Water fired at crowd as anti-coup protests swell in Myanmar

YANGON, Myanmar, 8 Feb (AP) — Police fired a water cannon Monday at hundreds of protesters in Myanmar’s capital who are demanding the military hand power back to elected officials, as demonstrations against last week’s coup intensified and spread to more parts of the country.

The demonstrations in Naypyitaw, ongoing for several days, are especially significant since the city, whose population includes many civil servants and their families, has no tradition of protest and has a heavy military presence.

A protest also swelled at a major downtown intersection in the country’s largest city, Yangon, with people chanting slogans, raising a three-finger salute that is a symbol of resistance and carrying placards saying, “Reject the military coup” and “Justice for Myanmar.”

There were also reports of new demonstrations in towns in the north, southeast and east of the country, as well as in the city of Mandalay, where there was a procession of marchers and motorbikes.

“We do not want the military junta,” said Daw Moe, a protester in Yangon. “We never ever wanted this junta. Nobody wants it. All the people are ready to fight them.”

State media for the first time on Monday made reference to the protests, claiming they were endangering the country’s stability.

“Democracy can be destroyed if there is no discipline,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Information, read on state television station MRTV. “We will have to take legal actions to prevent acts that are violating state stability, public safety and the rule of law.”

The coup was seen internationally as a shocking setback for Myanmar, which had been making progress toward democracy in recent years after five decades of military rule. The takeover came the day newly elected lawmakers were supposed to take their seats in Parliament after November elections. The generals have said that vote was marred by fraud — though the country’s election commission has dismissed that claim.

The growing protests recall previous movements in the Southeast Asian country’s long and bloody struggle for democracy. On Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters rallied at the city’s Sule Pagoda, which was a focal point of demonstrations against military rule during a massive 1988 uprising and again during a 2007 revolt led by Buddhist monks. The military used deadly force to end both of those uprisings. Aside from a few officers, soldiers have not been in the streets at protests this past week.

Photos of the standoff in Naypyitaw on Monday showed a vast crowd of protesters hemmed in on several sides by large numbers of police and police vehicles. Officers there trained a water cannon on the crowd, which was gathered near a giant statue of Aung San, who led the country’s 1940s fight for independence from Britain and is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the elected leader who was deposed by last week’s takeover. Suu Kyi — who became an international symbol of the country’s fight for freedom while detained in her home for 15 years and earned the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts — is now back under house arrest.

The risks of such confrontations were highlighted Sunday in the town of Myawaddy, on Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand, when police shot into the air in an effort to disperse a crowd. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an independent watchdog group, said one woman had been shot, without providing details about her condition.

There have been no signs that either the protesters or the military will back down in their fight over who is the country’s legitimate government: the politicians from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which won the recent elections in a landslide, or the junta. Suu Kyi’s party has asked for international recognition as the legitimate representatives of the people.

A call for a general strike was issued late Sunday by several activist groups in Yangon, but it was not clear if it had been widely circulated or adopted by the informally organized civil disobedience movement at the forefront of the protests.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says 165 people, mostly politicians, had been detained since the Feb. 1 coup, with just 13 released.

One foreigner has been confirmed held by the authorities, Sean Turnell, an economist at Australia’s Macquarie University who was an adviser to Suu Kyi’s government. He was detained Saturday under unclear circumstances.

A statement issued Monday by the office of Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said he was being provided with consular support and described him as “a highly regarded advisor, member of the academic community.”

“We certainly believe he should be immediately released,” it said.

The military has accused Suu Kyi’s government of failing to act on its complaints that last November’s election was marred by fraud, though the election commission said it had found no evidence to support the claims.