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Myanmar Crisis

Two-month boycott of Myanmar mall after harsh protest response

Consumers band together because of violent excesses of security guards

Myanmar Plaza, a major shopping mall in Yangon, remains virtually deserted after a violent security crackdown on protesters in late November led to a boycott.

BANGKOK -- A major Yangon shopping mall that shoppers boycotted in late November after security guards violently subdued citizens protesting the military's seizure of power nearly a year ago now finds itself caught between the public and a dictatorial regime. 

The four-story emporium's soaring atrium is decorated for Chinese New Year with red paper lanterns, but few shoppers are about.

"Although it is slightly better than December, we still are not seeing many customers," one shop worker said on Saturday. "Most of them go to other malls."

Myanmar Plaza was developed by Hoang Anh Gia Lai, a Vietnamese real estate giant, and opened in 2015. Three years later, the complex was sold to Truong Hai Auto, a Vietnamese automaker. 

As one of the largest malls in the country, it has a wide array of retailers, from clothiers to lifestyle goods shops and electronics outlets. In October, customer traffic began recovering after the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic receded. 

But matters took a turn for the worse on Nov. 25 when a group of about 10 young people staged a flash protest against the military regime. Security guards rushed to the scene and forcefully removed them, injuring some. Shoppers captured the incident on their smartphones, and the videos went viral on social media, triggering the boycott. Many tenants swiftly announced they would remain closed.

With the first anniversary of the military takeover approaching on Feb. 1, the deserted shopping mall is a symbol of the divide between the government and the people.

Myanmar people vent their anger on a street in Yangon months after the military usurped power and began a ruthless crackdown on dissent.

On the night of the violent incident, Myanmar Plaza posted a statement on Facebook, apologizing for the "inappropriate" response to the protest by its security personnel. It acknowledged the importance of "expression of opinions and views in a peaceful manner." But the statement failed to placate enraged customers and instead attracted a flood of critical comments. "The flames will not die down soon," one said. 

Some comments relating to the boycott were deemed threatening, and soldiers were deployed to guard the complex. This caused a further decline in the number of visitors, but the authorities instructed shops to open as usual, according to local media reports

By mid-December, most of the shops had reopened, but customer traffic remained low. When Nikkei visited the mall in December, several army soldiers in camouflage were at the entrance, monitoring visitors.

Now that the soldiers have withdrawn, customers are trickling back. But some citizens are still skeptical. "Security forces might be watching inside the venue in plain clothes," said one wary consumer.

Mobile location data obtained and compiled by Google shows the number of people visiting commercial facilities in Yangon has increased. But Myanmar citizens are deeply resentful of the military, which dashed the future hopes of many by usurping power.

Boycotts are one of the few means available for citizens to register discontent about the military's suppression of freedom and human rights.

On Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, streets across the nation were deserted as the public held a "silent strike." Small businesses shut, and citizens avoided going out between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

In Yangon, normally congested roads were almost empty of traffic. Many shops and restaurants were closed. Taxis and buses ran without passengers. When the silent strike ended, people clapped their hands all at once to show their unity.

In contrast, most large shopping malls and supermarkets stayed open. One retail executive said that on the previous day authorities instructed shopkeepers there to remain open during the strike. They were told that officials would visit them to check that they were operating.

During a similar silent strike last March, large retailers did close. Later, however, their managers were summoned by the authorities and ordered to reopen. The executive said there was no choice but to comply in the interests of worker safety -- even though they knew there would be few customers. 

The army claims citizens refrained from going out because of threats from extremists, but that was not the way customers saw things. Retailers are meanwhile caught in the middle with no end in sight to their dilemma.

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