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Protests grow in Myanmar despite internet restrictions and police crackdowns

Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets in Myanmar Wednesday to protest former civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial, which began this week in secret. Protestors have been calling for the reinstatement of democracy since the military launched a coup on Feb. 1. And as Nick Schifrin reports, they are also demanding a society that ignores their new military leaders.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tens of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets in Myanmar to protest former civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi's trial, which began this week in secret.

    Protesters have been calling for the reinstatement of democracy since the military launched a coup on February 1.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, the protesters in Myanmar are also calling to create a society that ignores their new military rulers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    At secret locations across Myanmar, health care workers who used to work for the government now say they work for the people.

  • Doctor:

    This will be a great trouble for the military control, this kind of civil disobedience movement. It's the kind of protesting. Do not obey the orders prescribed by the military.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This doctor asked us to withhold his name for security reasons. He is on strike from a government hospital, and instead treating anti-coup protesters. And he says Myanmar's the doctors strike is only the beginning.

  • Doctor:

    If the health systems fail and shut down, they might get a lot of problem. We started the movement and asked every ministry and other departments to join us to make it a bigger, stronger society movement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hundreds of thousands of public servants are on strike as part of a civil disobedience movement, or CDM. They defy military limits on gatherings to launch the country's largest protests in more than 10 years.

    Firefighters created their own fire brigades. Engineers stopped constructing buildings. When the real police arrived to arrest the doctors, citizen police rushed into the street to protect them. And teachers refuse to teach in government schools.

  • Aye Min Thant:

    Teachers, lawyers as well as doctors, they're people we learn from, people who guide us in life.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Aye Min Thant is a Burmese journalist who was part of a Reuters team that won a Pulitzer Prize for stories critical of the Burmese military that landed two of its reporters in prison.

    She says the civil disobedience movement is targeting the state's and military's foundations. Protesters heard the military might seize money from banks, so they blocked the central bank, and called on bank staff to join the movement. Protests also tried to prevent the junta from collecting taxes.

  • Aye Min Thant:

    Things that really, directly impact the — any government's ability to govern and enact their policy and fund what they're doing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What the military is doing is reversing Myanmar's fragile democracy. The February 1 coup declared a state of emergency and installed army leader Min Aung Hlaing for at least a year. Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi is now in house arrest and facing charges that could lead to years of imprisonment.

    And now the junta is beginning to use violence. In Southern Myanmar, police fired rubber bullets. In the north, soldiers fired to disperse the crowd. And this week, for the first time since protests began, soldiers appeared on the streets in armored vehicles. The military spokesman claims civil servants are being manipulated.

  • Man (through translator):

    We found out that the protesters are inciting the violence and illegally pressuring civil servants. The protesters have become violent, rather than peaceful.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But we have seen this resistance and crackdown before. 1988 uprisings against the government were met with massacre that killed thousands of protesters.

    But today's Myanmar is less isolated. And young people reluctant to give up democratic gains are more connected and creative.

    This week, there were break dancing protesters, musician protesters who played a well-known anthem of resistance, and young men who wanted to infuse the protests with some muscle. Many younger protesters want more than the coup's reversal. They want a new founding document that removes the military's power, says Thant.

  • Aye Min Thant:

    There is a contingency who, their main demand is the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, like a return to status quo. And then there's another contingency that says, no, that is much more on the side of a more radical change,

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As night falls, protesters bang on pots and pans, a tradition to ward off evil spirits. Hundreds of miles away, in Bangladesh, Muslim Rohingya refugees express solidarity.

    Myanmar's ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable. And no minority has suffered the military's wrath more than the Rohingya. And civilian leaders have not held the military to account. In 2017, Suu Kyi defended the military after the U.N. accused it of genocide.

  • Wai Wai Nu:

    I think one other reason that the military could have a coup was because they had been enjoying the impunity for the crimes that they have committed over the several decades.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Wai Wai Nu is a Rohingya activist and former political prisoner. She calls for that radical change, a post-coup Myanmar that decentralizes authority to give ethnic minorities more autonomy.

  • Wai Wai Nu:

    A more inclusive democracy, where we embrace our diversity and we assure rights of the people, regardless of their ethnicity or religion. One way to address is to basically draft a new, inclusive, truly federal democratic constitution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last week, President Biden sanctioned top Myanmar generals and froze one billion dollars of their assets in the U.S. It's a 180 from the last time senior Biden officials were in charge of Myanmar policy.

    In 2010, the country tentatively opened. In 2011, Suu Kyi met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2012, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit, and the U.S. lifted sanctions.

    Today, the military is back in charge. And protesters want the Biden administration to go further and do what the people have done, go around the junta and deal only with civilian leadership. The same day Biden's sanctions were announced, health care workers shut down their clinic, for fear the military would intimidate patients.

    But the doctor we spoke to says civil disobedience will continue.

  • Doctor:

    Just listen to the voice of the people, because this is a country that we own. We all need to get our voices louder than a small group of the military people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The military, though small, holds the levers of power. But it's outnumbered by protesters who hope to reduce that leverage by creating a society that's run by the people.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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