Myanmar protesters block arrests as UN demands Suu Kyi's release

·4-min read

Opposition to Myanmar's new military regime intensified on Saturday as spontaneous neighbourhood watch groups mobilised to thwart arrests of anti-coup activists and the UN demanded the release of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The army takeover that brought a decade-old democracy to an end last week has unleashed a storm of anger and defiance, with huge daily protests bringing urban centres around the country to a standstill.

Since taking Suu Kyi and her top allies into custody, troops have stepped up arrests of civil servants, doctors and others joining strikes calling on the generals to relinquish power.

Crowds defied overnight curfews to gather on the streets as night fell, hours after finishing a seventh straight day of rallies, following rumours that police were launching a fresh wave of arrests.

One group swarmed a hospital in the city of Pathein on rumours that a popular local doctor would be taken.

"If I have problems, I will ask for your help," Than Min Htut told the group who had come to aid him.

He told AFP Saturday he would continue participating in a civil disobedience campaign opposing military rule.

People in Yangon skirted a junta ban on Facebook to organise neighbourhood watch groups that warned of rumoured arrests.

"We didn't know who will be taken, but when we heard the sound, we went out to join our neighbours," said Tin Zar, a storekeeper in Yangon's north.

"Even if they shoot, we are not afraid," she told AFP.

More than 320 people have been arrested since last week's coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.

An emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva called for the new regime to release all "arbitrarily detained" persons and hand power back to Suu Kyi's administration.

But the news of more arrests did not stop tens of thousands from returning to the streets of Yangon on Saturday, where columns of traffic ground to a halt and blared their horns for five minutes to mark the birthday of Aung San.

The independence hero and father of Suu Kyi is revered locally for freeing the country from colonial control but was gunned down at the age of 32, just months before the end of British rule.

- Protests nationwide -

The protests have united disparate strands of society -- Saturday saw saffron-robed monks and players from Myanmar's national football team gathering in different parts of Yangon.

"We will only play football on the street until we get democracy," said goalkeeper Kyaw Zin Htet.

"We won’t play for the national team under the military dictatorship."

Meanwhile, hundreds of monks led a prayer session in front of the US embassy.

"The people of Myanmar want democracy," tweeted out the embassy in a message of solidarity. "We stand with them."

By nightfall, police announced that arrest warrants had been issued for several prominent activists for "using their popularity... to damage state stability", and warned that anyone harbouring them "will be dealt with under the law".

Nationwide protests have remained largely peaceful, though authorities have used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse some rallies.

At least two people in the capital Naypyidaw were shot by police and critically injured, including one 20-year-old woman who remains in intensive care.

State media reported counter-protests by military supporters in various parts of the country Saturday, citing crowd estimates a small fraction of the anti-coup rallies seen this week.

A demonstration in Naung Po Aung on the same day underscored the nationwide breadth of opposition to the junta, with hundreds marching in procession through the village of only 7,500 people in one of the most remote corners of the country.

- 'Internal affairs' -

So far, the generals remain undeterred by the widespread condemnation on the streets -- and overseas.

They justified seizing power with claims of widespread voter fraud in November's election, which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide.

While many NLD members have been detained, the ones still free have formed a committee that on Saturday declared all "orders, notifications and laws" released by the military's government "are illegal".

Washington this week imposed targeted sanctions against top military brass.

But traditional allies of the country's armed forces, including Russia and China, have slammed the international outcry against the coup as interference in Myanmar's "internal affairs".

Suu Kyi has not been seen since her detention nearly two weeks ago, though NLD official Kyi Toe said on Saturday she was in Naypyidaw and still in "good health".

bur-dhc/reb