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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar junta faces 'largest' protest after warning of crackdown

General strike grips country as factories and supermarkets close

Protesters gather against the military coup Yangon on Feb. 22. (Photo by Yan Naing Aung)

YANGON/ BANGKOK -- Widespread demonstrations took place against the military in Myanmar on Monday, after a general strike was called on social media, with factories and supermarkets closed, as witnesses said the protest was the largest since the Feb. 1 coup.

A 30-year-old sales manager who protested in Yangon said, "Today's protest is the biggest protest that I have ever seen in my life."

Crowds gathered on main Yangon streets, defying the junta ban on protests. Riot police were deployed around the U.S. and Chinese embassies and United Nation offices, where many demonstrations were taking place.

On Saturday, security forces opened fire to disperse crowds in Mandalay, the second largest city, killing two protesters.

Activists had agitated for a major protest on Monday to mourn the dead, calling the marches the "22222 revolution," referring to the number of twos in the date, Feb. 22, 2021. The number is also an allusion to 8888 -- Aug. 8, 1988 -- when a pro-democracy uprising ended in a bloodbath.

The head of a local subsidiary of a Japanese company that operates a garment factory in Yangon said, "Many of our employees said they would take a day off. We didn't know what would happen, so we decided to close the factory."

Many are indeed responding to the calls for civil disobedience. Mon Mon, a 35-year-old protester said, "In 1988, I was just 3 years old. I also saw the democratic movement in 2007, but I didn't participate because I wasn't interested. But now I'm here because I can't accept this injustice... I feel it is my duty to take part in this protest. If I were not here, I would feel guilty."

There is also a sense of solidarity among protesters. "We are now guarding the students' rally, for their safety. We don't want any harm done to them -- lives matter," said Linn Mg Mg Swe, a 25-year-old student and biker. He said, "The generations are different. I think 22222 is better than the 8888 uprising as we have better strategies... We will win this revolution. Today will be historic."

The military warned on Sunday via state television that protesters were leading people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, down a "confrontation path where they will suffer loss of life."

Reacting to activists' calls for civil disobedience, thousands throng the streets in Yangon on Feb. 22. (Photo by Yan Naing Aung)

Conscious that the country could again face sanctions from the West, the junta has held back on a more severe crackdown so far, particularly in Yangon, where there is a bigger presence of diplomats and foreign media.

On Monday, the foreign ministers of the European Union member states met in Brussels and said they were preparing to sanction those responsible for the coup. The EU urged the junta to immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said before the meeting that the bloc would not be a bystander to the unfolding events. He said, "As a last resort, [we will] prepare sanctions on the military."

The sanction that will have the greatest impact on Myanmar is the freezing of preferential tariff treatment. The U.S. and the EU have granted preferential treatment to Myanmar to support the democratization of the country and boost its fledgling economy. As a result, Myanmar exports more than half of its textile products to the EU market.

Meanwhile, China's ambassador to Myanmar, Chen Hai, said in local media that the current political situation was "absolutely not what China wants to see," dismissing rumors that Beijing was given prior warning about the coup.

On Sunday, the junta issued a statement saying that condemnation of their actions by the U.S., Europe, Japan and the United Nations, were tantamount to interference in Myanmar's internal affairs.

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