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In Myanmar, Tens Of Thousands Rally To Protest Military Coup

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

An unlikely thing happened this weekend in Myanmar. People came out of their houses and took to the streets in huge numbers. They were protesting the military takeover there, which happened one week ago today. The democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains in detention and has not been seen in public since the coup. Michael Sullivan is following the story from neighboring Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The protests started slowly, but by this weekend, tens of thousands of people were in the streets nationwide, demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and a return to democratic rule.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

PFEIFFER: In Myanmar's largest city and commercial hub Yangon, drivers honked in support of protesters, chanting, we want justice and down with dictatorship.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

SULLIVAN: They also turned out in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bagan, a tourism-dependent destination where the local economy has cratered due to a lack of business caused by the COVID pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

SULLIVAN: And also in the north, in Myanmar's second-biggest city Mandalay, where hundreds protested on the backs of motorcycles on Sunday while onlookers cheered them on, there's been no break either. Today, the demonstrators were out again in force in Yangon, near the iconic Sule Pagoda downtown.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

SULLIVAN: The tone almost everywhere is defiant. But at times, it also seems almost festive. Yes, protesters raise their arms in the three-fingered salute of defiance from "The Hunger Games" movies, a tactic borrowed from protesters in neighboring Thailand after its 2014 coup. But protesters have also been releasing balloons and presenting riot police with flowers and bottled water, even as they chanted for their military masters to step down.

AYE MIN THANT: They're very scared for Aung San Suu Kyi and the other political prisoners. They're scared for their futures. But at the same time, yeah, I think it's a joyful defiance.

SULLIVAN: Aye Min Thant is a journalist in Yangon who's spoken to many protesters. That defiance depends in part on age.

AYE MIN THANT: I think the youth are, I think as youth everywhere kind of are, a bit more convinced of their own immortality than the adults are. They seemed a bit more scared. They were more emotional when I asked about, what do you think will happen if this doesn't succeed whereas, pretty much uniformly, the answer from young people was, of course we'll succeed.

SULLIVAN: But the older people's fears are based on experience, a fact not lost on one at a Yangon rally on Sunday. He wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution by authorities.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm worried because we had experience before in 1988, 2007, 2008. Whenever we have demonstrations, they shoot through the crowd. They arrest everybody. They torture us. So we worry about this new generation, also, at the same time.

SULLIVAN: A full week after its coup, Myanmar's new military government has said nothing about the protests. Few expect that or the military's restraint on the ground to last. Aye Min Thant.

AYE MIN THANT: I think people here, or at least me, anticipate that there will be more of an escalation, as opposed to a sudden crackdown. But at the same time, you never know with the Myanmar army.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Ashley Westerman contributed to Michael's report.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESK'S "LEGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.