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DJ More Protests Erupt in Myanmar as Fears of Life Under Military Rule Return

· 02/07/2021 04:23
By Niharika Mandhana

Loud chants of "We don't want military dictatorship, we want democracy" echoed on the streets of Yangon as tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Myanmar's largest city to oppose last week's coup, putting them on a collision course with authorities, who have violently suppressed such demonstrations in the past.

Since they seized power six days ago, Myanmar's generals and their allies have tried to prevent mass protests from mobilizing.

They ordered an internet blackout through Saturday and most of Sunday before service started to resume midafternoon. Political activists and civilian politicians, prominently Aung San Suu Kyi, the hugely popular leader whose government they deposed, are detained. On Saturday, when demonstrations began, widely circulated text messages falsely claimed Ms. Suu Kyi had been released--an effort, activists said, to decrease turnout.

Still, people began streaming out of their homes as early as 9 a.m. on Sunday. Many carried posters of Ms. Suu Kyi, who is confined in her residence in the nation's capital. They shouted, "release our leaders," and wore red T-shirts and headbands--the color associated with her party. Supporters huddled in the opened-up trunks of their cars and waved her party's flag.

Police in riot gear were present and barricades were set up to block demonstrators from marching toward downtown Yangon.

"They can crack down any time, everyone knows that," said Myo Myint Naung, 35, arriving at a protest site. "But we need to participate to end the military dictatorship."

The protests follow a tense week that abruptly forced the country back to the years of fear and uncertainty that are familiar to most citizens, but that many had hoped would never return. Myanmar had begun a shift toward democracy a decade ago after 50 years of military dominance. Now, the generals are back in charge.

Ms. Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, is struggling to keep track of its officials' whereabouts. Many are under detention and others are in hiding to avoid being swept up in military-ordered raids. Win Htein, a senior party member who was imprisoned for years during military rule, was detained on Thursday and faces sedition allegations.

"I am not afraid. I have experienced this before. I am ready for anything," he said in a brief phone call that day, after which he couldn't be reached again.

Authorities also came for Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Ms. Suu Kyi. Mr. Turnell was expecting them, saying in a text to The Wall Street Journal a day earlier: "No one is safe." As he was being detained on Saturday, Mr. Turnell texted: "I am fine, calm, strong, and not guilty of anything."

Activists, party members and experts say it is tough to predict what the coming days and months hold for Myanmar. Among the unknowns are how long Ms. Suu Kyi will remain detained, how the military chief will wield his near-absolute authority, and what measures authorities will take to respond to the growing protest movement.

Thet Swe Win, 35 years old, said bullets are always a part of their tool kit. He remembers a crackdown in 2007, when, as a young activist with the military junta in charge of the country, he dodged live fire. Protesters had amassed to oppose the generals' economic policies and political control that year, and many had paid with their lives.

"They are going to do the same thing again, if not today, then tomorrow or [the] day after," said Mr. Win, a social and political campaigner, his voice hoarse from Saturday's protests.

Police showed up at his house at 2 a.m. on Sunday looking for him, Mr. Win said. He had anticipated the raid and moved to a different location a few days earlier. Others like him were also hiding and arranging for more hide-outs for fellow protesters who are sure to need them, he said.

Mr. Win called on the U.S., United Nations and the international community to "build pressure" and "take real action, quick" to bolster their protest. It breaks his heart, he said, that the hope of democracy in the last 10 years was "just a dream."

"It never really happened," he said.

The democratic shift was far from complete. Although the military allowed a civilian government to take power five years ago, it kept charge of three ministries and a fourth of seats in parliament--enough to block any changes to the constitution that protects its authority. What they couldn't control was Ms. Suu Kyi's popularity.

She won national elections last year by a landslide, handing the military-backed party a humiliating defeat, and was set to begin a second term. The army complained of irregularities in November's vote and on Monday said it was taking over the affairs of the state because its concerns hadn't been addressed

Ms. Suu Kyi, who had spent 15 years under house arrest during the decades of military rule, was once again detained. Her lawyer said police hadn't approved his request to meet her. "I have been trying. I have not been allowed," Khin Maung Zaw said.

The official reason cited for her detention is that soldiers found illegally imported walkie-talkies at her residence--an obscure allegation Mr. Zaw said is only a pretext to keep her locked up. She was remanded in custody for two weeks, after which she would have to appear before a court, he said. He plans to apply for bail at that time, though Ms. Suu Kyi's detention could continue if the application is rejected or if authorities bring additional allegations against her, Mr. Zaw said.

Longer term, he said authorities could use the legal proceedings to disqualify her or exclude her party from any future elections. The military has said it will hold polls, but it hasn't said which parties will be permitted to participate and under what terms.

The military didn't respond to requests for comment.

Chit Min Lay, a former political prisoner and a participant in pro-democracy protests in 1988, said he never imagined the struggle would last this long. "We thought we would have democracy by now," he said from neighboring Thailand, where he now lives. That year, mass demonstrations erupted across the country and were met with violent crackdowns.

"My friends are anxious and very angry about the coup," Mr. Min Lay said. "I don't know if the NLD party can survive this, but I think it can--everybody wants to see the military out of politics."

Feliz Solomon contributed to this article.

Write to Niharika Mandhana at niharika.mandhana@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 07, 2021 04:23 ET (09:23 GMT)

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