YANGON (AFP) – Tens of thousands of protesters poured onto the streets of Yangon yesterday in the biggest rally yet against the Myanmar coup, as an Internet blackout failed to stifle growing outrage at the military’s ouster of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Some estimates put the number of protesters in Yangon at 100,000 and there were reports of large demonstrations in other cities, with rallies condemning the coup that brought Myanmar’s 10-year experiment with democracy to a crashing halt.
Backed by a din of car horns, chanting protesters in Yangon held up banners saying “Justice for Myanmar”, while others waved the signature red flags of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party as they marched to City Hall.
“I completely despise the military coup and I am not afraid of a crackdown,” said Kyi Phyu Kyaw, a 20-year-old university student.
“I will join every day until Amay Suu (Mother Suu) is freed.”
Police with riot shields blocked the path of the protesters at several points in the city, but a huge crowd was able to gather near Yangon City Hall without any clashes.
Many flashed the three-finger salute inspired by the Hunger Games films, which became a symbol of resistance during the pro-democracy protests in Thailand last year.
“We will fight until the end,” said Ye Kyaw, an 18-year-old economics student.
“The next generation can have democracy if we end this military dictatorship.”
The surge in popular dissent over the weekend overcame a nationwide Internet blockade, similar in magnitude to an earlier shutdown that coincided with the arrest of Suu Kyi and other senior leaders on Monday.
Monitoring service NetBlocks said Internet access was partially restored on some mobile networks in Myanmar yesterday afternoon, but social media platforms remained blocked and it was unclear how long the connectivity would last.
Online calls to protest have prompted bold displays of defiance, including the nightly deafening clamour of people banging pots and pans – a practice traditionally associated with driving out evil spirits.
The United Nations (UN) Human Rights office has said Myanmar authorities “must ensure the right to peaceful assembly is fully respected and demonstrators are not subjected to reprisals”.
There were also protests in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, and Mawlamyine.
As protests gathered steam after the coup, the junta ordered telecom networks to freeze access to Facebook, an extremely popular service in the country and arguably its main mode of communication.
The platform had hosted a rapidly growing “Civil Disobedience Movement” forum that had inspired civil servants, healthcare professionals and teachers to show their dissent by boycotting their jobs.
Yesterday, live Facebook video feeds showed the Yangon protesters as they marched through the streets. It was not immediately clear how they bypassed the government block.
The military had widened its efforts to quell organised dissent on Friday when it demanded new blocks on other social media services including Twitter.
“The generals are now attempting to paralyse the citizen movement of resistance – and keep the outside world in the dark – by cutting virtually all Internet access,” said UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Tom Andrews ahead of yesterday’s protests.
In addition to Suu Kyi and some of her top aides, dozens have been detained so far.
The precise number of arrests is not yet known, but monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said on Saturday that more than 150 people were still in custody.
Rumours that Suu Kyi had been released triggered brief but raucous street celebrations among her supporters on Saturday, before they were denied by her lawyer who said she remained in detention.
An immensely popular figure in Myanmar despite a tarnished reputation in the West, Suu Kyi has not been seen in public since the coup, but a party spokesman said on Friday she was “in good health”.
Two days after the coup, criminal charges were filed against her related to the illegal import of a set of walkie-talkies.
The military had hinted at its coup intentions days in advance, insisting that the NLD’s landslide victory in the November elections was the result of voter fraud.
Following the takeover, the junta proclaimed a one-year state of emergency after which it promised to hold fresh elections, without offering any precise timeframe.
The coup has been widely condemned by the international community, with United States (US) President Joe Biden leading calls for the generals to relinquish power and release those arrested in the post-coup crackdown.