Police opened fire with water cannon on Monday in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, to disperse thousands of protesters who had gathered to demand the release of elected civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the restoration of her National League for Democracy (NLD) government.
The national demonstrations, which entered their third straight day, are the largest and most widespread since 2007 when protests paved the way for an end to military rule and new democratic elections.
This time they are in response to a military coup carried out last Monday, when generals rounded up the country’s top political leaders, including Ms Suu Kyi, and declared “emergency rule”.
The protests have seen remarkably broad participation across society, from students and youths to monks, teachers and women's groups. Many of those marching on Monday in Yangon and Naypyidaw sported red shirts and carried red balloons and red flags – the colour of Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD party.
The protesters have not only taken inspiration from their own recent history in combating the previous military regime; some have started deploying the three-finger salute that was first seen in the Hunger Games movie series and then adopted by demonstrators in Thailand and Hong Kong.
Other protesters carried placards with messages about rejecting the military coup and seeking justice.
In addition to demonstrations in Naypyidaw, protesters gathered on Monday across major cities and provinces, from Kachin State in the north to Mon State in the southeast, and from Tachileik, a border town in eastern Shan State, to Mandalay, the country’s second largest city after Yangon.
In Naypyidaw, police appeared determined to break up the three-day unrest, first opening fire with water cannon on the peaceful protesters without any warning to disperse them, and later declaring that any who stayed would be dispersed “by force”. Reporters said the protesters then left the scene.
In Yangon, protesters headed to the Sule Pagoda, a place that has been a rallying point for most of the major protests against military rule. The protesters chanted: “We don’t want military dictatorship! We want democracy!”
Many of the protesters were joined by cars and buses that blared their horns in solidarity. When reports emerged that pro-military counter-protesters were coming to the area where the vigil was being held, they dispersed to avoid a potentially violent confrontation. Videos later showed military supporters roaming around the city, blasting “patriotic” songs and carrying military flags.
On Sunday, some protesters in Myawaddy were dispersed by police who fired shots in the air.
There have also been reports of protesters asking police to join them instead of opposing them or trying to stop them.
The coup last week came hours before the scheduled first sitting of the new parliament, in which Ms Suu Kyi's party had a massive majority. In November’s elections, the NLD won 396 out of the 476 available seats, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party took just 33.
Shortly after the ballot, Myanmar’s military cited alleged irregularities in the election and later used its claims of fraud to justify the coup.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter: “Myanmar's military coup makers should not instigate civil unrest using counter protesters. Peaceful protests are people’s right."
“The persons who should be prosecuted for harming the ‘stability of the state’ are the #Myanmar military coup makers who fabricated a bogus claim of electoral fraud to depose an elected government, and who are threatening to abuse even more people’s human rights. #SaveMyanmar,” Mr Robertson wrote.
The UN’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, wrote on Twitter: “The courageous people of Myanmar must know that they are not alone as they defend their fragile democracy.” He added that he was urging the UN Human Rights Council to immediately convene a special session on the issue.
Additional reporting by agencies
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