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Myanmar Military Shuts Down Internet As Public Fury Over Coup Intensifies


The day after the military in Myanmar seized power, people opened their doors and windows. They banged pots and pans in protest. Anger over the military's detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders is growing, and people seem to be growing bolder. Doctors and government workers are on strike. The state has imposed a near-total Internet blackout and banned access to social media.

Reporter Michael Sullivan joins us now from neighboring Chiang Rai, Thailand, where the Internet is working. Michael, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Resistance seems to be growing since the coup on Monday. What do you hear about what's going on on the streets in the cities?

SULLIVAN: Well, today we saw the biggest protest yet following the coup. Thousands of people turned out on the streets of the commercial capital, Yangon, to condemn it and demand the return of the legitimately elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: People passing by in their cars honked their solidarity with the protesters, many of whom are carrying the red peacock flag of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, with many, many others holding up three fingers in the salute of defiance from "The Hunger Games."

Today's protests were peaceful. There was a heavy police presence, but there was no violence, Scott.

SIMON: Who seems to be - who or what group seem to be leading the resistance?

SULLIVAN: I think it's too early to call it resistance, but I think it's safe to say that so far, this whole thing has been youth-driven. Most of the people I saw at the demonstration today before the Internet was cut were young people. And they're not happy. I don't think this was NLD-driven. Most of the party's leadership was detained along with Aung San Suu Kyi. But she remains incredibly popular - the military not. And I think the young people are improvising - for now, at least.

SIMON: The military apparently blocked Facebook, saying it was being used by, quote, "people who are troubling the country's stability." Twitter and Instagram are now dark. What effect has this had?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's had the effect of denying the opposition the tools it needs to organize, right? But they seem to have gotten around that. About half of Myanmar's population, though, is on Facebook. They basically get their news from Facebook. And after it was blocked on Wednesday, many migrated to Twitter. So we then saw Twitter cut off yesterday, all in a bid by the military to control the narrative, Scott, to not let the opposition gather momentum.

SIMON: And does the military have a plan that's apparent to you?

SULLIVAN: It's not that clear yet. Yeah, they're crying election fraud, in part because the military-backed party performed so badly in the November general election. But I think it's also about ambition and power. Aung San Suu Kyi's party did so well in that election that there's been speculation she might try to clip the military's wings. And that doesn't make them happy. I mean, under the military-drafted constitution, they control three key ministries and have hugely lucrative businesses they control, and they don't want to give that up.

Then there's this long-standing hostility between Suu Kyi and the military's leader, Min Aung Hlaing. He was set for mandatory retirement this summer at 65. And there's a great deal of speculation that he's not interested and he wants into politics, maybe as president.

SIMON: U.S. has declared what happened a coup and is moving to impose targeted sanctions on the military leaders. Is that likely to have much effect?

SULLIVAN: Not very. They've seen sanctions before. They haven't been impressed. And I don't think they're worried. They have strong backers in China and Russia and elsewhere. And they have lots of international businesses who still want to make money in Myanmar.

SIMON: Reporter Michael Sullivan in neighboring Chiang Rai, Thailand, thanks so much for being with us.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Scott.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.