YANGON – Myanmar’s popular protests against the coup regime have shown no signs of abating despite the casualties over the weekend, with banks and supermarkets closing amid expectations of a huge protest tomorrow in response to the lethal shootings.
Myanmar citizens nationwide have taken to the streets for more than 15 days since February 6 in a mass uprising against the military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s coup and suspension of democracy.
His coup regime has changed various laws related to public gatherings, detentions without trial and privacy in a so far failed bid to suppress the protests. In recent days, the regime has conducted nighttime raids and arrests, including of government employees found to be participating in the so-called Civil Disobedience Movement.
Security forces are now escalating their use of force against unarmed protesters. In Mandalay on February 20, nearly 100 security personnel including soldiers armed with sniper rifles shot live rounds to suppress crowds near the city’s Yadanarpon dockyard. The shootings resulted in at least two deaths and several dozen injuries.
A live stream video of the crackdown showed a young man shot through his skull and another shot in the chest. Photos circulating online showed an ambulance that was seeking to transport injured protesters was also shot at by security forces, leaving a bullet hole in its window.
The soldiers in Mandalay on Saturday were from the 33rd Light Infantry Division, a notorious unit that was found responsible for the massacre of ten Rohingyas in Inn Din, Rakhine state, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
“Myanmar security forces’ use of lethal force against protesters in the streets of Mandalay is outrageous and unacceptable, and must be urgently investigated,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch on the crackdown in Mandalay.
“Those responsible for the deaths and severe injuries of those protesters must be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
In a separate incident on Saturday, a man in Shwe Pyi Thar township in northwest Yangon who was on night guard duty for his community was shot in the face and died on the scene, according to eyewitnesses.
The witnesses claim that the deceased asked a police patrol vehicle where it was going upon which an officer exited the vehicle, shouted profanities and shot the man in the face three times.
Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement, which started with worker strikes and government employees refusing to work, is creatively evolving.
That’s been seen in the planned simultaneous breaking down of cars in the commercial capital of Yangon, a tactic that has seized up traffic and brought economic activity to a standstill in the commercial hub.
The military countered the tactic by bringing in bulldozers the following day, to which the protesters responded by driving extremely slowly rather than feign breaking down.
“We’re fighting not for ourselves but for the future of our children,” said 47-year-old taxi driver, Moe, who said he was among those who drove his car especially slowly in the commercial capital in a show of peaceful resistance.
Elsewhere protesters have been seen “helping” supposedly clumsy shoppers pick up onions that fell on the ground through a bag with a hole while crossing the street, a method which likewise blocks the roads but is also legal. Others have been seen picking up grains of spilled rice on the road.
Pop culture celebrities have joined the movement and have been targeted especially hard by authorities with at least six facing arrest warrants for “inciting” government staff to join the resistance movement.
One of the actors and former chair of the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization, Lu Min, was arrested by the junta on February 20, the same day of the Mandalay crackdown. Before his arrest, he posted a live video requesting protesters to be cautious, peaceful and avoid direct contact with the security forces on Monday, February 22.
“[The regime] will provoke and the citizens who are angry could make mistakes. [The military] will then gain victory using the 1988 narrative that they had to take control because the people are rowdy, violent and making terrorist acts,” the actor said.
Although there is no clear leading figure in the protests, the protesters have organized well organically.
“People are very cooperative… I was thrilled to see the crowds both young and old informing each other about nationalists arriving to cause trouble. Everyone put their arms in a cross-motion to alert,” said a 25-year-old English teacher. The teacher noted that young “Generation Z” protesters have taken on board advice from earlier generations involved in the 1988 uprising and 2007 Saffron Revolution.
“People nowadays can expect what [the military regime] will do and respond accordingly,” the teacher said.
For instance, when security forces on the scene asked protesters to disperse or are seen setting up barricades, the protesters often wrap up their activities quickly and move to another unguarded location.
“The protesters are on the lookout for one another…They would avoid a direct conflict with the police and military forces… When the riot police put their shields down in Hledan [Road] preparing to disperse the crowd, all the protesters there stood up and said goodbyes to the security forces,” he said referring to a recent confrontation in Yangon.
Another protester tactic is “social punishment”, where online users identify military personnel and their family members by name to publicly shame them for supporting the coup regime and often for their luxurious lifestyles.
More strategically, protesters have sought to hit the financial system, with protests staged outside the Central Bank of Myanmar’s Yangon headquarters and pressure campaigns against private bank employees to go on strike.
Citizens have also started boycotting products made by military-affiliated companies, notably the Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company and Myanmar Economic Corporation. Many stores including City Mart, the largest retail shopping outlet in the country, have stopped selling their products and returned them.
“If the military regime will continue administering the country, FDI [foreign direct investment] will drop significantly… It will no longer be just a reputational risk [to invest in Myanmar] but also a political risk,” said a 25-year-old professional working in the private sector
Some of the largest international firms in Myanmar have issued a joint statement with the help of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business to express their “growing and deep concern.”
“As investors, we inhabit a ‘shared space’ with the people of Myanmar, including civil society organizations, in which we all benefit from respect for human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and association – and the rule of law,” the statement signed by 15 multinational companies including Facebook, Norway’s Telenor, Australian oil and gas company Woodside and French energy giant Total.
Woodside Energy had come under fire after its CEO Peter Coleman said in an interview with Reuters that he sees the Myanmar military coup as a “transitionary issue.” The company has backtracked on the statement and issued an apology clarifying that Woodside is closely monitoring developments in Myanmar.
The Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Myanmar’s business chamber, closed its head office as of February 10 after a backlash from the public amid news that its secretariat had threatened and pressured its staff to go back to work.
The chamber later denied the claim, saying it does not ban its staff from standing up for their own beliefs.