Myanmar: more than 100,000 protest in streets against coup

Demonstrators reject army claim that majority of country support military junta

More than a hundred thousand people have poured on to the streets in Myanmar to voice their anger against the coup and reject an army claim that it has majority support.

At a demonstration in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon – the largest there since the deployment of troops on Sunday – protesters marched with red flags signalling their loyalty to the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and carried signs denouncing the military.

Major junctions were blocked by a “broken down” rally, where drivers left their cars parked across the roads, with bonnets open, and by sit-down protests.

Mass demonstrations were also held in the second-largest city of Mandalay, where students, engineers and farmers were among thousands who took to the streets, and in the capital, Naypyidaw.

The demonstrations followed claims from a military spokesperson on Tuesday that protests would dwindle and that 40 million of the country’s 53 million population backed its power grab.

The military, which once ruled the country for half a century, reiterated its promise to hold fair polls during the press conference, but protesters are unconvinced and have gathered daily to demand the immediate release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other politicians from her party, the National League for Democracy. She is now in house arrest.

“I want Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, my president U Win Myint and other leaders freed immediately,” said a retired teacher, who was among those protesting in Yangon. “We want our democracy back.”

About 1,000 university staff and students gathered outside the Secretariat, a sprawling colonial-era building that once served as the administrative centre for British Burma, to demand the release of their leaders.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, said that before the rallies he had received reports of soldiers being transported into Yangon from other regions, adding that he feared “we could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar”.

“In the past, such troop movements preceded killings, disappearances, and detentions on a mass scale,” he said. By early evening, protests appeared to have been mostly peaceful.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who has not been seen in public since she was deposed on 1 February, appeared in court by video link on Tuesday. She was previously accused of illegally importing walkie-talkies and now faces a second charge for apparently breaking Covid regulations. If convicted, this could prevent her from running in future polls.

Her lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, said he was not informed in advance of the court hearing and so missed the proceedings. “As soon as we heard about it, we [lawyer and the National League for Democracy’s central executive committee] joined the video conference, but it was already over. The judge then explained what had happened,” he said.

He was not given notice, he added, because he has not yet been officially recognised as Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer and has not been granted permission to speak to her. It is unclear how long a future trial might take, he said, but it could last for more than one year.

More than 450 people are confirmed to have been arrested since the coup on 1 February, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, while the military has repeatedly blocked communications. On Tuesday, an internet blackout was imposed for the third night running, according to the monitoring group NetBlocks. The junta has prepared a draft law that would criminalise many online activities and tighten internet surveillance.

It has also attempted to halt protests by imposing a curfew, a ban on gatherings of five or more people, and by using increased force. On Monday in Mandalay, police were joined by troops who used rubber bullets and slingshots to disperse protesters.

Demonstrators light candles during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Tuesday.
Demonstrators light candles during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters

The military has justified seizing power by alleging widespread voter fraud in November elections won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, a claim dismissed by observers.

The spokesman for the military, Zaw Min Tun, said on Tuesday that both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, who is also accused of breaking Covid regulations during election campaigning last year, were in a “safer place” and “in good health”. “It’s not like they were arrested – they are staying at their houses,” the general, who became the country’s vice-minister of information after the coup, told a press conference. Their next court hearing is scheduled for 1 March.

The US, which has announced targeted sanctions against the generals, condemned the new charge against Aung San Suu Kyi, and renewed calls for her release.

China did not initially criticise the coup, however the country’s ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, said on Tuesday that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see”. He added that China had not been informed in advance that the military was planning to seize power, and denied suggestions it was providing military support or technical assistance to create a firewall to limit online access. Protesters have gathered outside China’s embassy over recent days, accusing it of propping up the military.


A reporter in Yangon and Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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