Armoured vehicles pushed through crowds of protesters in Myanmar today as the country’s military rulers threatened activists with 20 years in jail for opposing their coup.
Vehicles appeared on the streets of Yangon and other large cities on Monday as the armed forces ramped up pressure on tens of thousands of protesters to abandon their quest for democracy and accept military rule.
Meanwhile new laws were passed carrying harsh penalties for anyone found guilty of obstructing the armed forces or of inciting ‘hatred or contempt’ towards coup organisers, including general-turned-ruler Min Aung Hlaing.
It comes after soldiers opened fire on protesters gathered around a power plant in the city of Myitkyina overnight amid rumours that soldiers were about to cut the power.
Soldiers unleashed tear gas before firing on the crowd, though it was unclear whether live rounds or rubber bullets were used. Soon afterwards, an internet blackout was imposed as military vehicles rolled out.
Elsewhere, jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to appear in court via videolink this week, which would be the first sighting of her since the coup took place two weeks ago.
She is expected to appear at a hearing held on either Tuesday or Wednesday, while jailed president Win Myint is also due to appear.
Defiance: Demonstrators surround an armoured vehicle in Yangon today to protest against the February 1 coup, with one placard calling for people to support a civil disobedience movement (CDM)
Crackdown: Soldiers set up barricades during a protest outside the central bank in Yangon where troops and armoured vehicles were stationed on Monday
A soldier sits in a military vehicle during a protest outside the Central Bank in Yangon, Myanmar, on Monday
The military junta has steadily intensified efforts to crack down on protests since seizing power two weeks ago, arresting civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of others.
But groups of protesters gathered outside the central bank and the Chinese embassy in Yangon today, with people holding placards calling on others to join a civil disobedience movement.
‘Patrolling with armoured vehicles means they are threatening people,’ said 46-year-old Nyein Moe, among the more than one thousand gathered in front of the bank.
‘People are marching on the streets and they don’t care to be arrested or shot. We can’t stop now. The fear in our mind is going away.’
An armoured vehicle and about six trucks carrying soldiers were parked nearby, a witness said, in the first large-scale use of such vehicles since the coup.
More than a dozen police trucks with four water cannon vehicles were deployed on Monday near the Sule Pagoda in central Yangon, which has been one of the main demonstration sites in the city.
Soldiers climb onto an armoured vehicle during a protest outside the Central Bank in Yangon, Myanmar
Demonstrators spill onto a street lined with military vehicles during a protest in Yangon on Monday, with some protesters waving flags while another appeared to have made a placard out of a TV box
A group of engineers wearing hard hats and hi-vis jackets stage a protest in Yangon, with some holding signs calling on others to join the civil disobedience movement
There was a fresh rally in the southern city of Dawei too, a verified live-stream video showed, with hundreds of protesters accompanied by a marching band.
Some carried banners against the military that read: ‘They kill in (the) day. They steal at night. They lie on TV.’
Protesters also came out in large numbers in the capital Naypyidaw and the second-biggest city Mandalay.
Monitoring group NetBlocks reported that a ‘state-ordered information blackout’ had taken Myanmar almost entirely offline early Monday.
Internet connectivity was later restored around the start of the working day, with Netblocks saying the blackout lasted around eight hours, but noting that most users in Myanmar were still barred from social media.
A joint statement from the US, British and European Union ambassadors urged security forces not to harm civilians.
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres echoed that call. Through his spokesman, he also asked the military to ‘urgently’ allow Swiss diplomat Christine Schraner Burgener to visit Myanmar ‘to assess the situation first hand’.
The US embassy advised American citizens to shelter in place and not risk defying an overnight curfew imposed by the regime.
Demonstrators dressed as demonic nuns hold up placards saying ‘stop dictatorship’ and calling for an end to military rule
Protesters line a street where soldiers and armoured vehicles were deployed in Yangon today amid an escalating crackdown
UN special rapporteur Tom Andrews said the junta’s efforts to rein in the burgeoning protest movement was a sign of ‘desperation’ and amounted to a declaration of war against its people.
‘Attention generals: You WILL be held accountable,’ he tweeted.
Much of the country has been in uproar since soldiers detained Aung San Suu Kyi and her top political allies on February 1, ending a decade-old fledgling democracy after generations of junta rule.
The Nobel laureate spent years under house arrest during an earlier dictatorship and has not been seen in public since she was detained.
Suu Kyi’s custody period was expected to expire today, but her lawyer said Monday that she has been remanded until February 17, citing a judge.
An internet blackout last weekend failed to quell resistance that has seen huge crowds throng big urban centres and isolated frontier villages alike.
Striking workers who spearheaded the campaign are among at least 400 people to have been detained since the coup, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.
A medical doctor holds up a picture of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi (left) in Yangon, where armoured vehicles were driving along roads today (right)
A demonstrators speaks on a loudspeaker while others hold up signs during a protest outside the Chinese embassy today
Fear of arrest did not deter big crowds from returning to streets around the country for a ninth straight day of street protests on Sunday.
In Dawei, seven police officers broke ranks to join anti-coup protesters, mirroring local media reports of isolated defections from the force in recent days.
Parts of the country have in recent days formed neighbourhood watch brigades to prevent the arrests of residents joining the civil disobedience movement.
‘We don’t trust anyone at this time, especially those with uniforms,’ said Myo Ko Ko, member of a street patrol in Yangon.
The country’s new military leadership has so far been unmoved by a torrent of international condemnation.
The junta insists it took power lawfully and has instructed journalists in the country not to refer to it as a government that took power in a coup.