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Thousands protest in Myanmar in defiance of military junta

Thousands of people massed in Yangon for a second day on Sunday to protest last week’s military coup, defying the junta’s attempt to choke off the spread of news and dissent by shutting down most of Myanmar’s internet.

Livestream footage filmed by protesters in the south-east Asian country’s biggest city, which they managed to transmit despite Saturday’s block of most mobile data communications, showed large crowds of people marching, chanting “Democracy — our cause”, “Down with the military government”, and other slogans.

This came a day after protesters gathered in Yangon, Mandalay, and the capital Naypyidaw to demand the newly installed junta, headed by General Min Aung Hlaing, end military rule and free the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other imprisoned officials.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human rights organisation, said that as of Saturday 164 people, mostly National League for Democracy ruling officials, had been detained since the February 1 coup and were under house arrest or in detention.

Sean Turnell, an Australian who served as a senior economic adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s toppled leader, was arrested on Saturday.

“Just to let you know mate I am being detained and charged with something,” Mr Turnell said in a text message to an acquaintance seen by the Financial Times. “Not sure what, but I didn’t do it,” he said, adding that he was “calm and OK” along with a laughing emoji.

A person with direct knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be named, said that Mr Turnell, an associate professor of economics at Macquarie University in Sydney, had been arrested at about 9am and was being held without charge for 15 to 30 days.

Telenor, one of Myanmar’s four telecoms companies, said on Saturday that it and other mobile operators had been ordered by the ministry of transport and communications to temporarily shut down their data networks.

“Telenor Myanmar, as a local company, is bound by the local law and needs to handle this irregular and difficult situation,” Telenor said.

It said that voice and messaging services remained open. 

NetBlocks, a non-governmental organisation that tracks disruptions and shutdowns on the world wide web, said on Sunday that internet connectivity in Myanmar was “flatlining at just 14 per cent of ordinary levels”.

Myanmar’s coup last Monday ended the country’s nine-year-old democratic transition and plunged one of Asia’s poorest nations into uncertainty at a time when it was starting to bring Covid-19 under control. 

The military’s internet shutdown, a tool it has used in the past to hide from view violent conflicts in the country’s western Rakhine and Chin states, came after resistance to the coup gathered force online and the toppled government took steps to conduct business as usual.

MPs organised a “virtual” parliamentary meeting on Friday and vowed “to fulfil their mandate without impediment”. In recent days, people have shared protest art mocking the generals, and renditions of Kabar Ma Kyay Bu, a protest anthem set to the tune of “Dust in the Wind” that was an anthem of the country’s 1988 uprising against military dictatorship.

The regime last week ordered internet providers to block Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Amnesty International called Saturday’s internet blackout a “heinous and reckless decision”.

A group of civil society groups in Myanmar circulated a letter criticising internet providers for obeying the shutdown order. “By complying with their directives, your companies are essentially legitimising the military’s authority, despite international condemnation of this very body.” 

Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

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