YANGON (AFP, REUTERS) - Tens of thousands of anti-coup protesters rallied across Myanmar again on Monday (Feb 22) despite a clear threat from the junta that it was prepared to use lethal force to crush what it branded “anarchy”.
Massive street demonstrations and a civil disobedience campaign have choked many government operations, as well as businesses and banks, and the junta late Sunday gave its most ominous signal yet that its patience was nearing an end.
“Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life,” said a statement on state-run broadcaster MRTV.
The statement, read out in Burmese with text of the English version on the screen, cautioned protesters against inciting “riot and anarchy”.
Following the channel's warning on anti-coup protesters against taking action and saying that confrontation could put lives at risk, Facebook took down the pages of the state-run television.
“In line with our global policies, we’ve removed the MRTV and MRTV Live Pages from Facebook for repeated violations of our Community Standards, including our violence and incitement policy,” said Mr Rafael Frankel, Director of Public Policy (Asia-Pacific and Emerging Markets) at Facebook on Monday.
Protesters were undeterred by the warning, with tens of thousands rallying in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and commercial hub on Monday. Thousands also rallied in Naypyidaw, the capital and a military stronghold, with many on motorbikes. Similar protests were also seen in the cities of Myitkyina and Dawei.
Many businesses in Yangon, and in other major cities, were closed on Monday following calls for a general strike to inject more momentum into the civil disobedience movement.
Myanmar’s generals had already responded to the uprising by gradually ratcheting up the use of force, and the number of political prisoners.
Troops and police have used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and some live rounds. Over the weekend, two people were killed when security forces fired at protesters in the city of Mandalay, and a third man was shot dead in Yangon.
A young woman also died on Friday after being shot in the head at a protest and spending almost a fortnight on life support. The woman, whose funeral was held on Sunday, was the first confirmed fatality of the protests, and she has emerged as a potent symbol of the anti-junta movement.
Authorities have detained 640 people since the coup, according to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Those targeted include railway workers, civil servants and bank staff who have walked off their jobs as part of the anti-coup campaign.
The junta has also severely curbed internet access overnight for eight straight days, according to the monitoring group NetBlocks.
Yet, three weeks after seizing power, the junta has failed to stop daily protests and a civil disobedience movement calling for the reversal of the Feb 1 coup and release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Everyone is joining this," said Mr San San Maw, 46, at the Hledan junction in the main city of Yangon, which has become a rallying point for the protests. "We need to come out."
Ms Htet Htet Hlaing, 22, said she was scared and had prayed before joining Monday's demonstration, but would not be discouraged.
"We don't want the junta, we want democracy. We want to create our own future," she said. "My mother didn't stop me from coming out, she only said 'take care'."
In a country where dates are seen as auspicious, protesters noted the significance of the date 22.2.2021, comparing it to demonstrations on Aug 8, 1988 when a previous generation staged anti-military protests which were bloodily suppressed.
The response of security forces this time has been less deadly. Aside from the three protesters that have been killed, the army has said one policeman died of injuries in protests.
The deaths in Mandalay did not discourage protesters on Sunday, when they turned out again in tens of thousands there and in Yangon and elsewhere.
Author and historian Thant Myint-U said the window for a peaceful resolution was closing.
"The outcome of the coming weeks will be determined by just two things: the will of an army that’s crushed many protests before and the courage, skill and determination of the protesters (much of society)," he said on Twitter.
As well as local stores, international chains announced closures on Monday, including Yum Brands' KFC and delivery service Foodpanda, owned by Delivery Hero.
South-east Asian company Grab stopped delivery services too, but left its taxis running.
Protesters were also out in various towns around the country including Myitkyina in the north, Bhamo near the Chinese border and in the central town of Pyinmana, according to media reports.
The authorities were "exercising utmost restraint", the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It rebuked some foreign countries for remarks it described as flagrant interference in Myanmar's internal affairs.
Myanmar’s foreign ministry on Sunday justified its use of force against protesters, and accused the United Nations and other governments of “flagrant interference” in the country’s internal affairs.
“Despite facing the unlawful demonstrations, incitements of unrest and violence, the authorities concerned are exercising utmost restraint through minimum use of force to address the disturbances,” it said in a statement.
The United States, Canada and Britain have imposed sanctions on the generals running Myanmar, while Washington warned again on Sunday of increased pressure. European Union foreign ministers are expected to meet Monday to approve their own sanctions against Myanmar’s generals.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter the United States would continue to "take firm action" against the authorities violently cracking down on opponents of the coup in the South-east Asian country that is also known as Burma.
"We stand with the people of Burma," he said.
Britain, Germany, Japan and Singapore have also condemned the violence and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said lethal force was unacceptable.
Residents in Yangon said roads to some embassies, including the US embassy, were blocked on Monday. The diplomatic missions have become gathering points for protesters calling for foreign intervention.
UN special rapporteur on human rights to Myanmar, Mr Tom Andrews, said he was deeply concerned by the junta's warning to protesters.
"Unlike in 1988, actions by security forces are being recorded and you will be held accountable," he said on Twitter.
The army seized power after alleging fraud in the Nov 8 elections that were swept by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), detaining her and much of the party leadership.
The electoral commission dismissed the fraud complaints.