Streets in some of Myanmar’s main cities were nearly deserted on Tuesday as opponents of military rule called for a “silent strike” to mark the first anniversary of a coup that snuffed out tentative progress towards democracy.
The United States, Britain and Canada imposed new sanctions on Myanmar’s military after a year of chaos since a government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was overthrown.
Suu Kyi and other leaders of her National League for Democracy (NLD) were rounded up in raids early on Feb. 1 last year as they prepared to take their seats in parliament, after winning a late 2020 election the generals accused them of rigging.
The overthrow of Suu Kyi’s government triggered huge street protests and the security forces killed hundreds in crackdowns that ensued. In response, protesters have formed “people’s defence forces”, some linking up with ethnic minority insurgents, to take on the well-equipped army.
Activists urged people to stay indoors and businesses to close in a silent show of defiance on the anniversary.
“We might be arrested and spend our life in jail if we’re lucky. We might be tortured and killed if we’re unlucky,” said youth activist Nan Lin.
A spokesman for the ruling military did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment.
State media reported military ruler Min Aung Hlaing on Monday extended a state of emergency imposed at the time of the coup for six months to facilitate promised elections amid threats from “internal and external saboteurs” and “terrorist attacks and destruction”.
The Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said the military government would strive to hold new a new poll once the situation was “peaceful and stable”. The army had initially pledged to hold a vote within two years but a junta spokesman last month said it was now slated for August 2023.
Military authorities sought to head off Tuesday’s strike, arresting more than 70 people in the past three days for promoting the action on social media, the state-run Myanmar Alin newspaper reported.
Business owners were also warned that their properties could be seized if they heeded the activists’ calls. Protesters could also face lengthy jail terms.
Nevertheless, photographs on social media showed nearly deserted streets in various cities including Yangon, Mandalay, Magway and Myitkyina,
In Yangon, photographs on a social media page put up by strike organisers showed a small protest where people threw red paint on the ground.
Pro-military rallies also took place including in the central town of Tase, photographs published by the pro-military People Media news portal showed.
In the capital, Naypyitaw, thousands attended a rally, some dancing and holding aloft photographs of Min Aung Hlaing, with banners wishing him good health, images on a pro-military Telegram channel showed.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in comments ahead of the coup anniversary, urged the junta to allow greater humanitarian access.
The junta has accused the United Nations of bias and interference and is refusing to bow to international pressure, despite a corporate retreat from Myanmar and sanctions, the latest on Monday, when the United States, Britain and Canada blacklisted more individuals linked to the junta.
The military held power for decades after a 1962 coup but had begun to withdraw from politics in 2010, freeing Suu Kyi after years of house arrest. Her party formed a government after a 2015 election though the military wielded power behind the scenes.
The military ended the experiment with reform a year ago, crushing hopes, particularly of the young.
Life has become a grind for many since then with the economy withering, regular power cuts and internet curbs and, for some, constant fear of being rounded up.
Security forces cracking down on dissent have killed at least 1,500 people and arrested 11,838 since the coup, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, an activist group cited by the United Nations. The junta disputes the death toll.
Suu Kyi, 76, is on trial in more than a dozen cases that carry a combined maximum sentence of more than 150 years in prison, charges that critics say are designed to ensure she can never return to politics.
In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of countries including Australia, Britain, South Korea, the United States, Canada, as well as the European Union, urged the international community to cease the flow of arms to the Myanmar military.
A diplomatic effort led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has faltered, with the junta’s failure to honour its commitment to end hostilities and support dialogue under a five-point plan, increasingly frustrating some bloc members.
“It’s very lamentable, until this time there has not been significant progress,” Indonesia’s foreign ministry said.
Singapore said conditions for the Myanmar people continued to deteriorate and it called for the release of Suu Kyi and all political prisoners.