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WRAPUP 9-Tens of thousands protest Myanmar coup despite internet ban

·5 min read

(Updates with lawyer's denial of Suu Kyi release rumour)

* Suu Kyi's lawyer says he is unable to see her

* Civil disobedience campaign grows against military rule

* Blinken presses Chinese counterpart to condemn coup

* Australia summons Myanmar ambassador

Feb 6 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people took to thestreets of Myanmar's cities on Saturday to denounce this week'scoup and demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyidespite a blockade on the internet by the junta.

In an upwelling of anger in the country's largest city,Yangon, protesters chanted, "Military dictator, fail, fail;Democracy, win, win" and held banners reading "Against militarydictatorship". Bystanders offered them food and water.

Late in the evening, a rumour of Suu Kyi's release - quicklydenied by her lawyer - triggered noisy street celebrations.

Cheering and letting off firecrackers, residents said themessage was shared by the military-run media Myawaddy. But SuuKyi's lawyer Khin Maung Zaw denied that the 75-year-old leaderhad been freed and told Reuters she was still in detention.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won Nov. 8elections in a landslide, a result the generals have refused torecognise, claiming fraud.

Earlier, thousands marched on Yangon's City Hall. Drivershonked horns and leaned out of their cars and raised thethree-finger salute, a gesture returned by protesters. Some ofthem held up NLD flags or pictures of Suu Kyi and clapped anddanced.

By evening, the protesters had mostly dispersed. But for afifth night, a cacophony rose in the darkness as people bangedon pots, pans and drums in a show of resistance even as powercuts affected many districts of the city.

Thousands more took to the streets in Myanmar's second cityMandalay and its military-built capital Naypyidaw, home to thenation's government servants, where demonstrators chantedanti-coup slogans and called for Suu Kyi's release.

The protests built despite a blockade of the internetimposed after demonstrators first began to gather. All day, thestate-run broadcaster MRTV showed scenes praising the military.

Monitoring group NetBlocks Internet Observatory reported a"national-scale internet blackout", saying on Twitter thatconnectivity had fallen to 16% of usual levels.

The junta did not respond to requests for comment. Itextended a social media crackdown to Twitter andInstagram after seeking to silence dissent by blocking Facebook, which counts half of the population asusers.

Facebook urged the junta to unblock social media.

"At this critical time, the people of Myanmar need access toimportant information and to be able to communicate with theirloved ones," Facebook's head of public policy for Asia-Pacificemerging countries, Rafael Frankel, said in a statement.

The United Nations human rights office said on Twitter that"internet and communication services must be fully restored toensure freedom of expression and access to information."

Norwegian mobile network provider Telenor ASA saidauthorities had ordered all mobile operators to temporarily shutdown the data network, although voice and SMS services remainedopen.

Myanmar civil society groups appealed to internet providersto resist the junta's orders, saying in a joint statement theywere "essentially legitimising the military's authority".

Telenor said it regretted the impact of the shutdown on thepeople of Myanmar but said it was bound by local law and itsfirst priority was the safety of its local workers.


Army chief Min Aung Hlaing seized power alleging fraud,although the electoral commission says it has found no evidenceof widespread irregularities in the November vote.

The junta announced a one-year state of emergency and haspromised to hand over power after new elections, without givinga timeframe.

Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, has been charged withillegally importing six walkie-talkies, while ousted PresidentWin Myint is accused of flouting COVID-19 restrictions. Neitherhas been seen since the coup. Their lawyer said they were beingheld in their homes.

NLD member Aung Moe Nyo, chief minister of the Magwayregion, said on Facebook before the shutdown: "It is not OK tolet the country fall under junta government. I am very muchthankful to those who oppose this, to those government staff whooppose this. This act is to save the country."

Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to Suu Kyi,said in a message to Reuters on Saturday he was being detained.

Australia's government, without naming Turnell, said it hadsummoned the Myanmar ambassador to register "deep concern" overthe arbitrary detention of Australian and other foreignnationals in Myanmar.

A civil disobedience movement has been building in Myanmarall week, with doctors and teachers among those refusing towork. Every night people bang pots and pans in a show of anger.

The protests in Yangon would resume on Sunday, demonstratorssaid. One, who asked not to be named, said: "We will go andprotest again tomorrow. If they arrest one person, we will tryto pile in and fill up the truck as a group."

The coup has sparked international outrage, with the UnitedStates considering sanctions against the generals and the U.N.Security Council calling for the release of all detainees.

It has also deepened tensions between the United States andChina, which has close links to Myanmar's military. Secretary ofState Antony Blinken pressed top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi ina phone call on Friday to condemn the coup, the State Departmentsaid.

The generals have few overseas interests vulnerable tosanctions but the military's extensive business investmentscould suffer if foreign partners leave - as Japanese drinkscompany Kirin Holdings said it would on Friday.

Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest after leadingpro-democracy protests against the long-ruling military junta in1988.

After sharing power with a civilian government, the armybegan democratic reforms in 2011. That led to the election ofthe NLD in a landslide victory four years later. November'selection was meant to solidify a troubled democratic transition.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Matthew Tostevin, GrantMcCool and Stephen Coates; Editing by William Mallard and RosRussell)