More protests after Myanmar junta cuts internet, deploys troops

AFP , Monday 15 Feb 2021

The shutdown comes after a day of protesters taking to the streets in defiance of heavy troop presence around Yangon -- although turnout was smaller than in recent days

Protesters demonstrating against the military coup surround the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), after the police blocked off a street leading to the party's premises, in Yangon on February 15, 2021 AFP

Myanmar's junta deployed extra troops around the country and choked the internet for the second night in a row as it intensified a crackdown on anti-coup protests, but defiant demonstrators again took to the streets on Monday.

The military has steadily escalated efforts to quell an uprising against their seizure of power two weeks ago, which saw civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi detained along with hundreds of others, including members of her democratically elected government.

Suu Kyi and President Win Myint are expected to be questioned by a court "via video conferencing" in the country's capital of Naypyidaw this week, said lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, adding that he had not been able to make contact with either client.

Neither has been seen in public since they were detained in dawn raids on February 1, the day of the coup.

The generals imposed an hours-long internet shutdown Monday morning and ratcheted up the military's presence across the country overnight, including armoured vehicles in Yangon, the nation's commercial hub and biggest city.

On Tuesday, another internet blackout blanketed Myanmar, dropping connectivity to 15 percent of ordinary levels, according to UK-based monitoring group NetBlocks.

"#Myanmar is in the midst of a near-total internet shutdown for a second consecutive night" as of 1 am local time (1830 GMT), NetBlocks tweeted early Tuesday morning.

The shutdown comes after a day of protesters taking to the streets in defiance of heavy troop presence around Yangon -- although turnout was smaller than in recent days.

The United Nations denounced the choking of the internet.

The UN envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, spoke with the deputy commander of the Myanmar army, Soe Win, and warned that "network blackouts undermine core democratic principles," UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York.

The envoy noted that such shutdowns "hurt key sectors, including banking, and heighten domestic tensions. And, so, we've made our concerns about this very clear," said Haq.

"Patrolling with armoured vehicles means they are threatening people," said 46-year-old Nyein Moe, among the more than 1,000 gathered Monday in front of the Central Bank, staring down armoured vehicles parked there.

"We can't stop now."

By afternoon, news of a strong police presence at the city's headquarters of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party drew thousands to the scene.

They chanted "End military dictatorship" as the officers stood guard.

"About seven police officers searched for about 30 minutes (for two MPs)," NLD member Soe Win told AFP after the security forces left without finding them. "Now everything is settled."

Across the country, people continued to take to the streets Monday to call for the release of Suu Kyi -- with some incidents of violence.

A demonstration led by student groups in Naypyidaw was met with force after the gathering had retreated. Police also arrested dozens of the young protesters, though some were later released.

Mandalay, the country's second largest city, saw a clash which left at least six injured after police used slingshots against protesters and fired rubber bullets into the crowd.

Demonstrators retaliated by throwing bricks, said a rescue team member who assisted with the injured.

"One of them needed oxygen because he was hit with a rubber bullet in his rib," rescue team head Khin Maung Tin told AFP.

Journalists on the scene also said police had beaten them in the melee.

- 'State-ordered information blackout' -
NetBlocks reported Monday that a "state-ordered information blackout" had taken Myanmar almost entirely offline for around eight hours, before connectivity was restored at the start of the working day.

Tuesday's internet blackout would be the fourth since February 1, when the military staged a putsch and detained Suu Kyi, ending a decade-old fledgling democracy after generations of junta rule.

But cutting out internet connectivity -- and a step up in arrests -- has done little to quell resistance that has seen huge crowds throng big urban centres and isolated frontier villages alike.

The anti-coup movement has continued apace despite intensifying fears of a harsher crackdown, like on Sunday night when troops in the northern city of Myitkyina fired tear gas and then shot into a crowd of protesters.

So far, more than 420 people -- including striking workers -- have been detained since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.

- Declaration of war -
A joint statement from the US, British and European Union ambassadors urged security forces not to harm civilians.

By late Monday night, the UK embassy in Myanmar took a harsher line, admonishing the regime for its attack on journalists and for imposing another internet blackout.

"The assault on freedom of expression must stop," it tweeted.

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.

The country's new military leadership has so far been unmoved by a torrent of international condemnation.

On Monday coup leader Min Aung Hlaing said "except the West", other members of the international community say Myanmar's affairs are "its internal matter", echoing China and Russia.

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