YANGON: A call for a Monday (Feb 22) general strike by demonstrators in Myanmar protesting the military’s Feb 1 seizure of power has been met by the ruling junta with a thinly veiled threat to use lethal force, raising the possibility of major clashes.
The call for a general strike was made on Sunday by the Civil Disobedience Movement, a loosely organised group leading resistance to the army’s takeover. It asked people to gather together for the Five Twos - referring to the digits in Monday’s date - to make a “Spring Revolution”.
State television broadcaster MRTV late on Sunday carried a public announcement from the junta, formally called the State Administration Council, warning against the general strike.
“It is found that the protesters have raised their incitement towards riot and anarchy mob on the day of 22 February. Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life,” it said in English-language text shown onscreen. The spoken announcement in Burmese said the same thing.
Another part of the statement blamed protesters whose numbers allegedly included criminal gangs for violence at demonstrations, with the result that “the security force members had to fire back”. Three protesters have been shot dead so far.
The protest movement has embraced nonviolence and only occasionally gotten into shoving matches with police and thrown bottles at them when provoked.
In Yangon, the country’s biggest city and commercial capital, trucks cruised the streets on Sunday night blaring announcements that people should not attend protests on Monday and must honour a ban on gatherings of five or more people.
The ban on gathering was issued shortly after the coup but not enforced in Yangon, which for the past two weeks has been the scene of large daily demonstrations.
Many social media posts ahead of the scheduled nightly 1am cut-off of Internet access service said security forces had set up roadblocks at strategic points in the city, including bridges and on streets leading to foreign embassies.
Information on Twitter accounts that have proven reliable in the past said that the normal blocking of Internet access from 1am to 9am would be extended to noon in Yangon.
Earlier on Sunday, crowds in Myanmar’s capital attended a funeral for the young woman who was the first person confirmed to have been killed in the protests, while demonstrators also mourned two other protesters who were shot dead on Saturday.
Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing was shot in the head by police on Feb 9, two days before her 20th birthday, at a protest in Naypyidaw, and died on Friday.
Mourners lined the entrance to a cemetery in the city as the hearse carrying her body arrived and was taken to a crematorium where more people had gathered. They silently raised their hands in three-fingered salutes - a sign of defiance and resistance adopted from neighbouring Thailand - as the black and gold vehicle rolled slowly past.
Inside the crematorium hall, the lid on Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing’s coffin was partially removed to allow a last glimpse of her head resting on a bed of red and white roses before she was cremated. Members of the crowd outside chanted: “Our uprising must succeed!”
Elsewhere in Myanmar, protesters against the coup that ousted the nation’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, gathered again on Sunday.
Demonstrators turned out in force in Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, where security forces shot two people dead on Saturday near a dockyard where the authorities had been trying to force workers to load a boat. The workers, like railway workers and truckers and many civil servants, have joined the civil disobedience campaign against the junta.
The shooting broke out after neighbourhood residents rushed to the Yadanabon dock to try to assist the workers in their resistance. One of the victims, described as a teenage boy, was shot in the head and died immediately, while another was shot in the chest and died en route to a hospital.
The new deaths drew quick and strong reactions from the international community.
“I am horrified at more loss of life, including a teenage boy in Mandalay, as the ruling junta escalates its brutality in Myanmar,” Tom Andrews, the United Nation's independent investigator for human rights in the country, said on Twitter.
“From water cannons to rubber bullets to tear gas and now hardened troops firing point blank at peaceful protesters. This madness must end, now!”
The authorities have continued arrests that began on the day of the Feb 1 coup, when Aung San Suu Kyi and members of the government were detained. According to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 640 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced, with 593, including Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, still in detention.
The junta took power after detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and preventing parliament from convening, claiming elections last November were tainted by voting irregularities. The election outcome, in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide, was affirmed by an election commission that has since been replaced by the military. The junta says it will hold new elections in a year’s time.
The coup was a major setback to Myanmar’s transition to democracy after 50 years of army rule that began with a 1962 coup.
Aung San Suu Kyi came to power after her party won a 2015 election, but the generals retained substantial power under the constitution, which had been adopted under a military regime.