Myanmar Deploys Martial Law in Cities as Youths Stare Down Army
A demonstrator wears a National League for Democracy party themed protective mask during a protest outside the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photographer: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg)

Myanmar Deploys Martial Law in Cities as Youths Stare Down Army

Myanmar declared martial law in its biggest cities following a third day of massive street protests, imposing an overnight curfew and banning all gatherings of more than five people in an effort to stem widespread opposition to its Feb. 1 coup.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators swarmed streets across the Southeast Asian nation on Monday, using social media to quickly mobilize supporters with three main demands: the release of civilian leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi, recognition of the 2020 election results won by her party and a withdrawal of the military from politics. Authorities later imposed martial law in Yangon, Mandalay and other areas.

Myanmar Deploys Martial Law in Cities as Youths Stare Down Army

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.

In his first remarks since the coup, military chief Min Aung Hlaing defended his actions by repeating claims of voter fraud in November’s election that have been disputed by the election commission, international observers and Suu Kyi’s party. He also reiterated that the army would hold an election after the yearlong state of emergency and respect the outcome.

“We request everyone to cooperate with us for the good of the country,” Min Aung Hlaing said. In separate remarks broadcast on military-run Myawady HD later Monday, he called the coup “unavoidable,” said the military would guarantee all existing investment projects and overhauled the constitutional court while vowing the country would “get back on track within a short period of time.”

‘Collision Course’

The announcement of martial law dramatically raises the stakes for protesters in a nation where the military has a history of deadly crackdowns against dissent -- notably in 1988 and 2007. The coup reversed a decade of democratic progress that showed Myanmar’s younger generation an alternative to the generals who have run the country for most of its history since it achieved independence from Britain in 1948.

“It’s hard to see the military backing down,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of “In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century.” “All this puts the two sides on a collision course.”

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 United Nations 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 aren’t scared of the military, and hope to convince soldiers to join their fight against the coup -- even as authorities in Naypyidaw warned protesters 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 on Monday prior to the announcement of martial law. “We expect some police and soldiers to join our peaceful protests in the end.”

Myanmar Deploys Martial Law in Cities as Youths Stare Down Army

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. Still, it remains to be seen if they’ll have any more success in pressuring authoritarians to back down.

The peaceful protests in Myanmar have been 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. Both of those movements have used social media in a similar way to demonstrators in Hong Kong, where protests turned more violent. In Hong Kong and Thailand, authorities haven’t yielded to demands and stacked legal charges on key protest leaders.

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 Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in 2015 elections.

A confidential U.K. foreign office assessment seen by Bloomberg suggested army chief Min Aung Hlaing will seek to crush Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy party and install himself as president.

Even so, Myanmar’s generals might exercise caution this time around given the protests are being widely broadcast on social media despite the internet curbs, according to Hunter Marston, a Canberra-based political analyst.

“The absence of bloodshed -- a hallmark of military reactions to past protests -- would represent a noteworthy success,” said Marston, who added that the demonstrations may also prompt the military to negotiate a political settlement with Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi, who is now being held along with other senior leaders of her NLD party and the civilian-led government, has called on supporters to resist the generals. With demonstrations growing throughout the country, citizens appeared 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.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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