Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Myanmar in the first major demonstrations since the military seized power, despite a nationwide internet blackout imposed to stifle dissent.
In the main city Yangon on Saturday, protesters chanted “down with the military dictatorship” and carried images of the ousted leaders Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, whose party won a landslide election in November. The military detained both in raids early on Monday morning and they have not been seen in public since.
Witnesses told Reuters that demonstrators gathered again on Sunday, with thousands of marchers in Yangon carrying red balloons – the colour representing Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party – and chanting: “We don’t want military dictatorship! We want democracy!”
“Tell the world what has happened here,” one of the protesters said. “The world needs to know.”
The military shut down the internet across the country in an attempt to stop the protests. The NetBlocks Internet Observatory reported that connectivity had fallen to 16% of ordinary levels by early afternoon on Saturday. The military had already blocked Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Myanmar’s military had shown that it believed it could “shut the world out and do whatever it wants,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“They’re going to pull down the shutters and intimidate, arrest and abuse everybody who is daring to speak up. The question is how long people are able to do this and whether there will be any splits in ranks within the police or the military.”
The state-run broadcaster MRTV played scenes praising the military all day on Saturday, according to Reuters. Despite the internet blackout, several thousand demonstrators gathered near Yangon University. Many wore red headbands and raised their hands in a three-finger salute, a gesture also used by Thai pro-democracy protesters which symbolises resistance.
“I always disliked the military but now I’m absolutely disgusted by them,” Maea, 30, said.
There was a heavy police presence during the demonstrations, including riot police and water cannon trucks, but according to agency reports there had been no clashes as of Sunday afternoon.
At least two other groups of demonstrators marched through other parts of Myanmar’s main city, and AFP reported that as many as 2,000 people were marching further north in Mandalay.
Saturday’s protests were the biggest since the military seized power last week, prompting fury in the country and a flood of international condemnation. Myanmar spent about five decades under repressive military regimes before making the transition to a more democratic system in 2011.
“This is unacceptable and immoral and we need to let them know. We need more people to join us,” said, Sai 28.
Passersby cheered the protesters, with drivers flashing a three-finger salute in solidarity and blasting out a song that became an anthem during the country’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising, which was brutally put down by the military.
A civil disobedience campaign has grown in recent days, with many doctors and teachers refusing to work. Every evening at about 8pm the sound of clanging metal rings out across Yangon as residents bang pots and pans in solidarity.
The army has justified its takeover by accusing the NLD of widespread fraud in November’s election, but has not provided credible evidence. The NLD won 396 of 476 seats, an even stronger performance than in the historic 2015 election, when the country held its first free vote in decades.
The military-backed Union Solidarity and Development party suffered a humiliating defeat, taking just 33 seats.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who previously spent 15 years in detention campaigning against military rule and remains hugely popular in the country, has been charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkies. President Win Myint is accused of flouting Covid-19 restrictions. Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, said in a message to Reuters on Saturday morning that he was also being detained.
The UN security council released a statement last week that expressed deep concern at the arbitrary detentions, and the US has threatened sanctions.
The US introduced targeted sanctions against the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who now leads the country, in 2019 in response to the army’s brutal crackdown against the Rohingya people. UN investigators said the military operation included mass killings, gang rapes and widespread arson, and was executed with “genocidal intent”.
Moe Thuzar, the co-coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said more general sanctions risked hitting the public. “Past experience has shown all of us that sanctions didn’t hurt the people against whom they were intended primarily, but really set back the country’s development and just created even more socio-economic disparities,” she said.
It is possible that countries with economic ties to Myanmar, such as Japan, could negotiate with the military, focusing on protecting the immediate needs of the people, such as the Covid-19 vaccination programme, Thuzar added.
Myanmar civil society organisations urged internet providers and mobile networks not to comply with the junta’s orders to restrict the internet, accusing them of “legitimising the military’s authority”.
The Norwegian mobile network provider Telenor ASA said it had stressed to the authorities that access to telecom services should be maintained, but that it was bound by local law and its first priority was the safety of its local workers.
The UN human rights office said on Saturday that “internet and communication services must be fully restored to ensure freedom of expression and access to information”.