Myanmar yesterday imposed martial law in its biggest cities following a third day of massive street protests, banning all gatherings of more than five people in an effort to stem widespread opposition to a coup on Monday last week.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators swarmed streets across the country yesterday, using social media to quickly mobilize supporters with three clear demands: the release of civilian leaders including Burmese State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi, a recognition of the results of an election in November last year won by her party and a withdrawal of the military from the country’s politics.
Aung Kyaw Soe, chair of Taikkyi Township Administration Council, confirmed the order of martial law in Yangon.
Ahead of the announcement, the military regime showed signs of cracking down on the protesters, using a water cannon on crowds in the capital, Naypyidaw, before later issuing the threat of using live ammunition.
The army also posted a statement on state-owned Myanmar Radio and Television saying “democracy and human rights” were being exploited by certain groups and any act that hurts the stability of the country would be prosecuted.
“We urge all people who want justice, freedom, equality and peace not only to reject the perpetrators but also to work together for the good of the nation and the people,” the statement said.
The youths flooding Myanmar’s streets are the latest members of Asia’s so-called “Milk Tea Alliance” fighting for democracy in places like Hong Kong and Thailand.
The question is whether they would have any more success in pressuring authoritarians to back down.
Myanmar’s biggest protests in more than a decade began with an online call for “civil disobedience” in Yangon and quickly spread to other cities, prompting the military regime to shut off the Internet and block platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Activists in the traditionally conservative country have held up expletive-laden placards taunting a military that has violently suppressed dissent during similar protests in 1988 and 2007.
Many of the protesters were too young or not around to remember those deadly crackdowns: A UN report found 31 people were killed in 2007, while hundreds or possibly thousands were killed in 1988.
The demonstrators now on the streets say they are not scared of the military and hope to convince soldiers to join their fight against coup leader Min Aung Hlaing — even as authorities in Naypyidaw warned protesters that they would be shot with real bullets if they breached police lines.
“We respect those who lost their lives for the fight against democracy in Myanmar — they are our heroes too, so we are not afraid of potential military crackdowns,” Aung Ko Min, a 20-year-old student at Dagon University in Yangon, said as he marched in the protests. “We expect some police and soldiers to join our peaceful protests in the end.”
Myanmar’s peaceful protests are similar to those in Thailand seeking to reform the monarchy, and many protesters in Yangon have adopted the three-finger salute made popular by their neighbors in Bangkok.
Since the 2007 protests, Myanmar has opened the economy, allowing foreign participation in industries, such as energy exploration and banking, while liberalizing the telecom sector to allow millions of people to access mobile phones and Internet for the first time.
It also lifted tight censorship rules and accepted a landslide victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in 2015 elections.
Now young people know they have a better option and want the generals out of politics for good by demanding the repeal of the 2008 constitution that cements the military’s role in governing the country, said Sebastian Strangio, author of In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century.
“It’s hard to see the military backing down,” he said. “All this puts the two sides on a collision course.”
With demonstrations growing throughout the country, people appear determined to fulfill her wishes.
“We want to be the last generation that lived under the military rule in Myanmar,” said shopkeeper Zaw Phyo Wai, 45. “This is not the fight between the NLD and the military. This is the fight between democracy and dictatorship.”
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