Massive crowds of protesters have marched in towns and cities across Myanmar in the largest show of popular defiance so far to a military coup a week ago.
From the Himalayan town of Putao to cities on the shore of the Andaman Sea, demonstrators filled the streets for a third day of street demonstrations against the ousting of the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Most of the demonstrations were peaceful, but in the capital Naypyidaw police deployed brief bursts of water cannon against protesters, some of whom appeared to have been hurt when they were knocked to the ground. Police appeared to stop using the water cannon after protesters appealed to them.
The junta has resisted a more violent response, but state television on Monday afternoon broadcast an unsigned statement claiming Myanmar’s people refused to accept lawless wrongdoers, who it said should be prevented or removed, and that legal action should be taken against acts that harmed the stability of the state, public safety and the rule of law.
In the nation’s largest city, Yangon, a group of saffron-robed monks marched with workers, school teachers and students. They flew multicoloured Buddhist flags alongside red banners in the colour of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, witnesses said. Some estimates put the number of protesters at hundreds of thousands.
“Release our leaders, respect our votes, reject military coup,” said one sign. Others read “Save democracy”. Protesters chanted slogans and raised the three-finger salute, a gesture used by pro-democracy activists in neighbouring Thailand that signals opposition to the military in Myanmar.
Some smaller groups broke off from the main protest and headed to the Sule Pagoda, a past rallying point for major protests against juntas.
Kyaw, 58, a small shop owner who protested during the 1988 uprising, called for an end to the coup. “There are so many young educated people here, this is a revolution of the new generation,” he said.
Thiri, 23, sat down with her fellow demonstrators during a march for the NLD in downtown Yangon. “We are young people fighting for democracy and against the military coup,” she said. “They must release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and our president … When the military cut off social media and the internet, taking to the streets was the only thing we could do.”
“There is never a need for a military to run a country,” said Zaw, 40, a tour guide who spent four months in jail for participating in the Saffron Revolution in 2007. “I hope so much that this brings change, and it should because the people feel so strongly about it,” he said, sporting the protesters’ ubiquitous red ribbon.
Hundreds of people had gathered in Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay, by mid-morning, while others marched in the coastal city of Dawei, in the south-east, and in the Kachin state capital in the far north, where they were dressed head to toe in black.
Calls to join protests and to back a campaign of civil disobedience have grown louder and more organised since last Monday’s coup, which drew widespread international condemnation.
Earlier on Monday, members of the public banged pots and pans and sounded their car horns in Yangon a symbol of opposition to the military coup. The noisy protest usually takes place at night.
A call for a general strike was issued late on Sunday by several activist groups in Yangon, but it was not clear if it had been widely circulated or adopted by the informally organised civil disobedience movement at the forefront of the protests.
Protests that swept the country on Sunday were the biggest since the 2007 Saffron Revolution led by Buddhist monks that helped prompt democratic reforms that were upended by the 1 February coup.
“Marchers from every corner of Yangon, please come out peacefully and join the people’s meeting,” activist Ei Thinzar Maung posted on Facebook, using VPN networks to rally protesters despite a junta attempt to ban the social media network.
So far the response to the gatherings has been non-violent, unlike the bloody crackdowns during previous widespread protests in 1988 and 2007. A convoy of military trucks was seen passing into Yangon late on Sunday, raising fears that could change.
The government lifted a day-long internet ban at the weekend that prompted even more anger in a country fearful of returning to the isolation and even greater poverty before a transition to democracy began in 2011.
Activists Maung Saungkha and Thet Swe Win posted on their Facebook pages that police had been to search for them at their homes, but that they were not there and were still free.
In addition to the street protests, a campaign of civil disobedience has begun, first with doctors and joined by some teachers and other government workers.
“We request government staff from all departments not to attend work from Monday,” said activist Min Ko Naing, a veteran of the demonstrations in 1988 that first brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for campaigning for democracy, and spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during decades of struggling to end almost half a century of army rule.
The 75-year-old has been kept incommunicado since army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power in the early hours of 1 February.
She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkies and is being held in police detention for investigation until 15 February. Her lawyer said he has not been allowed to see her.
“Protesters in Myanmar continue to inspire the world as actions spread throughout the country,” Thomas Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on Myanmar said on Twitter. “Myanmar is rising up to free all who have been detained and reject military dictatorship once and for all. We are with you.”
Reuters contributed to this story