Opponents of Myanmar’s military coup gathered on Wednesday for what they hope will be a major show of opposition to the army’s assertion of public support for overthrowing elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, despite its promise of new elections.
Protesters are deeply sceptical of the junta’s assurances, given at a news conference on Tuesday, that there would be a fair election and it would hand over power, even as police filed an additional charge against Suu Kyi.
The Nobel Peace laureate, detained since the Feb. 1 coup, now faces a charge of violating a Natural Disaster Management Law as well as charges of illegally importing six walkie talkie radios. At a hearing by video conference on Tuesday, her next hearing was set for March 1.
“What they said was totally untrue. I don’t acknowledge them at all,” a protester who gave her name as Khin said of the military’s news conference, when it again defended the coup saying a Nov. 8 election, swept by Suu Kyi’s party, was fraudulent.
“They said there was vote fraud but look at the people here now,” said Khin who was among thousands gathering at the Sule Pagoda, a central protest site in the main city of Yangon.
The coup that cut short the Southeast Asian country’s unsteady transition towards democracy has prompted daily demonstrations since Feb. 6, some drawing hundreds of thousands of people.
The takeover has also drawn strong Western criticism, with renewed anger from Washington and London over the additional charge for Suu Kyi. Although China has taken a softer line, its ambassador in Myanmar on Tuesday dismissed accusations it supported the coup.
U.N. Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said he feared the possibility of violence against the protesters and made an urgent call on any country with influence over the generals, and businesses, to press them to avoid it.
“Continued repression of the people of Myanmar’s basic liberties and human rights must end immediately,” Andrews said in a statement.
In Yangon and elsewhere, motorists responded to a “broken-down car campaign” spreading on social media, stopping their supposedly stalled cars, with bonnets raised, on streets and bridges to block them to police and military trucks.
“We want the truth,” said Ko Ye, 26, whose taxi was part of the break-down protest at the Sule Pagoda.
“The truth is democracy and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint”.
The president was also detained on the day of the coup.
Hundreds of people have been rounded up by the army since then, many of them in night-time raids. Those arrested include much of the NLD’s senior leadership.
The suspension of the internet at night has added to a sense of fear.
Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners group said more than 450 arrests had been made since the coup.
BACK UNDER HOUSE ARREST
The military said its takeover and declaration of a state of emergency was in line with the constitution that paved the way for democratic reforms.
“Our objective is to hold an election and hand power to the winning party,” Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, spokesman for the ruling council, told the junta’s first news conference since overthrowing Suu Kyi’s government. He gave no time frame, but said the army would not be in power for long.
The last stretch of army rule lasted nearly half a century before democratic reforms began in 2011.
Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest for her efforts to end military rule.
Ruling council spokesman Zaw Min Tun dismissed the suggestion she and the ousted president were in detention, saying they were in their homes for their security while the law took its course. The president also faces charges under the natural disaster law.
The United States was “disturbed” by reports of the additional criminal charge against Suu Kyi, State Department spokesman Ned Price said. Washington imposed new sanctions last week on the Myanmar military. No additional measures were announced on Tuesday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also decried the new criminal charge, saying it was “fabricated” by the military.
As well as the demonstrations in towns across the ethnically diverse country, a civil disobedience movement has brought strikes that are crippling many functions of government.
The unrest has revived memories of bloody suppression of protests under previous juntas.
Police have opened fire several times, mostly with rubber bullets, to disperse protesters. A protester who was shot in the head in Naypyitaw last week is not expected to survive.
Zaw Min Tun said a policeman had died of injuries sustained during a protest in the city of Mandalay on Monday.
He said the protesters were starting violence while the campaign of civil disobedience amounted to the illegal intimidation of civil servants.