YANGON: Protesters gathered in Myanmar’s biggest city on Monday (Feb 22) despite the ruling junta’s thinly veiled threat to use lethal force if people answered a call for a general strike opposing the military takeover three weeks ago.
Despite roadblocks around the US Embassy in Yangon, more than a thousand protesters gathered there, while 20 military trucks with riot police had arrived nearby.
The crowds gathered after supporters of the Civil Disobedience Movement, a loosely organised group leading the resistance, called for people to unite on Monday's date for a "Spring Revolution".
For protester Kyaw Kyaw in the main city of Yangon, losing pay to join the strike was a small price to pay.
"Nothing's going to happen if my salary is cut but if we stay under a military dictatorship we'll be slaves," he said.
In the capital Naypyidaw, where the military is headquartered, a police water cannon truck and a fleet of other vehicles closed in to break up a procession of chanting protesters who scattered when police on foot rushed in, wrestling several to the ground.
The response of security forces this month has been less deadly than in earlier bouts of turmoil in almost half a century of direct military rule but three protesters have been killed - two shot dead in Mandalay on Saturday, and a woman who died on Friday after being shot more than a week earlier in Naypyidaw.
The army has said one policeman died of injuries sustained during the protests.
Many civil servants have been staying away from work as part of the civil disobedience campaign and government services have been crippled. The military has accused protesters of intimidation and provoking violence.
The junta warned against the general strike in a public announcement carried last Sunday on state television broadcaster MRTV.
"Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer loss of life," the broadcaster said.
Facebook said on Monday it had removed MRTV's pages for violations of its standards, including its violence and incitement policy. On Sunday, it deleted the military's main page for the same reason.
The junta's statement also blamed criminals for past protest violence, 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 got into shoving matches with police and thrown bottles at them when provoked.
In Yangon, trucks cruised the streets Sunday night blaring warnings against attending gatherings of five or more people. A ban on such gatherings was issued shortly after the coup but not widely enforced as cities saw large daily demonstrations.
The government warning did not put people off.
"We need to come out," said San San Maw, 46, at a main rallying point in Yangon.
Later, riot police lined up, apparently preparing to disperse protesters from outside a UN office, but the crowd broke up after singing a festive song that features the line: "Goodbye, we're going."
Crowds elsewhere in Yangon melted away by late afternoon.
As well as local stores, international chains announced closures on Monday, including Yum Brands KFC and delivery service Food Panda, owned by Delivery Hero. Southeast Asian company Grab stopped delivery services too, but left its taxis running.
Authorities were "exercising utmost restraint", the foreign ministry said. It rebuked some countries for remarks it described as interference in Myanmar's internal affairs.
The ominous signs of potential conflict drew attention outside Myanmar, with the US reiterating that it stood with the people of Myanmar.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter the US would take firm action "against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government".
“We call on the military to stop violence, release all those unjustly detained, cease attacks on journalists and activists, and respect the will of the people,” spokesman Ned Price said on Twitter.
Britain, Germany and Japan have condemned the violence and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the military to stop the repression.
The generals put up with years of sanctions after crushing the 1988 protests and are likely to shrug off pressure again.
The army seized power after alleging fraud in Nov 8 elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi's party trounced a pro-military party, detaining her and much of the party leadership. The electoral commission dismissed the fraud complaints.
Myanmar's Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said 640 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup, including former members of government and opponents of the coup.