BANGKOK (AP) — A nationwide strike marked the one-year anniversary Tuesday of the army’s seizure of power in Myanmar, as protests and sporadic violence across the country renewed concern over the ongoing struggle for power.
Photos and video on social media showed a “silent strike” emptied streets in the largest city of Yangon and other towns as people stayed home and businesses shut in a show of opposition to army rule.
Violence was reported as well, as the country faces an insurgency that some U.N. experts now characterize as a civil war.
Local media said an explosion killed at least two people and injured dozens at a pro-military rally in a town on the eastern border with Thailand. The cause of the blast was not immediately clear.
The military’s takeover on Feb. 1, 2021, ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party was about to begin a second term in office after winning a landslide election victory.
Widespread nonviolent demonstrations followed the army’s takeover, but armed resistance arose after the protests were put down with lethal force. About 1,500 civilians have been killed but the government has been unable to suppress the opposition.
On the anniversary, the United States and others again criticized the military takeover. President Joe Biden in a statement called for the military to free Suu Kyi and other detainees, and return Myanmar on a path to democracy.
The U.S. on Monday imposed new sanctions on Myanmar officials, adding to those targeting top military officers. The measures freeze any assets the listed officials may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them. Britain and Canada announced similar measures.
A statement from the office of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted “an intensification in violence” and “humanitarian crises” that it said required an urgent response.
The United Nations wants the elected government restored and for all those detained, including Suu Kyi, to be released, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Tuesday. “But ultimately, there is no way forward under the current circumstances and there’s no way forward under the rule by the military that has led to so much needless suffering among the people of Myanmar,” he said.
The U.N. Security Council is working on reaction to the anniversary, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia and diplomats said Tuesday.
Scattered pro-democracy rallies were held before the start of the strike in the early morning, when security forces are less likely to be out on the streets. Protesters including Buddhist monks carried banners and chanted anti-military slogans in the cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Sagaing.
Many also held up three fingers, the resistance salute adopted from “The Hunger Games” movie that pro-democracy demonstrators in neighboring Thailand have also used.
Opposition fighters also claimed to have carried out bombings Tuesday in 11 neighborhoods of Yangon — targeting a police station and homes of military officers, among other sites. A message posted on Facebook by a group calling itself the Yangon Region Military Command made no mention of casualties.
Opposition militants carry out daily hit-and run guerrilla attacks, while the military generally engages in larger-scale assaults that are blamed for many civilian casualties.
In the town of Myitkyina in northern Kachin state, a bombing at a police station early Tuesday led to officers firing on a car fleeing the scene, according to local news outlet The 74 Media, when a stray bullet killed a 7-year-old boy living nearby.
Authorities had threatened shopkeepers with arrest if they closed for the opposition’s strike, but those that were open Tuesday appeared to have few if any customers.
Since last week, the government had warned that strike participants could face imprisonment and their property seized.
Dozens of business owners who had announced plans to close were arrested, according to the state-run newspaper Myanma Alinn Daily.
In Yangon and Mandalay, city administrators also scheduled special events to draw attention away from strike calls this week, including a cycling contest. Municipal workers in Yangon were instructed to attend the event, according to leaked documents posted on social media.
Several pro-military demonstrations, widely believed to have been organized by the authorities, were also held.
In Tachileik, a border town in Shan state in eastern Myanmar, an explosion at a pro-government rally killed 2 people and injured at least 37 others — including six critically wounded, according to a reporter with the online local Tachileik News Agency.
The reporter, who declined to give his name because of the political sensitivity of such news, told The Associated Press in a text message that most of the marchers were ex-soldiers or villagers brought in for the demonstration.
No one has claimed responsibility for the blast, which was also reported by other news outlets.
Early in the day, leaders of the opposing sides released speeches online to mark the anniversary of the army’s takeover.
Duwa Lashi La, acting president of the opposition’s National Unity Government, vowed that his group will carry on with the people’s “revolution” against military rule. The NUG, established by elected lawmakers, considers itself the country’s legitimate administrative body and has won the loyalty of many citizens. The military has branded it a “terrorist” organization.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, leader of the military-installed government, delivered an hourlong speech where he pledged to work toward a “genuine and disciplined multiparty democratic system”.
Myanmar’s military said it seized power because there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 polls — an allegation that independent election observers have said they’ve seen no serious evidence for..
“The international community must take strong, meaningful steps to cut the junta’s access to weapons, funds and legitimacy,” said Thomas Andrews, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation in Myanmar.
“Recent months have seen an even further escalation of violence,” he said, adding that Myanmar’s military had carried out “mass killings, attacks on hospitals and humanitarian targets, and the bombing and burning of villages.”