Myanmar protesters laugh off army claims of public support
Tens of thousands gather across the country to protest the coup, vowing to never back down, as UN worries about violence grow
Bangkok/Singapore — Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Myanmar on Wednesday, rejecting the army’s assertion that the public supports its overthrow of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and vowing they would not be cowed in their bid to end military rule.
Opponents of the February 1 military coup are deeply sceptical of junta assurances, given at a news conference on Tuesday, that there would be a fair election and it would hand over power, even as police filed an additional charge against Suu Kyi.
The Nobel peace laureate, detained since the coup, now faces a charge of violating a Natural Disaster Management Law as well as charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkies. Her next hearing is set for March 1.
“We love democracy and hate the junta,” Sithu Maung, an elected member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) told tens of thousands of people at the Sule Pagoda, a central protest site in the main city of Yangon. “We must be the last generation to experience a coup.”
Brig-Gen Zaw Min Tun, spokesperson for the ruling council, told the Tuesday news conference that 40-million of the 53-million population supported the military’s action. Sithu Maung poked fun at that saying: “We’re showing here that we’re not in that 40-million.”
Suu Kyi’s party swept a November 8 election as widely expected, but the army alleges there was fraud. It said its seizure of power was in line with the constitution and it remained committed to democracy.
A protester who gave her name as Khin was scornful. “They said there was vote fraud but look at the people here,” she said.
The coup that cut short the Southeast Asian country’s unsteady transition towards democracy has prompted daily demonstrations since February 6. The takeover has also drawn strong Western criticism, with renewed anger from Washington and London over the additional charge for Suu Kyi.
Though China has taken a softer line, its ambassador in Myanmar on Tuesday dismissed accusations it supported the coup. Despite that, protesters also gathered outside the Chinese embassy.
Tens of thousands took to the streets of the city of Mandalay, where some people also blocked its main rail link, and crowds gathered in several other places.
Photographs from the small central town of Khin U showed a sea of people in straw hats and masks due to the pandemic listening to speeches. Thousands marched in the capital, Naypyitaw, and hundreds in the southern town of Mawlamyine, witnesses said. Both places saw clashes last week.
There were no reports of serious trouble on Wednesday.
Earlier, UN special rapporteur Tom Andrews said he feared the possibility of violence against the protesters and made an urgent call on any country with influence over the generals, and businesses, to press them to avoid it.
In Yangon and elsewhere, motorists responded to a “broken-down car campaign” spread on social media, stopping their supposedly stalled cars, with bonnets raised, on streets and bridges to block them to police and military trucks.
Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners group said more than 450 arrests had been made since the coup. Those arrested include much of the NLD’s senior leadership.
The suspension of the internet at night has added to a sense of fear.
Zaw Min Tun told the news conference, the junta’s first since the coup, that the military was giving a guarantee that an election would be held and power handed to the winner. He gave no timeframe, but said the army would not be in power for long.
The last stretch of army rule lasted nearly half a century before democratic reforms began in 2011. Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years under house arrest for her efforts to bring democracy.
The US is “disturbed” by reports of the additional criminal charge against Suu Kyi, state department spokesperson Ned Price said. Washington imposed new sanctions on the military last week. No additional measures were announced on Tuesday. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also decried the new criminal charge, saying the military “fabricated” it.
The unrest has revived memories of bloody suppression of protests under previous juntas. Police have opened fire several times, mostly with rubber bullets, to disperse protesters. A protester who was shot in the head in Naypyitaw last week is not expected to survive.
A policeman died of injuries sustained in a protest in Mandalay on Monday, the military said.
As well as the demonstrations in towns across the ethnically diverse country, a civil disobedience movement has brought strikes that are crippling many functions of government.
Actor Pyay Ti Oo said opposition cannot be quelled. “They say we’re like a brush fire and will stop after a while but will we? No. We won’t stop until we succeed,” he told the crowd.
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