Opponents of military rule in Myanmar marked the one-year anniversary of the army’s seizure of power with a nationwide strike Tuesday to show their strength and solidarity amid concern about what has become an increasingly violent contention for power.
The “silent strike” sought to empty the streets of Myanmar’s cities and towns by having people stay home and businesses shut their doors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In Yangon, the country’s largest city, and elsewhere, photos on social media showed normally busy streets were almost empty.
The anniversary has also attracted international attention, especially from Western nations critical of the military takeover, such as the United States.
President Joe Biden in a statement called for the military to reverse its actions, free the country’s ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees and engage in meaningful dialogue to return Myanmar on a path to democracy.
The military’s takeover on Feb. 1, 2021, ousted the elected government of Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party was about to begin a second five-year term in office after winning a landslide victory in the previous year’s November election. The military said it acted because there was widespread voter fraud in the polls — an allegation that independent election observers have said they’ve seen no serious evidence for.
Widespread nonviolent demonstrations followed the army’s takeover initially, but armed resistance arose after protests were put down with lethal force. About 1,500 civilians have been killed but the government has been unable to suppress the insurgency, which some U.N. experts now characterize as a civil war.
The U.S. on Monday imposed new sanctions on Myanmar officials, adding to those already applied to top military officers. They freeze any assets that those targeted may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them. Britain and Canada announced similar measures.
A statement from the office of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted “an intensification in violence, a deepening of the human rights and humanitarian crises and a rapid rise of poverty in Myanmar,” which it said required an urgent response.
People in Myanmar rushed before the start of Tuesday’s strike to buy essentials, and in Yangon appeared to have done their shopping on Monday.
Pro-democracy flash mob marches were held in several places before the start of the strike in the early morning hours, when clashes with police and soldiers are less likely.
Local media reported ongoing violence on Monday, with at least six bombings believed to have been carried out by resistance forces in Yangon, and another at a police station in Myitkyina in northern Kachin state. The opposition carries out daily guerrilla actions, while the military engages in larger-scale assaults in rural areas, including air strikes, which are blamed for many civilian casualties.
Despite tight security in cities including Yangon, Mandalay and Sagaing, young protesters including Buddhist monks held spirited but peaceful protests at dawn, carrying banners and chanting anti-military slogans.
Many also held up three fingers, the resistance salute adopted from “the Hunger Games” movie that has also been used by pro-democracy demonstrators in neighboring Thailand.
Shopkeepers has been threatened with arrest by the authorities; consequently some were open for business Tuesday, but appeared to have few if any customers.
Since last week, the government had issued official warnings in state-run media that anyone taking part in the strike could be prosecuted, including under the Counter-Terrorism Law with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment and the possible confiscation of their property.
Dozens of business owners who had announced they planned to be closed were arrested, according to reports in the state-run newspaper Myanma Alinn Daily.
The detainees, from areas around the country, included shopkeepers, restaurant owners, medical workers, a monk, a make-up artist, a mobile phone repair shop owner and an astrologer.
The military-installed government initiated other measures to try to undercut the strike. In Yangon and Mandalay, city administrators scheduled special events, including a cycling contest, to try to draw crowds. City workers in Yangon were told to attend during strike hours, according to leaked documents posted on social media.
Several pro-military demonstrations, widely believed to have been organized by the authorities, were also held.
Leaders of the opposing sides also broadcast speeches marking the anniversary.
Duwa Lashi La, acting president of the opposition's National Unity Government, said the group is understood by the people as the guiding force of the revolution, and it promises to do its utmost to make the revolution a success. The NUG, established by elected lawmakers, considers itself the country’s legitimate administrative body and has won the loyalty of many citizens. The military has branded it a “terrorist” organization.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, leader of the military-installed government, reviewed its performance since taking power in an hourlong speech. He pledged a “genuine and disciplined multiparty democratic system,” calling for cooperation “so as to achieve a better future for the country and people.”