The strikers poured onto the streets of Myanmar on Monday knowing that they might die. But they gathered by the millions anyway, in the largest rallies since a military coup three weeks ago. Their only protection came from hard hats, holy amulets and the collective power of a newly called general strike.
The generals had tried to halt Monday’s dissent with barricades and fleets of vehicles parked in strategic urban locations. Armored vehicles patrolled, while snipers took their stations on rooftops. An ominous warning had been issued hours before on state television: “Protesters are now inciting people, especially emotional teenagers and youth, toward a path of confrontation where they will suffer a loss of life.”
But the military’s show of force did little to quell Monday’s general strike, which proceeded peacefully in hundreds of cities and towns. Columns of people extended to the horizon near a traffic junction and a pagoda in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, and at the railway station in Mandalay, the second-largest city. They congregated on Martyrs’ Street in Dawei, a seaside city, and by the clock towers in Monywa and Hpa-An, in the country’s center and east.
“I will sacrifice my life for our future generations,” said Ko Bhone Nay Thit, a 19-year-old university student in Mandalay who left home Monday morning armed with his mother’s prayers and the effects of a holy water ritual. “We must win.”
The weekend had brought bloodshed to the anti-coup resistance. On Saturday afternoon, two unarmed protesters were killed by security forces in Mandalay; one of the dead was a 16-year-old boy. On Saturday evening, a member of a neighborhood watch corps in Yangon was shot dead. The day before, a 20-year-old woman died of injuries sustained when she was shot in the head on Feb. 9 by security forces in Naypyidaw, the capital. She is believed to be the first protester in the movement to have been killed by the authorities.
The general strike on Monday encompassed civil servants, bank workers, doctors, supermarket cashiers, telecom operators and oil rig operators. Pizza deliverers, KFC employees and bubble tea servers joined in, too. The national boycott expanded a civil disobedience movement that has paralyzed the banking system and made it difficult for the military, which seized power from the elected government on Feb. 1, to get much of anything done.
The strike evoked another mass boycott on Aug. 8, 1988, when workers took to the streets to protest against a military leadership that had ruined the economy. The junta responded with bullets, a bloodstain on Myanmar’s national memory.
But that deadly crackdown, along with another in 2007, did not deter the marchers on Monday.
In Mandalay, Daw Htay Shwe, a restaurant owner, said she had written her will before joining the rally at the train station.
“I will protect our country’s democracy with my life,” she said.
In Yangon, marchers stomped on posters of a sniper who is believed to have targeted the protesters in Mandalay on Saturday. A group representing a military technical college joined the march, as well.
“I cannot live under a military dictatorship,” said Daw Myint Myint, a homemaker in Yangon, who was out in the hot afternoon sun. “Our leaders, whom we elected, trusted and respected, are arrested. I am here to express my opinion that I want them to be freed.”
The coup ousted the civilian government of the National League for Democracy, which had shared power with the military for five years. Top elected leaders were dragged off by soldiers, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of the National League for Democracy, who was charged with obscure crimes that could land her in prison for six years. Before the brief experiment with hybrid military-civilian governance, the military had imposed its direct rule on Myanmar for nearly half a century.
As of Monday morning, more than 560 people had been detained for dissent against the coup, according to a local group that tracks political imprisonments. By the afternoon, at least 150 protesters were arrested in the logging town of Pyinmana, not far from Naypyidaw. The State Administration Council, the coup makers’ replacement for Myanmar’s elected government, has rolled back civil liberties, allowing for indefinite detention and police searches without warrants.
On Monday morning Myanmar time, Antony J. Blinken, the United States secretary of state, posted a tweet in support of the protesters in Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma.
“The United States will continue to take firm action against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government,” the tweet said. “We stand with the people of Burma.”
The United States government has imposed financial sanctions on some of the coup makers and their associates. Other sanctions were already in place because of the military’s persecution of ethnic minorities, most notably Rohingya Muslims, who fled slaughter in 2017 for safety in neighboring Bangladesh.
On Monday, the United Nations refugee agency warned in a statement that a boat filled with Rohingya trying to reach Malaysia was in distress. Hundreds of Rohingya have died at sea in recent years, trying to leave Myanmar or Bangladesh, where they are confined to vast refugee settlements.
“Many are in a highly vulnerable condition and are apparently suffering from extreme dehydration,” the United Nations statement said. “We understand that a number of refugees have already lost their lives, and that fatalities have risen over the past 24 hours.”
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government repeatedly defended the military in its campaign against the Rohingya, whom many in Myanmar considered to be Muslim interlopers in a majority-Buddhist land. The violent expulsion of 750,000 Rohingya from the country in 2017 failed to catalyze widespread protests or condemnation at home.
But one of the groups marching in Yangon on Monday held up a banner apologizing to the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities, who make up at least a third of the national population.
In recent years, strife between the military and various ethnic insurgent groups has left hundreds dead and tens of thousands displaced. On Friday, a civilian was killed in Shan State during renewed hostilities.
One of the two protesters who were shot in Mandalay on Saturday was Ko Wai Yan Tun, a 16-year-old boy who had come to work in the city. To survive, he pushed a cart at a local market, where the stall operators called him “little boy.”
As the protests mounted near the market, Mr. Wai Yan Tun joined as a duty to his future, said Ko Myo Zaw, a friend.
“He always said his life would be perfect when he had a mobile phone and a motorbike,” Mr. Myo Zaw said. “He was a nice guy.”