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Myanmar Coup: Military Defends Takeover And Enacts Curfew As Protests Intensify

Protests continued on Monday in cities across Myanmar, including this one in Yangon, as people took to the streets to demand the release of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and return to democratic rule following a military coup.
Stringer/Getty Images
Getty Images
Protests continued on Monday in cities across Myanmar, including this one in Yangon, as people took to the streets to demand the release of de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and return to democratic rule following a military coup.

Updated 3:57 p.m. ET

Myanmar's military defended its actions and enacted new restrictions on Monday, exactly one week after it seized control of the government and on the third consecutive day of anti-coup protests that have intensified across the country.

In his first televised address since the takeover, Min Aung Hlaing, a career military officer who is commander in chief of Myanmar's armed forces, repeated claims of fraud in November's election, and said the military will hold new elections and transfer power to the winner. He did not specify when those elections would take place, though the military had previously declared a year-long state of emergency.

The military has imposed a slew of restrictions on gatherings and activities in the country's largest cities of Yangon and Mandalay, effective Monday until further notice.

Those include an 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew, as well as a ban on motorized processions and gatherings of more than five people. They are effective on a township-by-township basis.

In his address, Min Aung Hlaing said an electoral commission did not properly investigate irregularities over voter lists or allow fair campaigning, according to the BBC, which notes that the commission did not find evidence to support claims of widespread fraud. He also promised that a reformed commission would oversee another election, and spoke of achieving a "true and disciplined democracy."

Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader and landslide winner of last year's election, was detained along with other party leaders over the alleged fraud and has since been accused of illegally importing walkie-talkie radios. She will reportedly remain in custody until at least Feb. 15.

Tens of thousands of protesters in multiple cities took to the streets over the weekend and into Monday, demanding her release and a return to democratic rule. Sunday's demonstrations, following a day-long Internet blackout, constituted the country's largest since the Buddhist monk-led "Saffron Revolution" in 2007, which saw bloody crackdowns by the military.

While Min Aung Hlaing did not explicitly mention the protests in his remarks, the Ministry of Information said in a statement broadcast on state television on Monday that they threatened the country's stability.

"Democracy can be destroyed if there is no discipline," the statement said, according to the AP. "We will have to take legal actions to prevent acts that are violating state stability, public safety and the rule of law."

Protests are large, but remain mostly peaceful

NPR's Michael Sullivan told Morning Edition on Monday that the tone of the recent protests has been defiant as well as, at times, "almost festive." Still, he reports that older protesters who remember the violent crackdowns in 1988 and 2007 are more reserved.

"Protesters raise their arms in the three-fingered salute of defiance from the Hunger Games movies, a tactic borrowed from protesters in neighboring Thailand after its 2014 coup," Sullivan said. "But protesters have also been releasing balloons and presenting riot police with flowers and bottled water, even as they chanted for their military masters to step down."

Few reports of violence emerged over the weekend. The nonprofit Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said on Sunday that the protests had been largely "peaceful and non-violent," though one woman was reportedly shot at a demonstration in the southeastern town of Myawaddy when police fired into the air.

As of that day, the organization said, a total of 165 people had been arrested and detained in relation to the coup, with a total of 152 still in custody.

Activists have also called for workers to stage a general strike. As protests continued and intensified on Monday, the BBC reports that teachers, lawyers, bank officers and government workers were in attendance.

Local media outlets are describingthe movement as one of civil disobedience. Bilingual news agency Myanmar Now also posted photos to Twitter of Buddhist monks, firefighters, school teachers and forestry officials participating in various protests.

Tensions appeared to heighten on Monday, when police fired a water cannon at hundreds of protesters in the capital of Naypyidaw. One eyewitness told the BBC that two vehicles had sprayed protesters "with no prior warning" while "the crowd was peacefully protesting in front of" the police.

Also in the capital, Al Jazeera reports that three rows of police in riot gear stood on the road as the crowd chanted anti-coup slogans, and that police placed a sign on the road saying live ammunition could be used if demonstrators breached the third line of officers.

International criticism grows

U.S. State Dept. spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. is "moving quickly" to determine its response to the developments in Myanmar. At a press briefing, Price said that the U.S. stands with the people of Myanmar and supports their right to protest. U.S. officials said last week that a return of sanctions is possible, among other measures being considered.

Late Monday the U.N. Human Rights Council announced it will hold a special session Feb. 12 on "the human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar." Great Britain, the former colonial power in Myanmar, and the European Union requested the special session, which was supported by an additional 18 member states and 28 observer states, including the United States.

Separately, the U.S. State Department — which withdrew from the council in 2018 — said on Monday that it plans to re-engage with the body "immediately and robustly," citing an order from President Biden. The U.S. is among the many countries to have condemned the coup in Myanmar.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.