business owners have been sent notices from local administrators, reiterating such threats, and warning their property could be confiscated. They have been required to sign a document to pledge their agreement.

Some shop owners who had told customers that their businesses will be closed on 1 February have already been arrested, according to local media outlet the Irrawaddy.

Many businesses are proposing getting around the military threats by dramatically raising prices, opening only for a few hours and closing for “lunch break”, or keeping their store open but not selling items.

Ahead of the coup anniversary, the United States, Britain and Canada unveiled on Monday coordinated sanctions on Myanmar officials.

Sanctions were placed on attorney general Thida Oo, supreme court chief justice Tun Tun Oo and Anti-Corruption Commission chairman Tin Oo, whom the US said were closely involved in the “politically motivated” prosecution of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We are coordinating these actions with the United Kingdom and Canada ... to further promote accountability for the coup and the violence perpetrated by the regime,” the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said.

“The United States will continue ... to address human rights abuses and press the regime to cease the violence, release all those unjustly detained, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and restore Burma’s path to democracy,” he added.

In February 2021, Myanmar's progress towards democracy was brutally stalled when the military seized power and took control of the country.  

In the year since, the country has been plunged into violence, poverty and mass displacement as the military attempts to crush widespread resistance to its rule. 

Internet blackouts, arbitrary arrests, a ruthless curtailing of freedom of speech and escalating military attacks on civilian areas have silenced the voices of people from Myanmar.  

For this special series, the Guardian’s Rights and freedom project has partnered with a diverse group of journalists from Myanmar, many working in secret, to bring their reporting on life under military rule to a global audience.

Journalists in Myanmar are working in dangerous and difficult circumstances, as the military government attacks the free press and shuts down local media outlets. Many reporters still inside the country fear arrest, with others forced to leave their homes and go into hiding in areas increasingly under attack from military forces. 

All the reporting in this series will be carried out by journalists from Myanmar, with support from the editors on the Rights and freedom project.

These are the stories that journalists from Myanmar want to tell about what is happening to their country at this critical moment.

A new generation of activists

Aung Kaung Sett, president of Yangon University Student Union, who led mass protests in Yangon in the wake of the coup and is now in hiding, said the public would not abandon the struggle for democracy. “There is no turning back now. We live or we die,” he said. “The revolution must continue, whatever it takes.”

While military violence means it is no longer safe to hold large street rallies, and leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi remain in prison, new forms of protests continue, led by a new generation of activists. “There are guerrilla protests led by young people, especially students, poets and activists, across everywhere in Myanmar,” Aung Kaung Sett said.

He said the coup had dramatically changed public opinion of the Myanmar military, which is known as the Tatmadaw. “People are beginning to feel the same way now as those who had faced oppression by the Myanmar military in the past,” he said, citing the brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in 2017, and atrocities committed against other ethnic minorities.

Protesters walk amid smoke near a makeshift barricade in Yangon last year during a military crackdown on anti-coup demonstrations
Protesters walk amid smoke near a makeshift barricade in Yangon last year during a military crackdown on anti-coup demonstrations. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

There was previously little sympathy towards minorities within Myanmar, but attitudes have shifted as the public has united in opposition to the military.

The military has announced it will hold market festivals and a cycling contest in both Yangon and Mandalay from Monday until Wednesday, in an attempt to crowd the streets on the day of the Silent Strike and project an image of normalcy.

However, one year on from the coup, the country is in a state of turmoil. Public services, such as health and education, have collapsed because many medical and teaching staff refuse to work in junta-controlled facilities and so are operating in the community. The economy is failing, with the UN estimating the crisis will have driven almost half the population into poverty in 2022. According to the World Food Programme, the cost of a basic food basket was almost a third higher in October 2021 when compared with the month prior to the coup. Fuel prices have surged more than 70%.

The military has also inflicted extreme violence to suppress opposition, burning villages, launching airstrikes, carrying out massacres and blocking aid to civilians. Since the coup, 1,499 people have been killed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which tracks deaths and arrests. At least 11,801 people have been arrested. There are widespread reports of torture within detention facilities.

Many young people have fled to the jungle and resorted to taking up arms and forming people’s defence forces. Among them is Costa, 21, who, prior to the coup, was studying International Relations at Yangon University. She is now in charge of managing finances for a battalion of the Karenni National Defence Force in Kayah state.

“We will continue to ask for what we want: to abolish the 2008 constitution [which guaranteed the military huge powers, even during the governments of Aung San Suu Kyi], restore democracy and end dictatorship, even if it takes 10 years,” she said.

People queue outside a bank to withdraw cash in Yangon last year
People queue outside a Yangon bank to withdraw cash last year. Myanmar’s economy is failing and public services such as health and education have collapsed. Photograph: Reuters

Worsening conflict between the junta and its opponents has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, especially in the south-east and north-west of the country.

As of 27 December, an estimated 320,900 people remained internally displaced across Myanmar, according to the United Nations. This is in addition to the 340,000 people who were already displaced before the coup.

David Carden, the head of UN OCHA Myanmar, said the people of Myanmar faced “an unprecedented political, human rights and humanitarian crisis that is now touching all corners of the country, posing grave protection risks for civilians, limiting access to services and driving deeper food insecurity”.

Many of the people who were displaced were living in the open or sheltering in the jungle. Humanitarian access remains severely restricted, Carden added.

International efforts to ease the crisis have been criticised by activists as inadequate. Ismail Wolff, regional director of the group Fortify Rights, described the response as “ineffective and incompetent”.

“The [UN] security council must take the lead by passing a binding resolution enforcing an arms embargo on the Myanmar military … More pressure should also be applied to Thailand and India to authorise a comprehensive cross-border humanitarian aid effort,” Wolff said.

Contributor

Min Ye Kyaw, Rebecca Ratcliffe and a reporter in Yangon

The GuardianTramp

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