Myanmar protest crackdown moves to new urban phase

Thousands of residents poured into the streets across Myanmar’s largest city Yangon late on 8 Mar 21, defying a nightly curfew to show support for about 200 protesters encircled by security forces in a central district earlier in the day.

  • The standoff followed moves by the military junta on 7 Mar 21 to occupy hospitals, university campuses and schools in Yangon and four other cities including Mandalay, the second-biggest city.
  • The state-run broadcaster MRTV said security forces were establishing a presence at hospitals and universities as part of efforts to “enforce the law.” But some analysts including news website The Irrawaddy described the move as a shift in strategy to establish a network of central urban bases to deny the swelling civil disobedience movement access to medical and education facilities and provide launch pads for operations.
  • The standoff on 8 Mar 21 night came as Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.K., Kyaw Zwar Minn, joined the steadily growing diplomatic rebellion against the coup, calling for the release of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint from detention in the capital, Naypyitaw.
  • Broadcaster MRTV announced the forced closure of five prominent local publications that had their licenses revoked. Police reportedly raided the office of one of them, Myanmar Now, seeking documents and computer files.
  • In a separate development, military junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said on state television that the detention of Sean Turnell, an Australian economist and financial adviser to ousted de facto leader Suu Kyi, had led to the “discovery” of “secret state financial information.”
  • A prominent economic adviser to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government, Turnell was detained on 6 Feb 21, days after the coup. One analyst said the announcement suggests Turnell would be held for “much longer than initially thought” on charges related to the alleged crime.
  • That view was reinforced by Australia’s announcement on 8 Mar 21 that it had suspended all foreign aid and defense cooperation with Myanmar. On defense cooperation, Australia spent AUD1.48bn over the past five years and budgeted to spend AUD361,000 in 2020-21, while earmarking AUD91mn for official development assistance to Myanmar in 2021, according to Australian government figures. Analysts saw the decision to suspend all aid and military co-operation as a sign that Turnell’s detention could be indefinite and that more violence against protesters was inevitable.
  • In his statement, the junta leader said Turnell was stopped while “trying to flee the country” and would face legal action in connection with “secret state financial information.”
  • In the 8 Mar 21 night standoff, the police entrapment of about 200 mostly young protesters in Yangon’s western district of Sanchaung fueled fears of a massacre. Thousands of protesters were estimated to have poured onto the streets all over the city at night, in defiance of the junta’s curfew order, to show support for the entrapped protesters. Shots were heard at night.
  • The protests and the prospect of a general strike have caused widespread economic disruption.
  • Major labor unions in Myanmar have called for the movement to expand to all workers. To continue economic and business activity as usual “will only benefit the military as they repress the energy of the Myanmar people,” the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar wrote in a statement on Facebook endorsed by 18 labor organizations.

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