Yangon, Myanmar, Feb 3 – The US on Wednesday called on Myanmar’s military to free Aung San Suu Kyi, as the ousted leader was charged after being detained in a coup, while calls for civil disobedience opposing the putsch gathered pace.
The Southeast Asian nation was plunged back into direct military rule when soldiers arrested key civilian leaders in a series of dawn raids Monday, ending the army’s brief flirtation with democracy.
Suu Kyi, who has not been seen in public since, won a huge landslide with her National League for Democracy (NLD) last November, but the military — whose favoured parties received a drubbing — declared the polls fraudulent.
On Wednesday, the NLD’s press officer said the 75-year-old Suu Kyi was formally charged with an offence under Myanmar’s import and export law, with a court signing off on two weeks’ remand.
The unusual charge stemmed from a search of her house following her arrest in which walkie-talkies were discovered, according to a leaked police charging document seen by reporters.
A similarly unorthodox charge under the country’s disaster management law against President Win Myint revolved around him allegedly breaching anti-coronavirus measures last year by meeting voters on the campaign trail.
The United States said it was “disturbed” by the charges.
“We call on the military to immediately release them all,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters of Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders.
With soldiers and armoured cars back on the streets of major cities, the takeover has not been met by any large street protests.
But signs of public anger and plans to resist have begun to flicker.
Doctors and medical staff at multiple hospitals across the country announced Wednesday they were donning red ribbons and walking away from all non-emergency work to protest against the coup.
“Our main goal is to accept only the government we elected,” Aung San Min, head of a 100-bed hospital in Gangaw district, told AFP.
Some medical teams posted pictures on social media wearing red ribbons — NLD colours — and raising a three-finger salute, a protest gesture used by democracy activists in neighbouring Thailand, while some have chosen to bypass work altogether.
“My protest starts today by not going to the hospital… I have no desire to work under the military dictatorship,” said Nor Nor Wint Wah, a doctor in Mandalay.
Activists were announcing their campaigns on a Facebook group called “Civil Disobedience Movement” which by Wednesday afternoon had more than 150,000 followers within 24 hours of its launch.
The clatter of pots and pans, the honking of car horns and the singing of democracy protest songs also rang out across the commercial capital Yangon on Wednesday evening for a second night in a row after calls went out on social media.
Late on Wednesday, the military issued a statement rejecting rumours that 5000 kyat ($3.70) and 10,000 kyat notes ($7.40) would be demonetised.
Demonetising of bank notes was a key factor in an 1988 uprising.
– Military’s deadly legacy –
Army chief Min Aung Hlaing appointed himself head of a new cabinet stacked with generals, and on Tuesday justified his coup as the “inevitable” result of failure to heed the army’s fraud warnings.
The military declared a one-year state of emergency and said it would hold new elections once its allegations of voter irregularities were addressed.
The move stunned Myanmar, a country left impoverished by decades of junta misrule before it began moving towards a more democratic government 10 years ago.
But protesting is fraught with risk.
During junta rule, dissent was quashed with thousands of activists — including Suu Kyi — detained for years on end.
Censorship was pervasive and the military frequently deployed lethal force, most notably during huge protests in 1988 and 2007.
The new government has already issued a warning telling people not to say or post anything that might “encourage riots or an unstable situation”.
On Wednesday, the NLD announced the military had committed “unlawful acts” in the coup’s aftermath, raiding its party offices across the country and seizing documents and computers.
– International censure –
The army’s actions have been met with a growing chorus of international condemnation — although the options are limited for those nations hoping Myanmar’s generals might reverse course.
On Tuesday the United States formally designated the takeover as a coup, meaning it cannot assist the Myanmar government.
Any impact will be mainly symbolic, as almost all assistance goes to non-government entities and Myanmar’s military was already under US sanctions over its brutal campaign against the Rohingya minority.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Tuesday but failed to agree on a statement condemning the coup.
To be adopted, it requires the support of China, which wields veto power as a permanent Security Council member and is Myanmar’s main supporter at the UN.
“China and Russia have asked for more time,” said a diplomat requesting anonymity.
Both countries repeatedly shielded Myanmar from censure at the UN over the military’s crackdown on the Rohingya, a campaign that UN investigators said amounted to genocide.
On Wednesday a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman called for the international community to “create a sound external environment for Myanmar to properly resolve the differences,” according to state-run Xinhua news agency.
With the UN meeting failing to issue a statement, G7 nations produced their own — calling on Myanmar’s military to reverse course.