Businesses across Myanmar shut up shop on Tuesday, joining a nationwide “silent strike” to mark the first anniversary of the coup despite a warning from the military junta that owners would face prosecution and the seizure of their assets if they took part.
The nationalisation threat followed signs that the country’s economy is buckling under worsening mass unrest that General Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has failed to quell in the year since the putsch. Myanmar’s economy, already one of Asia’s poorest, was 30 per cent smaller than it would have been without the military takeover and coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank said last week.
Opponents of the junta called for the general strike on Tuesday, having previously staged two such “silent strikes” last year on March 24 and December 10 that emptied streets in Yangon and other cities and served as a powerful symbol of the widespread public hostility to the regime. Film footage from downtown Yangon showed deserted streets nearly devoid of traffic, with most businesses shuttered.
The US, UK and Canada marked the anniversary of the coup by announcing new sanctions targeting judicial figures involved in prosecuting ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi as well as other officials and organisations behind the regime. In a statement, President Joe Biden said Washington would “continue to impose further costs on the military and its supporters” as long as the regime continued to deny Myanmar’s people their rights.
The junta warned last week that it would prosecute those who joined Tuesday’s strike under counter-terrorism and other laws that carry long prison sentences. In a statement and letters to business owners, it said that property belonging to those convicted could be confiscated by the state.
The ultimatum highlighted the extent to which Myanmar’s businesses are increasingly caught between the military dictatorship’s threats and an angry public that wants companies to join them in opposing the regime.
The junta has killed about 1,500 people and arrested almost 12,000 in the year since the coup, according to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, a leading human rights group.
The regime’s opponents have reacted by organising strikes and, more recently, taking up arms in “people’s defence forces”, some of which are under the command of the National Unity Government, a parallel administration formed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters.
The junta has tried to quash the rebellion through a military offensive targeting rebel-held areas, and the Central Bank of Myanmar has sought to cut off the opposition camp’s fundraising sources by ordering banks and mobile wallet operators to freeze accounts.
In recent weeks, unknown assailants have attacked bank branches and automatic teller machines in Yangon and other cities after some customers complained their accounts had been blocked.
At least six branches and ATMs operated by KBZ, Myanmar’s largest bank, were targeted by explosive devices or arsonists this month after the lender complied with the regime’s orders, drawing criticism online, according to industry executives who asked not to be identified.
KBZ declined to comment but said it was monitoring the situation, and that “our customers and employees are our priority and our commitment to them is unwavering”.
When asked about the attacks Tin Tun Naing, the NUG’s finance minister, distanced the parallel government from them. He told the Financial Times that PDFs under its command had “clear rules of engagement” and were focused on confronting combatants in the regime’s forces.
“Bombing banks and ATMs is different,” Tin Tun Naing said. “There is just too high a risk of harming innocent people, including bank staff, clients and ordinary members of the public.”
Two Myanmar banking executives, speaking anonymously, said that the regime had in the year since the coup threatened KBZ and other banks with nationalisation if they did not comply with orders to keep branches open or freeze targeted accounts. The State Administrative Council, Myanmar’s junta, did not respond to a request for comment.