YANGON (REUTERS, AFP) - Myanmar police on Monday (Feb 8) warned protesters to disperse or face force shortly after state television signalled impending action to stifle mass demonstrations against a military coup and detention of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tens of thousands of people joined a third day of street demonstrations in towns and cities across the country to denounce the military for its seizure of power last Monday.
In the capital Naypyitaw, three lines of police in riot gear could be seen across a road as protesters chanted anti-coup slogans and told police they should serve the people not the military, according to media and a live feed of events.
Police placed a sign in the road saying that live ammunition could be used if demonstrators breached the third line of officers.
Reuters has been unable to contact the junta for comment on the protests, but state media signalled possible action against them in the first comment from any government channel, saying the public wanted rid of “wrongdoers”.
“We, the whole people who value justice, freedom, equality, peace and safety, not only refuse to accept the lawless wrongdoers but also request that they be prevented and removed through cooperation,” the MRTV television station said in a comment. Though not attributed to any authority or group, it was later read out on a military-owned network.
Earlier, police in Naypyitaw briefly turned water cannon on protesters.
An AFP photographer saw two people injured, and social media footage of the incident showed two men collapsing after being sprayed with suspected chemical-laced water.
Police appeared to stop using the water cannon after protesters appealed to them, but the demonstration continued.
Calls to join protests and to back a campaign of civil disobedience have grown louder and more organised since last Monday’s coup, which drew widespread international condemnation.
In the biggest city of Yangon, a group of saffron-robed monks marched in the vanguard of Monday’s protest with workers and students. More than 1,000 people had gathered at a park by mid-morning.
They flew multi-coloured Buddhist flags alongside red banners in the colour of Ms Suu Kyi’s National league for Democracy (NLD), witnesses said.
“Release Our Leaders, Respect Our Votes, Reject Military Coup,” said one sign. Other signs read “Save democracy” and “Say No to Dictatorship”. Many protesters wore black.
“We health workers are leading this campaign to urge all government staff to join the (civil disobedience movement)”, Aye Misan, a nurse at a government hospital said at a protest in the biggest city of Yangon.
“Our message to the public is that we aim to completely abolish this military regime and we have to fight for our destiny.”
“This is a work day, but we aren’t going to work even if our salary will be cut,” one protester, 28-year-old garment factory worker, Hnin Thazin, told AFP.
In Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay, more than a thousand had also gathered by mid morning.
Protests that swept the country on Sunday were the biggest since the “Saffron Revolution” led by Buddhist monks in 2007 that helped prompt democratic reforms that were upended by the Feb 1 coup.
“Marchers from every corner of Yangon, please come out peacefully and join the people’s meeting,” activist Ei Thinzar Maung urged followers on Facebook, using VPN networks to rally protesters despite a junta attempt to ban the social media network.
Thousands marched also in the southeastern coastal city of Dawei and in the Kachin state capital in the far north, the massive crowds reflecting a rejection of military rule by diverse ethnic groups, even those who have been critical of Ms Suu Kyi and accused her government of neglecting minorities.
So far gatherings have been peaceful, unlike bloody crackdowns during previous widespread protests in 1988 and 2007. A convoy of military trucks was seen passing into Yangon late on Sunday, raising fears that could change.
Calls for work stoppages
The government lifted a day-long Internet ban at the weekend that prompted even more anger in a country fearful of returning to the isolation and even greater poverty before a transition to democracy began in 2011.
Activists Maung Saungkha and Thet Swe Win posted on their Facebook pages that police had been to search for them at their homes, but that they were not there and were still free. In addition to the street protests, a campaign of civil disobedience has begun, first with doctors and joined by some teachers and other government workers.
“We request government staff from all departments not to attend work from Monday,” said activist Min Ko Naing, a veteran of the demonstrations in 1988 that first brought Ms Suu Kyi to prominence.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for campaigning for democracy, and spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during decades of struggling to end almost half a century of army rule.
Ms Suu Kyi, 75, has been kept incommunicado since army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power in the early hours of Feb 1. She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkies and is being held in police detention for investigation until Feb 15. Her lawyer said he has not been allowed to see her.
Australia, which has condemned the coup, demanded the immediate release of a citizen who was working as an economic adviser to the Ms Suu Kyi government and was arrested over the weekend.
The United Nations Security Council called for the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees last week and the United States is considering targeted sanctions.
The United Nations continued to press for a restoration of democracy.
“Protesters in Myanmar continue to inspire the world as actions spread throughout the country,” Thomas Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar said on Twitter.“
Myanmar is rising up to free all who have been detained and reject military dictatorship once and for all. We are with you.”