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Myanmar Coup

Myanmar's junta and protesters turn eyes abroad amid stalemate

Military hesitant to crack down in Yangon as US and EU threaten new sanctions

Protesters in Yangon hold up yellow placards for the Civil Disobedience Movement on Feb. 24, in part to draw Western media attention that might inhibit a crackdown by Myanmar's military.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- As Myanmar's junta leaders and the growing ranks of pro-democracy protesters appear deadlocked over the Southeast Asian country's future, both sides realize the importance of the foreign audience.

The military refuses to release the deposed Aung San Suu Kyi from custody despite mounting civil demonstrations against the Feb. 1 coup, yet it has refrained from widespread brutal suppression of the dissidents out of fear of incurring additional international sanctions.

Protesters packed main thoroughfares in Yangon on Wednesday. Participants at the rally in Myanmar's largest city repeated their demand to release "our leader" -- Suu Kyi -- from house arrest. Riot police stood 20 meters from the crowds, having closed off the streets and manning security lines no protesters are permitted to cross.

The police, who are cooperating with the military, have gunned down three protesters to date. But each death occurred in the capital, Naypyitaw, or in Mandalay, the second-largest city -- neither of which has drawn many foreign reporters.

In Yangon, the security forces appear to be showing restraint.

"I'm afraid of gunfire. But if I give up, the terror [from the military] will continue for decades," said a 30-year-old bank employee at the Yangon protests. But he does not plan to engage directly with the police. "If they order us to disperse, we can just gather at another location."

During the country's previous military regime, security forces violently suppressed anti-government uprisings in 1988 and 2007. The accounts of those deadly crackdowns appear to have provided some lessons.

The demonstrators are counting on pressure from the international community to keep the military in check. Wednesday's rally was saturated with yellow placards and banners reading "CDM" for the Civil Disobedience Movement, referring to the general strike among civil servants and bank employees. The signs in English aim to grab media attention and gain supporters watching in Western nations.

Demonstrators rally against the military coup in front of the Indonesian embassy in Yangon.   © Reuters

It is believed that the military did not anticipate public resistance growing to this scale. Though Yangon's police shot and killed a member of a vigilante group, the officers have yet to direct water cannons or warning shots toward protesters.

Rallies across the nation Monday drew 1 million participants, according to local media estimates, but no major clashes with the police have been reported.

The junta is especially wary of further sanctions from the U.S. and European Union. President Joe Biden announced American sanctions this month on military leaders who directed the coup, their business interests and close family members, as well as officials and businesses connected with the junta.

If the EU ends Myanmar's preferential trade access to the bloc, it would deliver a large blow to Myanmar's main export of textiles. An economic downturn will bring losses at military-owned companies, which may lead to discontent among those in the ranks who own stakes. Western countries are urging the junta to halt violence against civilians.

Under orders from the junta, authorities have slapped Suu Kyi with criminal charges that have kept her detained. Her trial is due to start March 1, but her detention is expected to be prolonged.

The military justifies the takeover on allegations of widespread fraud in last November's general election, which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won in a landslide. The junta has pledged to hold fair elections with multiple political parties once the state of emergency is lifted.

"The military may be looking to gain the understanding of the citizens by disclosing the general election schedule," said a diplomatic source.

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