Yangon, Myanmar – Myanmar’s anti-coup protesters returned to the streets in force on Wednesday with the biggest street demonstrations since troops fanned out around the country to quell opposition to the new military junta.
Thousands of people rallied in Yangon, the nation’s biggest city, with protesters blockading roads with vehicles to stop security forces from moving around the commercial capital.
Much of the country has been in open revolt since troops deposed Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s government at the start of the month and charged her under an obscure import law. The military justified its power seizure by alleging widespread voter fraud in November elections won by Suu Kyi’s party.
Wednesday’s crowds came in defiance of more violent efforts by the regime to bring resistance to heel, following nationwide street protests and a disobedience campaign encouraging civil servants to strike.
“We have to fight until the end,” said Nilar, a 21-year-old student who asked not to use her real name.
“We need to show our unity and strength to end military rule. People need to come out on the streets.”
Demonstrations over the past two days had been noticeably smaller since troops were deployed around Yangon on the weekend.
But social media platforms were flooded with calls for a show of force by protesters in the hours before the junta imposed a third consecutive overnight internet blackout.
U.N. special rapporteur Tom Andrews warned that reports of soldiers being brought into Yangon could lead to the situation there spiraling out of control.
“I fear that Wednesday has the potential for violence on a greater scale in Myanmar than we have seen since the illegal takeover of the government on February 1,” Andrews said in a statement.
“We could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar.”
There were no signs of a strong troop presence mobilized in Yangon on Wednesday morning.
In recent days rubber bullets, tear gas and even slingshots have been used against protesters.
One young woman remains in a critical condition in the capital Naypyidaw after being shot in the head last week.
The military said a police officer had died in Mandalay after a confrontation with protesters on Sunday.
“Those who committed lawless action on the police officer will be dealt with as necessary,” an army statement said.
Myanmar’s military on Wednesday drew fresh international criticism by slapping a new charge on Suu Kyi.
After her detention in a dawn raid on Feb. 1 — the day of the coup — she was charged under an obscure import and export law, over walkie talkies that were found in her home during a search.
The Nobel laureate’s lawyer said Tuesday she had been hit with a second charge, of violating the country’s disaster management law.
“She was charged under section 8 of the Export and Import law and section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management law as well,” Khin Maung Zaw said.
While it was unclear how the disaster law applied in Suu Kyi’s case, it has been used against deposed President Win Myint — also arrested on Feb. 1 — relating to a campaign event that the junta alleges broke coronavirus-related restrictions.
Khin Maung Zaw added that Suu Kyi and Win Myint, both of whom he has yet to have any contact with, were expected to appear via videoconference during a March 1 trial.
The United States said it was “disturbed” by the news, and renewed demands for her release.
“We call on the Burmese military to immediately release all unjustly detained civilian and political leaders, journalists and human rights activists and other members of civil society as well as to restore the democratically elected government,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Earlier, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also voiced his condemnation.
“The charges against Aung San Suu Kyi are politically motivated,” he said in a statement, warning, “We will ensure those responsible are held to account.”
More than 420 people have been arrested since the coup, according to a list of confirmed detentions from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said Tuesday that both Suu Kyi and Win Myint were in a “safer place” and “in good health.”
“It’s not like they were arrested — they are staying at their houses,” the general, who became the country’s vice minister of information after the coup, told a news conference.
The United States and Britain were not alone in their condemnation of the leaders of Myanmar’s new military administration, which insists it took power lawfully.
The Chinese ambassador to Myanmar said Tuesday that “the current development in Myanmar is absolutely not what China wants to see.”
He added that Beijing had good relations with Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.
So far, only Washington has announced targeted sanctions against the generals, calling on them to relinquish power.
Military spokesman Zaw Min Tun said that “sanctions are expected,” and that the regime would continue to “maintain friendly relations” with the international community.
U.N. envoy Christine Schraner Burgener spoke to junta number two Soe Win on Monday and warned him that the regime’s internet blackouts “undermine core democratic principles,” according to a spokesman.
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