Myanmar protesters hold general strike as crowds push for 'five twos revolution'

Protesters compare date – 22.2.2021 – to 8 August 1988, when military cracked down on pro-democracy rallies

Protesters across Myanmar have held a general strike, taking to the streets across the country and shutting many businesses, in one of the largest nationwide shows of opposition to the military since it seized power three weeks ago.

Crowds assembled in Yangon, Naypyidaw, Mandalay and elsewhere on Monday, despite an apparent threat from the junta that it would again use deadly violence against demonstrators.

The protests appeared to pass peacefully, though in Naypyidaw reports on social media suggested that 200 people, including many young people, had been detained. If confirmed, this is likely the largest round up of protesters since the coup. Footage showed police chasing protesters on foot, while one man was shoved into the back of a police van.

Activists had called for mass demonstrations on Monday, a protest that has been referred to as the “five twos revolution”, a reference to the date, 22.2.2021. Protesters have compared the date to 8 August 1988 – or 8.8.88 – when pro-democracy demonstrations challenged military rule, but were brutally crushed by the army.

In a broadcast on the state-run MRTV on Sunday night, the army accused protesters of “ inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life”.

On Monday morning, huge crowds of protesters marched regardless.

On 8 August 1988 – a date chosen for its numerological significance – a general strike was held across Myanmar, then known as Burma. Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured on to the streets to demand an end to 26 years of repressive army rule and call for economic reforms.

Students, who led the strike, had been demonstrating against the army for months. By August, they were joined by workers, including labourers, medics, civil servants, lawyers and even soldiers.

The military, shocked by the scale of the protests, responded with force. Troops opened fire on protesters, killing and injuring hundreds. On 10 August, the army attacked Rangoon general hospital, where wounded protesters were being treated, killing nurses and doctors. It was a show of brutality that appalled the public. Days later, Sein Lwin, who had replaced the dictator Ne Win as president, resigned after weeks in power.

As protests gripped the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had recently returned to the country from the UK, emerged as a key pro-democracy leader, giving her first major speech on 26 August to huge crowds at Shwedagon Pagoda. In front of hundreds of thousands of people, she called for a multi-party democracy and free elections.

After weeks of political chaos, however, and violent repression of protests, the army re-took control of the country, seizing power on 18 September. Protesters who refused to leave the streets were shot. Many student leaders fled or were jailed. By the end of the year, thousands had been killed. Rebecca Ratcliffe

In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, streams of students, activists and workers headed for Sule Pagoda, a rallying point near City Hall where security forces had positioned barricades and water cannon. Most businesses, including international chains, were closed, with protesters instead sharing food and drinks.

Min, 41, a seaman who was volunteering to collect rubbish, said the recent killing of three protesters had made people more determined. “The military wants us to get angry and attack them,” he said. “Then it would be a civil war and the UN and Nato would never come. We will continue peacefully. We just want our leaders and democracy back. We are ready to die for that.”

At Hledan Junction, another rallying point for protesters, crowds were their largest since the 1 February coup. Riot police lined up outside the UN office in the city, but people left voluntarily after singing a song that features the line “Goodbye, we’re going”.

Rallies were also held in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, in Myitkyina in the north, Bhamo near the Chinese border and in the central town of Pyinmana.

Across the country, people were heeding a call by the Civil Disobedience Movement, a loosely organised group, for a “spring revolution”.

Demonstrations have been held almost daily since the military seized power on 1 February, at times drawing hundreds of thousands on to the streets of major cities and towns. Workers from across the country – including railway staff, doctors, teachers, bank employees and factory workers – have gone on strike as part of a civil disobedience movement that aims to paralyse the country.

The author and historian Thant Myint-U said the window for a peaceful resolution was closing. “The outcome of the coming weeks will be determined by just two things: the will of an army that’s crushed many protests before, and the courage, skill and determination of the protesters (much of society),” he wrote on Twitter.

Three protesters have been killed in recent weeks, including a teenage boy and young man who were killed in Mandalay on Saturday when police, supported by frontline troops, used live ammunition to disperse crowds. Security forces shot at ambulances as the injured were carried away by medical volunteers, one witness told the Guardian, while teargas was fired into nearby homes.

Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said he was horrified by the further loss of life over the weekend. “From water cannons to rubber bullets to teargas and now hardened troops firing point blank at peaceful protesters. This madness must end, now,” he said.

Demonstrators hold placards calling for the release of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against the Myanmar military coup, in Yangon,
Demonstrators hold placards calling for the release of the detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a protest against the military coup in Yangon. Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Earlier this month in the capital, Naypyidaw, Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, a grocery store worker, was shot in the head by police. She was treated in intensive care, but died days after her 20th birthday.

Many of the demonstrators are young people who were not alive during the 1988 uprisings and were infants during the last anti-military mass protests in 2007. They find the idea that their country could once again be ruled by oppressive generals absurd.

“Going back to what it was would be so bad,” said a 23-year-old video producer, who was protesting alongside a rapper and a digital artist. “They have already started to make laws that would prevent our protests and take away our rights.”

An internet blackout, which has been imposed every night for the past week, remained in place for most of Monday morning in Yangon, apparently an attempt to prevent activists from organising.

On Sunday night, security forces set up roadblocks at key locations in the city, including on bridges and on streets leading to foreign embassies. Trucks also drove around the city, blaring loudspeaker announcements that people should not attend protests on Monday and that they must observe a ban on gatherings of five or more people.

Hundreds attend the funeral in Naypyidaw of Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing.
Hundreds attend the funeral in Naypyidaw of Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing. Photograph: Reuters

The military has justified its takeover by claiming, without evidence, that there was widespread fraud in elections in November, which were won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. She remains under house arrest, as does President Win Myint.

At least 640 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup, according to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Some 593 are in detention.

The coup, and the recent use of deadly violence against protesters, has been condemned by the United Nations, as well as by France, Japan, Germany Singapore and Britain. EU foreign ministers, who met on Monday to discuss their response, said they were ready to adopt “restrictive measures targeting those directly responsible for the military coup and their economic interests”.


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

The GuardianTramp

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