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Myanmar Crisis

Myanmar protest crackdown moves to new urban phase

Economic disruption deepens as unions call for all workers to strike

Protesters take positions behind a makeshift barricade as armed riot policemen gather in Yangon on on March 8.   © AP

BANGKOK/YANGON -- Thousands of residents poured into the streets across Myanmar's largest city Yangon late on Monday, defying a nightly curfew to show support for about 200 protesters encircled by security forces in a central district earlier in the day.

The standoff followed moves by the military junta on Sunday to occupy hospitals, university campuses and schools in Yangon and four other cities including Mandalay, the second-biggest city.

The state-run broadcaster MRTV said security forces were establishing a presence at hospitals and universities as part of efforts to "enforce the law." But some analysts including news website The Irrawaddy described the move as a shift in strategy to establish a network of central urban bases to deny the swelling civil disobedience movement access to medical and education facilities and provide launch pads for operations.

The standoff on Monday night came as Myanmar's ambassador to the U.K., Kyaw Zwar Minn, joined the steadily growing diplomatic rebellion against the Feb. 1 coup, calling for the release of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint from detention in the capital, Naypyitaw.

"The answer to the current crisis can only be at the negotiating table," the ambassador said a statement on the Embassy's Facebook page that mentions he had consulted and agreed with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Minister for Asia Nigel Adams.

His statement followed the Feb. 26 denunciation of the coup by his fellow Myanmar ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

A woman shows a three-finger salute during a protest against the military coup in Naypyitaw, Myanmar   © Reuters

Unlike his U.N. counterpart, Kyaw Zwar Minn stopped short of supporting the pro-democracy Committee to Represent the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, set up by a handful of parliamentarians elected in the Nov. 8 election. But by taking a stand, Kyaw Zwar Minn, who is known as a conservative who served past military regimes and has not spoken out until now, will likely have an impact on his diplomatic colleagues and bolster the civil disobedience movement in Myanmar.

Also on Monday, broadcaster MRTV announced the forced closure of five prominent local publications that had their licenses revoked. Police reportedly raided the office of one of them, Myanmar Now, seeking documents and computer files.

In a separate development, military junta leader Min Aung Hlaing said on state television that the detention of Sean Turnell, an Australian economist and financial adviser to ousted de facto leader Suu Kyi, had led to the "discovery" of "secret state financial information."

A prominent economic adviser to Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy government, Turnell was detained on Feb. 6, days after the coup. One analyst said Monday's announcement suggests Turnell would be held for "much longer than initially thought" on charges related to the alleged crime.

That view was reinforced by Australia's announcement on Monday that it had suspended all foreign aid and defense cooperation with Myanmar. On defense cooperation, Australia spent $1.48 billion Australian dollars ($1.13 billion) over the past five years and budgeted to spend AU$361,000 in 2020-21, while earmarking AU$91 million for official development assistance to Myanmar this year, according to Australian government figures. Analysts saw the decision to suspend all aid and military co-operation as a sign that Turnell's detention could be indefinite and that more violence against protesters was inevitable.

In his statement, the junta leader said Turnell was stopped while "trying to flee the country" and would face legal action in connection with "secret state financial information."

Sean Turnell, pictured in May 2018 in Singapore.   © Yusof Ishak Institute/Reuters

In the Monday night standoff, the police entrapment of about 200 mostly young protesters in Yangon's western district of Sanchaung fueled fears of a massacre. Thousands of protesters were estimated to have poured onto the streets all over the city at night, in defiance of the junta's curfew order, to show support for the entrapped protesters. Shots were heard at night.

In a statement issued late Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar urged security forces to "withdraw and allow people to go home safely." The U.N. office in Myanmar and the British embassy made similar appeals.

State-run MRTV said: "The government's patience has run out and while trying to minimize casualties in stopping riots, most people seek complete stability [and] are calling for more effective measures against riots."

The military's crackdown on Monday led to at least three deaths by shooting including two in the northern town of Myitkyina and one in the Irrawaddy Delta region west of Yangon.

It was unclear how many soldiers and policemen stayed inside the occupied hospital compounds overnight. A 40-year-old street-vendor near East Yangon General Hospital, one of the public hospitals occupied by troops, witnessed the arrival of armed personnel on Sunday evening. "I saw more than 10 trucks filled by security force personnel arriving at the [hospital] quarter at around 7:30 pm," she told Nikkei Asia.

Most banks and businesses were closed on Monday and transport remained largely suspended as more companies, local and foreign, said they were halting their operations. Danish shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk, which handles significant cargo in and out of Yangon, said it had suspended all operations for at least a week until March 14, pending further review.

"The ongoing unrest in Myanmar is becoming a disaster," Maersk said in a March 5 statement, announcing the decision. "Therefore, we need to take actions accordingly, to ensure the safety and mental health of people."

The protests and the prospect of a general strike have caused widespread economic disruption.

Major labor unions in Myanmar have called for the movement to expand to all workers. To continue economic and business activity as usual "will only benefit the military as they repress the energy of the Myanmar people," the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar wrote in a statement on Facebook endorsed by 18 labor organizations.

The manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index compiled by IHS Markit plunged to 27.7 for February from 47.8 in January, far below the boom-or-bust mark of 50 and well behind other Southeast Asian economies.

Oxford Economics has slashed its forecast of Myanmar's real economic growth this year to around 2% from 4.1%. In a March 1 report, Moody's Investors Service warned that uncertainty resulting from the coup "will deter foreign investment and foreign direct assistance, stifling the economic recovery from the pandemic shock and potentially longer-term growth."

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