YANGON, MYANMAR — Streets emptied and shops closed in protest across Myanmar on Wednesday, the second anniversary of the coup that toppled Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, with the junta hinting it may extend a state of emergency and delay new elections.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military’s power grab and bloody crackdown on dissent, which has sparked fighting across the country and tanked the economy.
Western powers launched a fresh broadside of sanctions against the generals on the anniversary but previous rounds have shown little sign of throwing the junta off course.
Streets in the commercial hub Yangon largely emptied from late morning, AFP correspondents said, after activists called for people across the Southeast Asian country to close businesses and stay indoors from 10 am to 4 pm (0330-0930 GMT).
Roads leading to the famous Shwedagon pagoda — a Buddhist shrine that dominates Yangon’s skyline and is usually thronged by worshippers — were largely deserted.
Most buses on roads elsewhere in the city were empty and there was a heavy security presence.
It was similarly quiet in the second city of Mandalay, a resident told AFP.
“There are a few people walking here and there in neighbourhoods but almost no activity on the main roads,” the resident said, requesting anonymity.
Local media images also showed empty streets in the eastern city of Mawlamyine.
Around 200 supporters of the military marched through Yangon’s historic downtown in the early afternoon, escorted part of the way by soldiers, correspondents said.
The US embassy in the city warned of “increased anti-regime activity and violence” in the days around the anniversary.
Around 400 protesters gathered outside Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok, some chanting slogans against the military and holding portraits of Suu Kyi.
‘Unrest and violence’
The military justified its February 1, 2021, power grab with unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud in elections democracy figurehead Suu Kyi’s party won in a landslide.
A junta-imposed state of emergency was due to expire at the end of January, after which the constitution states that authorities must set in motion plans to hold fresh elections.
The military was widely expected to announce on Wednesday that it would prepare for the polls.
But on Tuesday, the junta-stacked National Defence and Security Council met to discuss the state of the nation and concluded it “has not returned to normalcy yet”.
Junta opponents, including the anti-coup “People’s Defence Forces” (PDFs) and a shadow government dominated by lawmakers from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), had tried to seize “state power by means of unrest and violence”, the council said.
The “necessary announcement will be released” on Wednesday, it said, without giving details.
‘We lost everything’
The United States, Canada and Britain announced a new round of sanctions on the anniversary, targeting members of the junta and junta-backed entities.
Myanmar’s former colonial ruler Britain targeted, among others, companies supplying aviation fuel to the military and enabling its “barbaric air raiding campaign in an attempt to maintain power”.
Australia also announced its first sanctions, aimed at 16 members of the junta “responsible for egregious human rights abuses” and two sprawling, military-controlled conglomerates.
US sanctions also targeted the junta-approved election commission, which last week gave political parties two months to re-register, in a sign the military appeared to be going for fresh polls.
But with armed resistance raging across the country, analysts say people in many areas are unlikely to vote and that they run the risk of reprisals if they do.
A United Nations special envoy said Tuesday that military-run elections would “fuel greater violence, prolong the conflict and make the return to democracy and stability more difficult”.
More than 2,900 people have been killed in the military’s crackdown on dissent since it seized power and more than 18,000 have been arrested, according to a local monitoring group.
The junta recently wrapped up a series of closed-court trials of Suu Kyi, jailing its longtime enemy for a total of 33 years in a process rights groups have slammed as a sham.
“The main wish for 2023 is we want freedom and to go back home,” Thet Naung, an activist in the northern Sagaing region, where the military and anti-coup fighters have regularly clashed, told AFP.
“We have gone through many difficulties. We wanted to be happy and live freely but we lost everything. We have spent most of our time in jungles and stayed away from cities.”