YANGON (REUTERS, AFP) - Opponents of Myanmar’s military coup gathered on Wednesday (Feb 17) for what they hope will be a major show of opposition to the army’s assertion of public support for overthrowing elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, despite its promise of new elections.
They voiced scepticism at the junta’s promise at a news conference on Tuesday that there would be a fair election and it would hand over power, even as police filed an additional charge against Ms Suu Kyi.
The Nobel Peace laureate, detained since the Feb 1 coup, now faces a charge of violating a Natural Disaster Management Law as well as charges of illegally importing six walkie talkie radios.
At a hearing by video conference on Tuesday, her next hearing was set for March 1.
“What they said was totally untrue. I don’t acknowledge them at all,” a protester who gave her name as Khin said of the military’s news conference, when it again defended the coup saying a Nov 8 election, swept by Suu Kyi’s party, was fraudulent.
“They said there was vote fraud but look at the people here now,” said Khin who was among thousands gathering at the Sule Pagoda, a central protest site in the main city of Yangon.
“Let’s gather in millions to take down the dictators,” wrote activist Khin Sandar on Facebook.
Kyi Toe, a senior member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party who has not yet been arrested, said “let’s march en masse. Let’s show our force against the coup government that has destroyed the future of youth, the future of our country.”
In Yangon and elsewhere, motorists responded to a “broken-down car campaign” spreading on social media, stopping their supposedly stalled cars, with bonnets raised, on streets and bridges to block them to police and military trucks.
“We want the truth,” said Ko Ye, 26, whose taxi was part of the break-down protest at the Sule Pagoda.
“The truth is democracy and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.”
Taxi driver Thein Naing said he was taking part in the protest after giving up hope of doing any business on Wednesday, with petrol prices so high and traffic even more grid-locked than usual.
“Everyone is facing difficulties,” he said.
The car campaign came as democracy activists were aiming to draw huge crowds in Yangon and elsewhere in what they hope will be a major show of opposition to the army’s overthrow and arrest of Ms Suu Kyi.
But it risked being too successful for its own good and preventing opponents of the coup joining the protest, one activist said.
“There need to be millions of protesters at Sule,” said activist Maung Saung Kha, referring to a central Yangon protest site. “Stop the ‘broken-down car’ at 11am and help the protesters get to Sule as soon as possible.”
The coup that cut short the South-east Asian country’s unsteady transition towards democracy has prompted daily demonstrations since Feb 6, some drawing hundreds of thousands of people.
The army takeover has also drawn strong Western criticism, with renewed anger from Washington and London over the additional charge for Ms Suu Kyi.
The United States said it was “disturbed” by the news, and renewed demands for Ms Suu Kyi’s release.
“We call on the Burmese military to immediately release all unjustly detained civilian and political leaders, journalists and human rights activists and other members of civil society as well as to restore the democratically elected government,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also voiced his condemnation, calling the charges against Ms Suu Kyi “fabricated” and a “clear violation of her human rights”. “We stand with the people of Myanmar and will ensure those responsible for this coup are held to account,” he tweeted.
The UN special rapporteur for Myanmar on Tuesday issued a stern warning about the potential for an escalation of violence in the country as protests continued following a military coup.
“I fear that Wednesday has the potential for violence on a greater scale in Myanmar than we have seen since the illegal takeover of the government on February 1,” Tony Andrews said.
Mr Andrews said in a statement that with protesters amassing in the commercial capital Yangon, he had “received reports of soldiers being transported into at least Yangon from outlying regions”.
Although China has taken a softer line, its ambassador in Myanmar on Tuesday dismissed accusations it supported the coup.
Hundreds of people have been rounded up by the army since the coup, many of them in night time raids. Those arrested include much of the NLD’s senior leadership.
Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said more than 450 arrests had been made since the coup on Tuesday.
Myanmar experienced a "near-total internet shutdown" for the third night in a row, a monitoring group said early on Wednesday, plunging the country into an information blackout.
Since the military staged a coup on Feb 1 and ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power, it has imposed several Internet shutdowns.
The last two nights have seen the Internet in Myanmar go down from 1am to 9am, and Wednesday was no different.
"Confirmed: #Myanmar is in the midst of a near-total Internet shutdown for the third night in a row amid anti-coup protests," tweeted NetBlocks, a Britain-based group that monitors internet outages around the world.
It said Internet connectivity had dropped to just 19 per cent of ordinary levels.
The blackouts have left the public on edge, and neighbourhood watch groups have cropped up across Myanmar to stand guard against arbitrary arrests of protesters.
More than 420 people have been arrested since the coup, according to Assistance Association of Political Prisoners monitoring group.
Ms Suu Kyi's lawyer told AFP on Tuesday she had been hit with a second charge, of violating the country’s disaster management law.
“She was charged under section 8 of the Export and Import law and section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management law as well,” Khin Maung Zaw told AFP.
While it was unclear how the disaster law applied in Ms Suu Kyi’s case, it has been used against deposed president Win Myint – also arrested on Feb 1 – relating to a campaign event that the junta alleges broke coronavirus-related restrictions.
Mr Khin Maung Zaw added that Ms Suu Kyi and Mr Win Myint, both of whom he has yet to have any contact with, were expected to appear via video conference during a March 1 trial.
The army seized power alleging fraud in a Nov 8 election - an accusation rejected by the electoral commission. The military said its declaration of a state of emergency was in line with the constitution that paved the way for democratic reforms.
“Our objective is to hold an election and hand power to the winning party,” Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling council, told the junta’s first news conference since overthrowing Suu Kyi’s government.
He gave no time frame, but said the army would not be in power for long. The last stretch of army rule lasted nearly half a century before democratic reforms in 2011.