Myanmar gripped by strike as anti-coup protests build

(Reuters) – Businesses shut in Myanmar on Monday in a general strike called to oppose the military coup and thousands of protesters gathered despite a threat from authorities that confrontation could cost lives.

People gather during a candlelight vigil to protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 21, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

Three weeks after seizing power, the junta has failed to stop daily protests and a civil disobedience movement calling for the reversal of the Feb. 1 coup and release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Everyone is joining this,” said San San Maw, 46, at the Hledan junction in the main city of Yangon, which has become a rallying point for the protests. “We need to come out.”

In a country where dates are seen as auspicious, protesters noted the significance of the date 22.2.2021, comparing it to demonstrations on Aug. 8 1988 when a previous generation staged anti-military protests which were bloodily suppressed.

The response of security forces this time has been less deadly, but at least three protesters have now been killed after two were shot dead in the second city of Mandalay on Saturday. One policeman died of injuries in protests, the army has said.

The deaths in Mandalay did not discourage protesters on Sunday, when they turned out again in tens of thousands there and in Yangon.

State-owned media MRTV warned protesters against action on Monday.

“Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life,” it said.

Htet Htet Hlaing, 22, said she was scared and had prayed before joining Monday’s demonstration, but would not be discouraged.

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“We don’t want the junta, we want democracy. We want to create our own future,” she said. “My mother didn’t stop me from coming out, she only said ‘take care’.”

RESTAURANTS SHUT

As well as local stores, international chains announced closures on Monday, including Yum Brands Inc.’s KFC and delivery service Food Panda, owned by Delivery Hero. Southeast Asian company Grab stopped delivery services too, but left its taxis running.

Authorities were “exercising utmost restraint”, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It rebuked some foreign countries for remarks it described as flagrant interference in Myanmar’s internal affairs.

Several Western countries have condemned the coup and decried the violence against protesters.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter the United States would continue to “take firm action” against authorities violently cracking down on opponents of the coup in the Southeast Asian country that is also known as Burma.

“We stand with the people of Burma,” he said.

Britain, Germany, Japan and Singapore have also condemned the violence and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said lethal force was unacceptable.

Residents in Yangon said roads to some embassies, including the U.S. embassy, were blocked on Monday. The diplomatic missions have become gathering points for protesters calling for foreign intervention.

U.N special rapporteur on human rights to Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said he was deeply concerned by the junta’s warning to protesters.

“Unlike 1988, actions by security forces are being recorded and you will be held accountable,” he said on Twitter.

The army seized power after alleging fraud in Nov. 8 elections that were swept by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), detaining her and much of the party leadership. The electoral commission dismissed the fraud complaints.

Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said 640 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup – including former members of government and opponents of the army takeover.

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