YANGON – Residents of Yangon, a sprawling city of gilded pagodas, colonial relics and tree-lined avenues, awoke to unusual gridlock Wednesday.
Scores of seemingly disabled cars with raised hoods appeared in major intersections, bridges and thoroughfares, blocking traffic from every direction. When prodded by passersby, owners of the vehicles shrugged and feigned engine trouble or an empty gas tank.
Facing a powerful junta that has spent decades inflicting terror on its own people, demonstrators in Myanmar have resorted to creative acts of civil disobedience to protest the Feb. 1 military takeover of the country’s civilian government.
In recent days, defiant citizens have laid down on train tracks to snarl rail traffic, emptied their accounts of cash from a military-owned bank forcing new withdrawal limits and plastered pictures of junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on sidewalks for pedestrians to trample.
“People are trying everything they can think of,” said Myo Win, a 40-year-old human rights activist. “People are angry. They want to show that they will never accept this illegitimate military coup.”
The staged car breakdowns Wednesday were followed in the afternoon by one of the largest protests yet against the coup. Tens of thousands of demonstrators occupied Yangon’s city center near the famed golden Sule Pagoda and demanded an end to military rule and the release of Myanmar’s democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who like many of her colleagues, remains under house arrest.
The massive protest raised the stakes again in Myanmar’s explosive political crisis, which is pitting millions of seething supporters of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party against a military that controlled the country for nearly 50 years with impunity before giving way to weak democratic reforms a decade ago.
With that foray into democracy ruined, many people are bracing for a bloody crackdown against the protesters like those ordered by generals in 1988 and 2007.
Signs abound indicating the military’s patience is wearing thin. Soldiers and tanks now regularly patrol city streets in an apparent show of force. Internet access has been blocked nationwide between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m. A draconian cyber bill has been proposed to silence dissent online. And peaceful demonstrators have been targeted with rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas and even slingshots.
Thomas Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, warned of potential violence after receiving reports of soldiers from outer regions converging on Yangon.
“In the past, such troop movements preceded killings, disappearances, and detentions on a mass scale,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
More than 450 arrests have been made since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group based in neighboring Thailand tracking abuses in Myanmar, also known as Burma.