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Biggest protest in Myanmar since 2007 despite internet ban

Thousands of people took to the streets of Yangon on Saturday to denounce this week’s coup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Several hundred people gathered in the capital Naypyidaw, in central Myanmar, with motorbikes blaring horns. They chanted slogans against the coup and called for the release of elected leader Suu Kyi despite a blockade on the internet by the junta.

The protests took place despite an internet blackout and restrictions on phone lines. It was the biggest demonstrations in the country since the 2007 Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution.

In an upwelling of anger in the country’s largest city protesters held banners reading “Against military dictatorship” and chanted, “Military dictator, fail, fail; Democracy, win, win.” Bystanders offered them food and water.

Many in the crowd wore red, the colour of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). NLD won Nov. 8 elections in a landslide but the military generals have refused to recognise the democracy win, claiming elections a fraud.

Yangon streets had a festival like atmosphere as a cacophony of car and bike horns blared across the city. Thousands marched toward City Hall. Drivers leaned out of their cars and raised the three-finger salute. Bystanders returned the gesture. Some held up NLD flags or pictures of Suu Kyi. Many clapped and danced.

Several hundred people gathered in the capital Naypyidaw, in central Myanmar, with motorbikes blaring horns. They chanted slogans against the coup and called for the release of Suu Kyi.

Monitoring group NetBlocks Internet Observatory reported a “national-scale internet blackout”. They informed on Twitter that connectivity had fallen to 16% of ordinary levels. Witnesses reported a shutdown of mobile data services and wifi.

Facebook’s head of public policy for Asia-Pacific emerging countries, Rafael Frankel, said in a statement, “At this critical time, the people of Myanmar need access to important information and to be able to communicate with their loved ones.”

Facebook requested to unblock the social media. But the junta did not respond to requests for comment. It extended a social media crackdown to Twitter and Instagram after seeking to silence dissent by temporarily blocking Facebook, which counts half of the population as users.

Norwegian mobile network provider Telenor ASA said authorities had ordered all mobile operators to temporarily shut down the data network, although voice and SMS services remained open.

The United Nations human rights office said on Twitter that “internet and communication services must be fully restored to ensure freedom of expression and access to information.”

Many activists had sidestepped the Facebook ban by using virtual private networks to conceal their locations. But the more general internet disruption will severely limit their ability to organise and access independent news and information.

Myanmar civil society organisations appealed to internet providers and mobile networks to oppose the junta’s orders, saying in a joint statement they were “essentially legitimising the military’s authority”.

Telenor said it had stressed to the authorities that access to telecom services should be maintained. However, it added it was bound by local law and its priority was the safety of its local workers. It said in a statement, “We deeply regret the impact the shutdown has on the people in Myanmar.”

Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, said shutting down the internet amid a coup and pandemic was a “heinous and reckless decision”.

International Outrage

Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power alleging fraud in the November elections. Although the electoral commission says it has found no evidence of widespread irregularities in the November vote.

The military announced a one-year state of emergency and has promised to hand over power after new elections, without giving a timeframe.

Nobel Peace winner Suu Kyi, 75, has been charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkies, while ousted President Win Myint is accused of flouting COVID-19 restrictions. Neither has been seen since the coup. Their lawyer said they were being held in their homes.

NLD member Aung Moe Nyo, chief minister of the Magway region, said on Facebook before the shutdown: “It is not OK to let the country fall under junta government. I am very much thankful to those who oppose this, to those government staff who oppose this. This act is to save the country.”

Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Suu Kyi, said in a message to Reuters on Saturday he was being detained.

Australia’s government, without naming Turnell, said it had summoned the Myanmar ambassador to register “deep concern” over the arbitrary detention of Australian and other foreign nationals in Myanmar.

The coup has sparked international fallout, with the United States considering sanctions against the generals and the U.N. Security Council calling for the release of all detainees.

It has also deepened tensions between the United States and China, which has close links to Myanmar’s military. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in a phone call on Friday to condemn the coup, the State Department said.

The generals have few overseas interests vulnerable to international sanctions, but the military’s extensive business investments could suffer if foreign partners leave – as Japanese drinks company Kirin Holdings said it would on Friday.

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