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Tens of thousands rise up against the coup in Myanmar

People are protesting in defiance, a week after a military coup.

Protesters make three-finger salutes and hold up banners and posters as they march on February 8, 2021, in downtown Yangon, Myanmar. 
Stringer/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Tens of thousands of protesters have flooded the streets of Myanmar’s cities for three days as resistance mounts to the military’s takeover last week.

Demonstrators are demanding that the results of the most recent election be honored and civilian government restored, after the military’s coup last week that led to the arrest of hundreds of pro-democracy leaders, including the country’s civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Monday saw the largest demonstrations so far, with protesters swarming the streets in Yangon, the country’s largest city, and far beyond. Reports indicate a wide swath of people joined in the demonstrations, from young activists to Buddhist monks to teachers, and many more. Some activists have called for a general strike this week, though it’s not clear how widely that message has circulated, compared to the outpouring on the streets.

Many demonstrators wore red, the color of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which overwhelmingly won a popular mandate in the last election. Protesters held up three fingers in a salute — a symbol of resistance from the Hunger Games franchise that’s been adopted by pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar and other countries in the region.

Groups held signs and chanted slogans, many calling for the release of Suu Kyi. Traffic snarled as cars and buses slowed, honking horns in support.

Protesters hold up the three-finger salute as they take part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on February 8, 2021.
Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images

“We are young people fighting for democracy and against the military coup,” a 23-year-old protester in Yangon told the Guardian. “They must release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and our president,” the protester continued, using an honorific often used for married and older women in Myanmar. “When the military cut off social media and the internet, taking to the streets was the only thing we could do.”

It is a remarkable show of defiance, particularly given the Myanmar military’s history of violent crackdowns against popular protests.

So far, the demonstrations have largely been peaceful. The military also cut off internet access on Saturday, though it was restored the next day. Police did fire water cannons on demonstrators in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw. In Myawaddy, near the border with Thailand, shots were reportedly fired as officers tried to disperse a crowd.

But it’s a tenuous equilibrium, as trucks of counterprotesters, whom many believe are being sent in by the military, began arriving at protests Monday.

Wai Wai Nu, the founder and executive director of the Women’s Peace Network in Burma (an older name for Myanmar) said on a call with reporters Monday morning that concerns are growing that there will be a clash, or an attack on the pro-democracy protesters by the pro-military protesters. “That is a major concern for everybody in Myanmar,” she said.

A protester waves a red flag as others make three-finger salutes and hold up banners and posters as they march on February 8, 2021 in downtown Yangon.
Stringer/Getty Images

On Monday, the Myanmar military imposed a curfew in townships in Yangon and Mandalay, another major city. The restrictions ban gatherings of more than five people from 8 pm to 4 am.

“Democracy can be destroyed if there is no discipline,” said a statement from the Ministry of Information, read on the state television station MRTV, according to the Associated Press. “We will have to take legal actions to prevent acts that are violating state stability, public safety and the rule of law.”

The protests are remarkable — but Myanmar’s future is still in doubt

The mass protests come a week after Myanmar’s military ousted the civilian government, terminating even the facade of democracy in the country.

The military claimed it was forced to take this action because of widespread irregularities in November’s parliamentary elections, in which Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won a huge victory, securing 396 seats in Parliament. Neither the country’s Union Election Commission nor international observers found evidence of widespread irregularities that would have changed the outcome of the vote.

The military has since arrested Suu Kyi and hundreds of members of her party, along with other activists and public figures. Some are being held on dubious charges; Suu Kyi, for example, has been charged with smuggling illegal walkie-talkies. The military has said it will retain control for at least a year, at which point it will host new elections, supervised by a new “reformed” election commission.

The Myanmar military had always retained significant control, despite the democratic reforms that began a decade ago and allowed for elections and a degree of civilian leadership. The coup undermined even that imperfect democracy. But the protests are a sign that many in Myanmar refuse to go back to the darkest days of military control.

Activists are demanding the release of the political detainees and recognition of the November election results. Some are pushing for even bigger demands, including the establishment of a real democracy by abolishing the 2008 constitution that keeps the military largely in control.

Wai Wai Nu, the activist, said that civil society groups and activists are also calling for a “true democracy,” one that grants recognition to and includes Myanmar’s many ethnic and religious minority groups, many of whom were excluded even from Myanmar’s hybrid democratic system.

That includes groups like the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group in the country’s Rakhine state. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled to neighboring Bangladesh following atrocities and war crimes by the Myanmar military that the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

A protester wearing a mask holds a placard reading #Reject Military Coup during the protest.
Theint Mon Soe/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Rohingya activists said they are standing with pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar, even as they recognize that their persecution continued despite democratic reforms, and under Suu Kyi’s leadership.

“As a Rohingya, as a citizen of Burma, I am one to express solidarity, and I’m standing with the people of Burma, who are fighting for the democracy,” Tun Khin, president of Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, said on a call with reporters Monday, adding that he was glad to see Rohingya joining the protests, some of whom did so from refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Activists are also looking outward to see how the international community can bolster their fight for democracy, including with targeted sanctions against the military or an arms embargo. They’ve also called for greater recognition of the Rohingya genocide, as many activists fear the thousands of Rohingya still living in the country may face greater persecution with the full return of the military.

The United States and many of its allies have condemned the coup. The Biden administration has said it will review economic sanctions, but it has few options to really pressure the Myanmar military.

There are also limits on how much the international community can do, especially as China may be more than happy to partner with Myanmar’s military. All of this makes the pro-democracy protests as risky as ever. Yet the people of Myanmar are, for now, still taking to the streets.

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