Military imposes full grip on Myanmar in overnight crackdown

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By Hannah Beech

YANGON – With the night in Myanmar came the terror.

In cities across the country Sunday (14) evening, armoured vehicles moved in, along with trucks filled with soldiers in camouflage. Security forces fired rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at a crowd. Troops surrounded the houses of government workers who had dared to join a nationwide civil disobedience campaign. Politicians, activists and journalists fled, turning off their phones as they disappeared into the shadows, hoping to outpace the men coming after them.

“I suffered from the military dictatorship earlier in my life,” said Ma Tharaphe, a government accountant who, like many other civil servants, boycotted work to demand that the country’s civilian leadership be allowed to return nearly two weeks after a military coup. “But now I feel fear. Tonight will be a real nightmare.”

While the generals staged a coup on Feb. 1, toppling an elected government and returning the country to army rule, they showed their full force Sunday.

On Sunday night, ambassadors from multiple Western nations, including the United States, posted a statement warning the coup-makers to “refrain from violence against demonstrators and civilians, who are protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government.”

“We support the people of Myanmar in their quest for democracy, freedom, peace and prosperity,” the statement added. “The world is watching.”

Since the military’s seizure of power, millions of people have joined street protests and a civil disobedience movement aimed at crippling the workings of government.

The days have been filled with defiant protest, as motorcyclists, bodybuilders, students, women in ballgowns and even golden retriever aficionados gathered to demand the exit of a military that had controlled Myanmar for nearly half a century before handing over some power to a civilian government in 2015.

On Sunday morning, hackers attacked a State news media website, defacing it with triple ultimatums: “We want democracy! Reject military coup! Justice for Myanmar!”

The bland, bespectacled face of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the military chief who commanded the coup, has been defaced countless times on posters and online.

But the nights have brought fear. On Saturday (13) evening, the State Administration Council, the Orwellian name chosen by the coup-makers, announced that it was taking away basic civil liberties, allowing for indefinite detention and for the police to search homes with impunity. Arrest warrants were issued for veteran democracy activists who had already spent years in jail.

Late into Saturday night, residents of Yangon and Mandalay, the two biggest cities, watched in horror as unidentified men lit fires to spook neighbourhoods and ran. Police raids netted protesters and politicians alike. The day before, prisons had been emptied of 23,000 inmates in a mass amnesty. There is now room to spare to incarcerate people in what for decades has felt like a prison state.

By Sunday night, armoured vehicles were cruising through city streets, bringing more menace. In Sittwe and Mawlamyine, cities in the far west and east, armoured vehicles patrolled with soldiers stationed at gun turrets. People in Myanmar now refer to these evenings of sleep deprivation and dread as a kind of psychological warfare.

In Myitkyina, a city in the north, security forces shot rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas at a crowd that had gathered to protest the military’s takeover of a power station.

“Now, I’m in fear of what will happen tonight because they might cut off the electricity and do whatever they want,” said U Than Naing, an employee of the local power company.

The US Embassy’s citizen services in Yangon tweeted that “there are indications of military movements in Yangon and the possibility of telecommunications interruptions overnight between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m.”

The military severed much of the internet as it staged the putsch on Feb. 1, arresting dozens of civilians, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s de facto leader, whose National League for Democracy was elected in two landslide victories. The generals cut telecommunications networks again a few days later and ordered bans on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

On Sunday night, the military information unit issued a statement explaining the sudden military build-up in cities across the country.

“Security forces will be performing day and night security for the public to sleep peacefully in the community,” the statement said.

In Naypyitaw, the military’s custom-built capital, government workers peered out their windows at the soldiers coming to surround them.

Tharaphe, the accountant, said the troops had not yet arrived at her home but she was expecting them. Her toddler was in bed; she was not.

“Anything can happen, they might kill us anonymously,” she said. “I’m sure I can’t sleep tonight.”

-New York Times

 

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