Tens of thousands of protesters overcame a post-coup internet blackout as they took to the streets of Myanmar’s largest city for a second consecutive day on Sunday, demanding the release of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
A witness in the former capital Yangon told CNN the crowd on Sunday mostly consisted of young people and appeared to be significantly larger and better organized than Saturday’s protest. Public participation also looked to be growing, according to witnesses. Reuters news service said tens of thousands were in the streets.
Many in the crowd gave the three-fingered salute – a reference to the Hunger Games movies and popular symbol of recent pro-democracy protests in neighboring Thailand that have since been adopted in Myanmar.
Protesters on Sunday have been marching around the Yangon University area, changing directions to avoid roadblocks and any confrontations with police. A witness has seen several police trucks in the area.
Resistance to the coup had initially proved limited, due in part to widespread communications difficulties, as well as fears of a further crackdown.
Internet monitoring service NetBlocks said Saturday that the country was in the midst of a second “national-scale” internet blackout as the military attempted to secure its grip on power.
According to NetBlocks, real-time network data showed connectivity had fallen to 16% of ordinary levels and users had reported difficultly getting online.
The Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) ordered the nationwide shutdown of the data network on Saturday, according to Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor Group, which runs Telenor Myanmar.
The group, writing on Twitter, said the ministry cited “Myanmar’s Telecommunication Law, and references circulation of fake news, stability of the nation and interest of the public as basis for the order.”
The fall in connectivity follows moves to block access to social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as a number of prominent local news outlets.
Communication between protesters Sunday was largely through SMS texts, phone calls, and word of mouth, according to a witness in Yangon. On Saturday, crowds announced where to gather Sunday, resulting in apparently improved organization, the witness said.
Members of the Student Union, Labour Union, and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party (NLD) were expected to join the protest throughout Sunday.
Coup sparks protests
For more than 50 years, Myanmar – also known as Burma – was run by successive isolationist military regimes that plunged the country into poverty and brutally stifled any dissent. Thousands of critics, activists, journalists, academics and artists were routinely jailed and tortured during that time.
Recently deposed civilian leader Suu Kyi shot to international prominence during her decades-long struggle against military rule. When her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won a landslide in elections in 2015 and formed the first civilian government, many pro-democracy supporters hoped it would mark a break from the military rule of the past and offer hope that Myanmar would continue to reform.
The NLD was widely reported to have won another decisive victory in a November 2020 general election, giving it another five years in power and dashing hopes for some military figures that an opposition party they had backed might take power democratically.
The sudden seizure of power came as the new Parliament was due to open and after months of increasing friction between the civilian government and the powerful military, known as the Tatmadaw, over alleged election irregularities. The country’s election commission has repeatedly denied mass voter fraud took place.
Hundreds of NLD lawmakers were detained in the capital Naypyitaw Monday, where they had traveled to take up their seats. The junta has since removed 24 ministers and deputies from government and named 11 of its own allies as replacements who will assume their roles in a new administration.
The NLD urged the United Nations to take stronger actions to “restore the deposed government,” in a statement released to the media this weekend.
It said UN leaders had to implement “carefully targeted sanctions against the military regime, its leaders, their businesses, and associates.” It also urged “the suspension of economic ties between all businesses with the military regime.”
The deposed political party also asks the UN to refrain from “measures that harm the people of Myanmar” – specifically, blanket sanctions and suspending aid. “We invite, consent, and demand the world urgently come to our aid.”
Analysts have suggested the coup was more likely to do with the military attempting to reassert its power and the personal ambition of army chief Min Aung Hlaing, who was set to step down this year, rather than serious claims of voter fraud.
Monday’s coup has been widely condemned internationally, with the United States calling on Myanmar’s military leaders to “immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence against civilians.”
CNN’s Helen Regan and James Griffiths contributed to this report.