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Journalist In Myanmar Recounts Ongoing Military Coup

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

No one quite expected them to do it. That's what a journalist says in Myanmar after a military coup. The armed forces have never been fully out of power in that country. But in 2015, they allowed democratic elections won by the party of Aung San Suu Kyi. She had received a Nobel Prize for her decades-long fight for democracy, including years under arrest. The military's partial retreat allowed Myanmar to end its global isolation. Then this week, the military retook full power, and Aung San Suu Kyi is detained again.

Parts of the Internet are blocked in Myanmar, but we reached journalist Aye Min Thant in Yangon, which is a city of some 5 million.

AYE MIN THANT: There's a curfew in Yangon. And at 8 p.m. every night, people have been going out to their balconies or outside to the front of their homes and banging pots and pans. It's a traditional Burmese ritual to get rid of evil spirits in your house. Every night, it's been getting louder and longer. And you can just hear the sound echoing through the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF POTS AND PANS CLANGING)

INSKEEP: We should remind people that the coup was over an election result in November and had been feared for some time. Was there a great deal of suspense in recent months?

AYE MIN THANT: Not really - like, it wasn't a complete surprise. But no one quite expected them to do it. People assumed that this was posturing and threats. But leading up to the last couple days before the coup, there were some really alarming pictures of a tank in Yangon, as well as unusual movements by the military near military installations throughout Myanmar. Even then, people didn't really think they would actually do a real coup.

INSKEEP: What did you hear from people when it became clear that it really was a coup?

AYE MIN THANT: There was quite a lot of despair, I think, especially for people of my parents' generation - so people of 50s and 60s and older. I think they just didn't expect it. They worshipped, essentially, Aung San Suu Kyi all their lives. And I think they had a really difficult time really coming to terms that they hadn't won, after all, in 2015.

INSKEEP: I'd like you to explain that perspective because some Americans who follow events from Myanmar maybe only know Aung San Suu Kyi as a civilian leader who failed to condemn genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar. What was it that she has done over the last decades that made her someone that they would feel so strongly about?

AYE MIN THANT: Sure. If you're just having a conversation here and someone talks about a may (ph), or mother, they're often talking about her. I grew up in the U.S., but our house was covered with pictures of her. We had annual calendars that had her picture in it. A lot of people really, really admire her. They see her as someone who, when she was a young woman, came back to Myanmar, despite the fact that she was living a perfectly lovely life in the U.K., to take care of her ailing mother and then stepped up when she could have left in order to fight for the Burmese people - and then decided, instead of being with her family, to stay in Myanmar. And people respect that.

INSKEEP: You're referring to the period after she won an earlier election in the 1980s and it was not accepted by the military, which kept her in prison or in house arrest for many years.

AYE MIN THANT: Yeah. For 15 years, she basically was in the position where the military said, if you want to leave, you can leave. But if you want to be here, you won't be free.

INSKEEP: Other than clanging the pots and pans at 8 o'clock each evening, what are people doing about the coup?

AYE MIN THANT: There's been a lot of online organizing. There's a couple hashtags going around - #CivilDisobedienceMovement as well as #JusticeForMyanmar. But part of the civil disobedience movement is doctors and teachers, the majority of whom here work for government institutions, essentially going on a strike. Doctors, especially since it's COVID, are still providing medical care, but they're just simply choosing not to do it at governmental institutions.

INSKEEP: If I may, there could be some severe consequences for that.

AYE MIN THANT: Yes, definitely. I don't think we're talking enough about this yet, but it's quite likely that we're going to see a spike in COVID cases.

INSKEEP: What are you expecting over the next few days?

AYE MIN THANT: I'm expecting just more of a reaction to the growing protest movement. There's been what seems to be very clearly disinformation campaigns that are intended to kind of paralyze people through fear and a lack of knowledge. But we're also starting to see more and more people going out into the streets to protest.

INSKEEP: Aye Min Thant is a journalist who is in Yangon.

Thank you.

AYE MIN THANT: OK. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.