Myanmar anti-coup protests broadening

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - February 13, 2021 - 12:00am

This past week, thousands of people in Myanmar have been going out daily to join street protests – in the capital Naypyitaw, the commercial center Yangon and in cities and towns nationwide – as support from the international community continued to grow. The protests, largely peaceful and colorful, have sustained a growing civil disobedience campaign to roll back the military coup staged on Feb. 1.

The coup, which installed the army chief as acting president, pre-empted the resumption of the sessions of the country’s parliament, where the opposition had won an overwhelming majority of the seats last November 2020. The National League of Democracy is the pro-democracy party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It was the second time that NLD won in the elections; the first time was in 2015.

Under the Myanmar system of government, since 2015, the military has securely held 25 percent of the parliament seats, besides holding the vice presidency and key Cabinet posts. The generals and other top officials are said to control key sectors of the economy; in effect, they have been enriching themselves.

Even with so much power and authority already in their hands, the military claimed “widespread fraud” in the November elections.  Independent international poll observers, however, have denied any fraud.

Suu Kyi, whose official designation is State Counselor, was arrested and held under house arrest again. (She had already been under house arrest for 15 years until 2011.)  Also arrested were the president, Cabinet ministers, various officials, and countless activists. The military has raided and reportedly destroyed the NLD headquarters. More arrests continue, mostly carried out in the dead of night.

(It reminds us that here in the Philippines, the joint military-police search and arrest operations against targetted progressive groups and individuals have been carried out in similar manner, between midnight and dawn.)

The protests are the largest in Myanmar for more than a decade, according to Reuters and the Guardian. They point out that the protests have revived “memories of almost 50 years of direct Army rule and spasms of bloody uprisings until the military began a process of withdrawing from civilian politics in 2011.”

Capturing the probably pervasive sense of confidence among the Myanmar people, especially the youth, is this statement of 19-year-old Tun:

“People are more educated now and more willing to speak out against the military. We lived in fear but we have had some years without it. We know our rights and we aren’t brainwashed anymore.”

Also, youth leader Esther Ze Naw told Reuters recently: “If there is bloodshed during our peaceful protests, then there would be more if we let them [the military junta] take over the country.”

The military junta head and acting president, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was the Army commander-in-chief when it waged in 2017 a brutal campaign against the Rohingya people in Myanmar, driving most of them into exile in Bangladesh. Ironically, Suu Kyi defended the military’s conduct before an international body that looked into that widely criticized campaign, with some critics calling for the cancellation of her Nobel Peace Prize.

Soon after the military declared a one-year state of emergency on Feb. 1, the people’s protests began. At first, it was just within their homes and vehicles. Families began clanging their pots and pans in the evenings (traditionally done to drive away evil spirits), while motorists set their car horns blaring. Since then every evening people have gathered in their balconies, loudly venting their fury at the military junta.

On Feb. 10, Reuters and Guardian reported an estimated 100,000 people had assembled in Yangon. The day before, tens of thousands had demonstrated in major cities and smaller towns, in defiance of a ban on gatherings in some areas. The police began using water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition against them.

A police officer, identified as a lieutenant colonel, was caught on camera aiming his rifle at the protesters in Naypyitaw, the capital. The image has since circulated on social media, particularly after a young woman was reported to have been shot in the head with a live bullet. She has undergone surgery but remains in critical condition.

The United Nations human rights rapporteur in Myanmar, Ola Algren, has called on the security forces to respect the people’s right to protest peacefully. “The use of disproportionate force against demonstrators is unacceptable,” she warned.

Notably, in the state of Kayah, about 40 policemen were reported to have left their lines and joined the protesters. They held a banner saying, “Members of Myanmar police force stand with citizens.” Other police officers waved posters that read: “We do not need military dictatorship.” They also raised their hands in a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance against the military used by protesters in Thailand now widely adopted by their counterparts in Myanmar. The Guardian has run videos of the police joining the protesters.

In the capital, hundreds of government workers – hospital doctors, teachers and railway workers, among others – have joined the civil disobedience campaign by marching in the streets. On Thursday protesters outside Myanmar’s central bank in Yangon urged civil servants and people working in industries to boycott work and join the protests.

“We aren’t doing this for a week or a month,” one protesting bank employee told Agence France Press. “We are determined to do this until the end when Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint are released,” the employee added.

Activists have also called on foreign companies to break their ties with the Myanmar military, which is in all types of joint ventures through their own business outfits. Specifically, they called on the US oil firm Chevron and France’s Total and other oil firms to exit the country, saying: “Every day they stay in production they are earning much-needed revenues for the military regime, fueling brutal suppression. We call on them… to act now and stand with the people of Myanmar.” If they persist in staying, the activists warned, “We will hold you responsible for the brutality of the military.”

Only Japan’s Kirin Holdings has so far heeded the activists’ call. It has ended its six-year partnership with the Myanmar brewery, which has close ties with the military junta.

Yesterday, the UN Human Rights Council was set to convene a special meeting to consider a resolution filed by the European Union and the United Kingdom condemning the coup and demanding access into Myanmar for UN monitors who would look into the situation there and submit reports to the Council. China and Russia, both having ties with Myanmar’s military, are expected to raise objections or try to weaken the resolution.

For his part, General Hlaing has called on civil servants to return to work and urged the people to stop joining mass gatherings. His reason? To avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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