Protesters Rally Across Myanmar, Defying Coup and Risking Crackdown

People marched through Monywa, in the heart of Myanmar, and Mawlamyine, on the eastern coast, demanding an end to military rule. They refused to disperse in the casino town of Myawaddy, even when the police fired warning shots.

In Sagaing Division, in the foothills of the Himalayas, a man from the Naga ethnic group wearing a fur hat garnished with hornbill feathers and boar tusks raised his arm in a defiant salute. And in Yangon, the largest city in the country, columns of red-clad protesters surged toward Sule Pagoda from as far as the eye could see.

Nearly a week after the country’s generals staged a coup, detaining civilian leaders and catapulting Myanmar back to army rule, people are speaking up. By the hundreds of thousands on the weekend, they marched in cities and towns across the country. They carried red balloons and ribbons, as well as the crimson flag, emblazoned with a white star and golden fighting peacock, of the ousted National League of Democracy party.

And they chanted in unison for the freedom, once again, of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader who spent 15 years under house arrest during the military’s nearly 50-year grip on power. For five years, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had led a civilian government that had received two decisive mandates from the electorate, even as the military retained much authority. The army coup on Feb. 1 ended any illusion of power sharing.

In the past, the military has met rallies like these with guns, shooting Buddhist monks and student protesters alike. Its response already includes dozens of arrests and telecommunications outages that evoked the days of isolation under junta rule. But the memory of army massacres of pro-democracy protesters as recently as 2007 did not stop marchers from pouring onto the streets over the weekend.

“I don’t care if they shoot because under the military, our lives will be dead anyway,” said Ko Nyi Zaw, who joined a rally on Sunday. “Before we die completely, we have to protest.”

Even in Naypyidaw, the capital that was purpose-built by the generals early this century, hundreds of motorcycles rolled across normally empty avenues, streaming National League for Democracy flags.

In the refugee camps in Bangladesh, where about a million Rohingya Muslims who fled army pogroms in Myanmar now shelter, people joined the call for a restoration of civilian government, even if Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi defended the military against accusations of genocide from international prosecutors.

“They killed Rohingya, they tortured us and we haven’t forgotten those brutal days,” said Abdur Rahim, who escaped from Myanmar and now lives in the Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh, the largest single refugee settlement in the world. “We express solidarity with those who are protesting against the military government in Myanmar.”

The internet was severed in Myanmar on Saturday, just like during the coup, but was restored a day later. No one knew, though, when another outage might cut off the country again. In the hours when they could, protesters posted live videos on Facebook. Tens of millions of people offered their support online, a stream of hearts and likes for each city’s display of defiance.

On Saturday night, what sounded for a moment like gunfire crackled through the air in Yangon and the city of Mandalay, but the noise turned out to be firecrackers. A rumor, emanating first from text messages among soldiers, radiated out into the population: Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi had been freed. People lit firecrackers in delight and sang protest anthems.

But the rumor was just that, and perhaps even disinformation.

On Sunday, some of the protesters said they thought the military had spread the false rumor about Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in order to stop people from coming out. They said the possibility of such psychological warfare, during an internet blackout, had angered them.

“The military is spreading fake news about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Ma Maw Maw Tun, who marched on Sunday. “I don’t accept that, and we will protest until the military dictatorship is gone and the civilian government returns.”

Over the weekend, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar tweeted in support of “the right of the people of Myanmar to protest in support of the democratically elected government and their right to freely access information.”

“We repeat our calls for the military to relinquish power, restore the democratically elected government, release those detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence,” a second tweet said.

In Yangon, the street protests on Sunday felt like a giant party, a release from the stress of a military putsch and also a moment to ignore the coronavirus pandemic through the first mass gathering in months.

But the specter of the military still loomed. Medics stood on guard, awaiting what they feared was to come. People monitored movements from military bases, in case soldiers were seen heading toward the protests. Demonstrators placed food, water and red roses in front of police officers in riot gear as a peace offering. Some knelt in obeisance.

Officials from the National League for Democracy said that as a party they did not want people on the streets. Instead, they urged a campaign of civil disobedience, which has been growing with each day, too.

U Aung Kyaw Thu, a party veteran who survived the military’s bloody crackdown in 1988, said memories of that massacre still loomed.

“I want people to stay at home because if people cannot restrain their emotions, then the tensions will get bigger and there will be more casualties,” he said. “They will shoot when they want, and I am afraid for the people.”

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Jonny Richards

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