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On Feb. 1, a military coup in Myanmar (formerly Burma) toppled the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent some 15 years under house arrest before leading the country’s first democratically elected government after decades of military rule.
Suu Kyi — who held the title of state counselor and was the country’s de facto leader – was removed from power after elections in November handed her National League for Democracy a resounding victory. Those same elections resulted in an embarrassing defeat for the military, which immediately labeled the results fraudulent. The coup’s leaders have now leveled new charges against Suu Kyi, which could result in her being held indefinitely without a trial.
As thousands of protesters continue to take to the streets in Myanmar to demand Suu Kyi’s release and that power be handed back to civilian control, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar told CNN this week he was “terrified” of the potential for violence if continuing mass protests and military troops converge.’I’m so upset, and so angry, and so worried for our new generation. But we have no choice — we have to fight for our freedom.’Ko Ko Lay, former 1988 student leader and Free Burma Action Committee member
In the Bay Area, the Free Burma Action Committee — San Francisco has coordinated three rallies at UN Plaza in the past two weeks, and plans to continue until Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint – who was also arrested after the coup – are released.
At least two of the rallies drew over 800 people, according to organizers.
Another rally “against China’s enabling Policy on Burma” is planned for this Saturday at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. On Feb. 2, the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on a joint statement condemning the military coup after China did not support it.
“I’m so upset, and so angry, and so worried for our new generation,” said Ko Ko Lay. “But we have no choice — we have to fight for our freedom.”
Lay, who is in his early 60s, left Burma in 1988 after participating in the 8888 Uprising as a student leader. The military killed hundreds of protesters during that uprising. Speaking with KQED on Sunday, Lay said he’d been awake until 7 a.m. trying to communicate with those in Myanmar during one of the recent internet shutdowns.
Lay helped form the Free Burma Action Committee — San Francisco on Feb. 1 in an effort to share information and to call on U.S. officials to act. He said the Burmese community across the U.S. cannot do all the work by themselves.
“We need the help of all American people,” he said, emphasizing the importance of fighting the military through “peaceful means, and peaceful protest.” The Free Burma Action Committee is demanding the Myanmar military respect peaceful assembly, recognize the 2020 election and restore civilian rule.
Lay said the Myanmar military is more brutal than in North Korea. “[It’s] a regime that will kill and destroy our life, and our future,” he said.
According to figures cited by Human Rights Watch, at least 326 people have been arrested since the coup in Myanmar, and more than 300 are still detained, though the real number could be much higher. They also report that police used lethal force, shooting at least one protester.
For Maw Aung, who was born and raised in Myanmar and has been in the Bay Area for the past 18 years, the story of that protester – Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, a young university student peacefully protesting when she was shot – is the most disturbing.
“Those students weren’t doing anything … it was just a peaceful protest,” Aung said. “Those kind of things like that really scare me. It’s just not acceptable and it’s just not humane.”Sponsored
A doctor Human Rights Watch spoke with said Mya Thwe Thwe Khine had a projectile consistent with live ammunition lodged in her head, that she remained in critical condition on Feb. 9.
Aung, who now lives in the East Bay, said some people in the Bay Area may not realize the things they take for granted, like water and electricity.
“Over here, for the people who live and grew up here, we do take these things for granted,” she said.
She doesn’t want to see Myanmar return to how it was when she was young — with a lack of access to basic necessities under a military dictatorship. She wants the world to see what is happening in Myanmar — so she’s been attending the protests in San Francisco with the hope that others will speak up and take action.
On the national level, the Biden administration has imposed sanctions on 10 current and retired top-ranking leaders in Myanmar’s military.
In a statement issued Feb. 11, the Treasury Department announced it was freezing U.S.-based assets belonging to the sanctioned individuals. The list includes six members of the newly installed junta, including its head, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy, Soe Win. Hlaing was already on a U.S. sanctions list from 2019, when he was targeted for the army’s brutal crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in the country’s western Rakhine state.
The Feb. 1 coup came in response to elections that easily returned Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to power — defeating the military. After taking power, Min Aung Hlaing ordered the arrest of Suu Kyi, who held the title of state counselor, as well as President U Win Myint.
Noting that President Biden had called the coup “a direct assault on Burma’s transition to democracy and the rule of law,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in the statement that the department “stands with the people of Burma — and we are doing what we must to help them in their effort to secure freedom and democracy.”
“We are also prepared to take additional action should Burma’s military not change course,” Yellen said. “If there is more violence against peaceful protestors, the Burmese military will find that today’s sanctions are just the first.”
Separately, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that it was “immediately redirecting $42.4 million of assistance away from work that would have benefited the Government of Burma. Rather than supporting the military, we will redirect these funds to support and strengthen civil society.”
“The people of Burma are making their voices heard, and the world is watching,” Biden said. “We’ll be ready to impose additional measures, and we’ll continue to work with our international partners to urge other nations to join us in these efforts.”
The military takeover has sparked the biggest protests in Myanmar since the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” that helped lay the groundwork for Suu Kyi’s eventual 2015 election victory after spending 15 years under house arrest at the hands of a previous junta.
In a separate statement on Feb. 11, the State Department said the sanctions “specifically target current or former members of the military who played a leading role in the overthrow of Burma’s democratically-elected government.”
“They do not target the economy or people of Burma, and we have gone to great lengths to ensure we do not add to the humanitarian plight of the Burmese people,” the department said.This story includes reporting from NPR’s Scott Neuman.