Protesters opposed to Myanmar's military coup defied bans on big gatherings to extend the largest demonstrations in more than a decade on Tuesday, chanting and confronting police who fired water cannons and arrested more than two dozen people.
The military moved soldiers into the streets of the country’s commercial capital, Yangon, as tens of thousands of protesters gathered.
Police in the capital, Naypyitaw, fired gunshots into the air to disperse demonstrations, witnesses said. One witness said demonstrators were running away as guns were fired into the air, but not in the direction of the crowd. The witness said police had initially used water cannons and tried to push a large crowd back, but demonstrators responded with projectiles. Footage on social media showed people running, with the sound of several gunshots in the distance.
Soldiers blocked all main roads in the neighborhood of Hledan, near Yangon University, forcing some protesters to retreat, with as many as 10 army vehicles full of soldiers heading into the area along with at least six water cannons, according to demonstrators in the area and posts on social media.
Video in Bago, northeast of Yangon, also showed police firing water cannons and confronting a large crowd.
Police arrested at least 27 demonstrators in the second-biggest city Mandalay, including a journalist, local media organizations said.
The developments have put the youth-led anti-coup movement on a potential collision course with a military that has a history of deadly crackdowns against dissent.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators have swarmed streets across the Southeast Asian nation since the weekend, using social media to quickly mobilize supporters with three main demands: the release of civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, recognition of the 2020 election results won by her party and a withdrawal of the military from politics.
In his first remarks since the coup, military chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing defended his actions by repeating claims of voter fraud in November’s election that have been disputed by the election commission, international observers and Suu Kyi’s party. He also reiterated that the army would hold an election after the yearlong state of emergency and respect the outcome.
"We request everyone to cooperate with us for the good of the country,” Min Aung Hlaing said. In separate remarks broadcast on military-run Myawady HD later Monday, he called the coup "unavoidable,” said the military would guarantee all existing investment projects and overhaul the constitutional court while vowing the country would "get back on track within a short period of time.”
The coup reversed a decade of democratic progress that showed Myanmar’s younger generation an alternative to the generals who have run the country for most of its history since it achieved independence from Britain in 1948. International pressure has continued to grow, with the U.S. reiterating its plan to renew sanctions and New Zealand suspending high-level political and military contact with Myanmar.
"It’s hard to see the military backing down,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of "In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century.” "All this puts the two sides on a collision course.”
Myanmar’s biggest protests in more than a decade began with an online call for "civil disobedience” in Yangon and quickly spread to other cities, prompting the military regime to shut off the internet and block platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Activists in the traditionally conservative country have held up expletive-laden placards taunting a military that has violently suppressed dissent during similar protests in 1988 and 2007.
Many of the protesters were too young or not around to remember those deadly crackdowns: A United Nations report found 31 people were killed in 2007, while hundreds or possibly thousands were killed in 1988. The demonstrators now on the streets say they are not scared of the military, and hope to convince soldiers to join their fight against the coup — even as authorities in Naypyidaw warned protesters they would be shot with real bullets if they breached police lines.
"We respect those who lost their lives for the fight against democracy in Myanmar — they are our heroes too, so we are not afraid of potential military crackdowns,” Aung Ko Min, a 20-year-old student at Dagon University in Yangon, said as he marched in the protests on Monday prior to the announcement of martial law. "We expect some police and soldiers to join our peaceful protests in the end.”
The protesters are the latest members of Asia’s so-called Milk Tea Alliance fighting for democracy in places such as Hong Kong and Thailand. Still, it remains to be seen if they will have any more success in pressuring authoritarians to back down.
The peaceful protests in Myanmar have been similar to those in Thailand seeking to reform the monarchy, and many protesters in Yangon have adopted the three-finger salute made popular by their neighbors in Bangkok. Both of those movements have used social media in a similar way to demonstrators in Hong Kong, where protests turned more violent. In Hong Kong and Thailand, authorities have not yielded to demands and stacked legal charges on key protest leaders.
Since the 2007 protests, Myanmar has opened the economy, allowing foreign participation in industries such as energy exploration and banking, while liberalizing the telecom sector to allow millions of people to access mobile phones and internet for the first time. It also lifted tight censorship rules and accepted a landslide victory by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in 2015 elections.
A confidential U.K. foreign office assessment seen by Bloomberg suggested army chief Min Aung Hlaing will seek to crush Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party and install himself as president.
Even so, Myanmar’s generals might exercise caution this time around given the protests are being widely broadcast on social media despite the internet curbs, according to Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based political analyst.
"The absence of bloodshed — a hallmark of military reactions to past protests — would represent a noteworthy success,” said Marston, who added that the demonstrations may also prompt the military to negotiate a political settlement with Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi, who is being held along with other senior leaders of her NLD party and the civilian-led government, has called on supporters to resist the generals. Citizens appeared determined to fulfill her wishes.
On the streets, the unrest has revived memories of almost half a century of military rule.
"The coup always comes into our thoughts, every time we eat, work and even during resting time," said Yangon resident Khin Min Soe. "We are so disappointed and so sad whenever we think about why this has befallen us again."
"We want to be the last generation that lived under the military rule in Myanmar,” said shopkeeper Zaw Phyo Wai, 45. "This is not the fight between the NLD and the military. This is the fight between democracy and dictatorship.”
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