Protesters once again took to the streets of Myanmar on the country’s Union Day, which marks the birth of the republic, as the ruling military junta released over 23,000 prisoners and arrested pro-democracy activists overnight.
Among those released were a nationalist monk nicknamed the “Buddhist Bin Laden” and the individual who, in 2017, killed the adviser to detained Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s first democratically leader after decades of military rule in 2015, having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 while under house arrest. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won the latest election toward the end of last year, but the military disputed the results and seized control of the government in a coup in early February. Suu Kyi was detained and has not been seen in public since.
In response, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on the military to “reverse these actions immediately.”
Protests have raged on for more than seven straight days, with more expected over the weekend. Demonstrations have been reported in all of Myanmar’s major towns as civil servants and workers join the pro-democracy movement in recent days, a local source told ABC News. While the release of prisoners is a customary annual event, some demonstrators fear that the released prisoners could be used to stoke violence.
“I can risk my life to get the democracy back,” Chan Myae, a 27-year-old protester, told ABC News. “It’s time for change in our country. I fight for generation, for our generation, for my people … I want the world to help us. We don’t want to go back to darkness again.”
Myae Aung led an estimated 100 protesters to the U.S. Embassy in Yangon this week. He believes that Myanmar’s younger generation, having tasted democracy for the first time, are better prepared to resist the return to military rule.
“So many people were killed by the military [in past decades]. This time it cannot be like this, we cannot have this event again,” he said. “I want to get international attention. We are peacefully protesting, they can’t do anything, the police, the military can’t do anything.”
To quell the protests, the ruling junta have shut down internet access in parts of the country and instituted a nationwide curfew, but protesters have continued to take to the streets en masse. The junta are in the process of creating an internet security bill, which would make internet providers hand over users’ personal information.
On Thursday, Facebook announced that it has moved to reduce the distribution of information from accounts linked to Myanmar’s military, suspended the junta’s ability to send removal request and have vowed to protect “political speech that allows the people of Myanmar to express themselves and to show the world what is transpiring inside their country.”
Earlier this week. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to allow sanctions to be imposed on those connected to the coup. In a letter to the speaker of House, Nancy Pelosi, Biden described the coup as a “threat to the national security and foreign policy.”
“The military’s seizure of power in Burma, the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials, and the declaration of a national state of emergency are a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law,” Biden said in a written statement earlier this week. “In a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election.”
The junta’s “acting president,” commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy, Soe Win, were already under U.S. sanctions for their roles in the military’s attacks on the Rohingya. In total, 10 leaders of the Myanmar military have been placed under sanctions, and three businesses linked to the military have had their assets frozen, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Additional reporting came from ABC News’ Conor Finnegan, Ben Gittleson, Karson Yiu and Morgan Winsor.