Conflicts & War

Myanmar protesters take to militarized streets after internet blackout

(Update 1: Updates head, pars 1-2, adds Suu Kyi hearing pars 3-4, minor edits)

Yangon, Myanmar, Feb 15 (efe-epa).- Myanmar residents on Monday resumed their protests against the military junta that seized power two weeks ago, emerging from a long night during which the country’s internet was shut down and armored vehicles appeared in the streets of some cities.

In Yangon on Monday, protesters held up placards and walked among military trucks full of soldiers who had earlier set up barricades. A man dressed as Batman stood on the roof of a vehicle holding a sign saying: “End the dictatorship.” Another protest was held outside the Chinese embassy.

Residents continued to demand the release of President Win Myint and de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was charged on Feb. 3 with illegally importing communications equipment and is believed to be under house arrest in Naypyitaw.

Suu Kyi will remain in detention until at least Wednesday when she could appear before a judge, expected to be via video conference, lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told EFE. He added that the court appointment going ahead would partly depend on police, who brought the charges against her.

On Sunday, troops and armored vehicles were deployed in cities across the country after a week of mass protests and a widespread civil disobedience movement that has severely impacted government services.

Residents inside the country had been recording demonstrations and late-night raids on social media, but these fell silent after 1 am on Monday, with “national [internet] connectivity at just 14% of ordinary levels following state-ordered information blackout,” internet monitor NetBlocks reported on Twitter. From 9 am internet was restored.

Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor, which has consistently and openly publicized orders it has received from the military junta since the coup, said on its website Sunday that it was “currently not possible for Telenor to disclose the directives we receive from the authorities.”

“We are gravely concerned with this development and recognize the impact this has on the local and international community’s ability to receive information,” it said on its website.

Ahead of the blackout late Sunday, a Facebook livestream showed security forces firing to disperse protesters outside a power plant in Kachin’s state capital of Myitkyina. It was not clear whether live rounds or rubber bullets were used or if there were any casualties.

After the blackout came into effect, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said it appeared the military were desperate.

“It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people of Myanmar: late night raids; mounting arrests; more rights stripped away; another Internet shutdown; military convoys entering communities. These are signs of desperation,” he said on Twitter.

“Attention generals: You WILL be held accountable,” he warned.

More than a dozen ambassadors to Myanmar issued a joint statement calling on security forces to refrain from violence against demonstrators and civilians “protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government” as well as detention and ongoing arrests of leaders, activists and civil servants, and the harassment of journalists.

“We also denounce the military’s interruption of communications, as well as the restriction of the Myanmar people’s fundamental rights and basic legal protections,” it said. “We support the people of Myanmar in their quest for democracy, freedom, peace and prosperity. The world is watching.”

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a statement calling for the military junta to uphold the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and said reports of continued violence, intimidation and harassment are “unacceptable,” while ongoing arrests of political leaders, government officials, civil society actors and media representatives, as well as internet restrictions, are “deeply concerning.”

He called on member states to “collectively and bilaterally exercise influence” and for the UN’s special envoy to be allowed to enter the country.

At least 400 people have been arrested and detained since the coup, with three jailed and 25 released, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Myanmar said in its latest daily report.

The military government justifies its seizure of power by alleging fraud in the November election, which was won in a landslide by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party. EFE-EPA

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