HONG KONG — Bank tellers, cooks, grocery workers and hundreds of thousands of others in Myanmar answered a call for a general strike on Monday to protest the military coup, bringing cities to a standstill despite fears of a violent crackdown.
Killings of protesters “can happen anytime in Yangon, but we have to keep doing what we should do, even if the soldiers are ready to shoot us,” said Thura Zaw, a 32-year-old resident. “Under the military dictatorship, no one is safe, whether you take to the streets or sit at home, so we chose to voice our objection rather than staying silent.”
Resistance has been building since the armed forces ousted Myanmar’s elected government three weeks ago, returning the country to direct military rule after a decade-long quasi-democratic experiment. Since then, the military has detained more than 400 people, including civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ousted Myanmar president Win Myint, charging them with minor infractions to keep them locked up. The coup has been condemned by the international community, including the United States, which has imposed some sanctions.
In a tweet Sunday night, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington will “continue to take firm action” against those who perpetrate violence against protesters.
“We stand with the people of Burma,” he said, using an alternate name for the country.
Protesters chose Feb. 22 because of the date’s numerical similarity to the student-led uprising against military rule known as “8.8.88” that took place nearly 33 years ago.
By daybreak in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, authorities had erected barricades and fortified streets with tanks and convoys of military vehicles to stop protesters from marching to the city center. Demonstrators simply moved barriers out of the way, or protested in front of them. Convenience stores, markets and other essential businesses were shuttered, replaced by throngs of people carried signs disavowing the coup and calling for Suu Kyi’s release.
Similar scenes unfolded across the country: in Pathein, the riverside capital of the Ayeyarwady region; in Mandalay, where two protesters were killed last week; and even in Naypyidaw, the purpose-built capital whose urban layout was designed to thwart mass demonstrations. Police deployed to those protests were generally restrained, other than in Naypyidaw, where they broke up groups and tackled some demonstrators to the ground.
In Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin state, Nai Hongsar, a 38-year-old resident, was among those who joined the strike. About 90 percent of businesses in the city were closed, he said, undeterred by the junta’s efforts to intimidate workers into heading back to their offices.
“Every bank is shut down,” he said. “The system is not working . . . it is breaking down already.”
Sai Nay Nay Win, a 22-year-old law student in Lashio, in northern Shan state, said that the scene on Monday was “spectacular” and that soldiers and police officers had not interfered with demonstrators who filled the streets as of midday.
“If we succeed in an all-out strike, the government machine will not function,” he said. “They have to make concessions.”
Despite the sometimes festive and triumphant atmosphere at protests, demonstrators are increasingly bracing for a crackdown. In recent days, police in some cities have used live ammunition against protesters, killing three: two in Mandalay and a 20-year-old grocery worker, Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, who died after being shot in the head at a rally in Naypyidaw. Before heading to the streets on Monday, some protesters wrote their blood type on their arms, while others prayed and paid respects to Buddhist deities at gilded pagodas across the country.
Ahead of the general strike, authorities continued a campaign of intimidation, blocking mobile Internet connections for a longer period than in previous days. These Internet blackouts, occurring after 1 a.m., are often used as cover to arrest activists and leaders of the civil disobedience movement.
State-owned broadcaster MRTV warned Sunday that “protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life.” Facebook said Monday that it had taken down MRTV’s pages for violations of its standards.
But rather than deter those on the sidelines, the deaths of the three young protesters have galvanized many into action. Maung Hla Win, 42, closed his auto parts shop in Yangon on Monday, though he was hesitant to do it before, having already suffered huge losses during the pandemic. Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, he said, reminded him of his teenage daughter.
“I’m afraid something similar can happen to her if we continue to be ruled by the military,” he said, noting that his 19-year-old daughter has taken to the streets almost daily with her friends. “So, I think it is time to show my solidarity.”
Timothy McLaughlin in Hong Kong and Kyaw Ye Lynn in Yangon contributed to this report.