(Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of people marched in Myanmar on Wednesday, rejecting the army’s assertion that the public supported its overthrow of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and saying they would not be cowed in their bid to end military rule.
The day’s demonstrations were largely peaceful, but security forces fired shots in the city of Mandalay after dark in a confrontation with striking railway workers, residents said.
Opponents of the Feb. 1 military coup are deeply sceptical of junta assurances, given at a news conference on Tuesday, that there would be a fair election and that it would hand over power, even as police filed an additional charge against Suu Kyi.
“We love democracy and hate the junta,” Sithu Maung, an elected member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), told tens of thousands of people at the Sule Pagoda, a central protest site in the main city of Yangon.
“We must be the last generation to experience a coup.”
The protests in cities across Myanmar were some of the biggest since daily demonstrations began on Feb. 6 to denounce the coup that halted an unsteady transition to democracy from half a century of army rule and isolation.
Junta spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told the Tuesday news conference that the army would not be in power for long and that 40 million of Myanmar’s 53 million population supported the coup.
Sithu Maung poked fun at that, saying: “We’re showing here that we’re not in that 40 million.”
As well as the demonstrations across the ethnically diverse country, a civil disobedience movement has brought strikes that are crippling many functions of government.
The army announced on Wednesday that police complaints had been filed against six local celebrities under an anti-incitement law for encouraging civil servants to join in the protest. The charges can carry a two-year prison sentence.
“If we don’t win this battle, our future, the future of our generation, the future of our children, will be lost,” actor Pyay Ti Oo, one of the six, told protesters.
The army seized power after the electoral commission dismissed its allegations of fraud in a Nov. 8 election swept by Suu Kyi’s party. The army said its seizure of power was in line with the constitution and it remained committed to democracy.
The Nobel Peace laureate, detained since the coup, now faces a charge of violating a Natural Disaster Management Law as well as charges of illegally importing six walkie talkie radios.
Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest for her efforts to bring democracy.
The takeover and the arrests of Suu Kyi and hundreds of others have also drawn strong Western criticism, with renewed anger from Washington and London over the additional charge for Suu Kyi.
Although China has taken a softer line, its ambassador in Myanmar on Tuesday dismissed accusations it supported the coup.
Despite that, protesters also gathered outside the Chinese embassy.
Tens of thousands took to the streets of the city of Mandalay, where some people also blocked its main rail link.
After dark, security forces opened fire as they advanced with a line of riot shields towards railway workers who had stopped trains from running. Dozens of shots could be heard and videos show soldiers throwing stones and using catapults.
One local charity worker was hit in the leg by what appeared to be a rubber bullet, residents said.
Neither the army nor the police made any immediate comment on the incident, but the army’s Facebook page said forces were providing security across the country to “make sure people have tranquility and sound sleep”.
Thousands marched in the capital, Naypyitaw, and hundreds in the southern town of Mawlamyine, witnesses said. Both places saw clashes last week.
In Yangon and elsewhere, motorists responded to a “broken-down car campaign” spread on social media, stopping their supposedly stalled cars, with bonnets raised, on streets and bridges to block them to police and military trucks.
The unrest has revived memories of bloody suppression of protests under previous juntas.
Police have opened fire several times, mostly with rubber bullets, to disperse protesters. A protester who was shot in the head in Naypyitaw last week is not expected to survive.
A policeman died of injuries sustained in a protest in Mandalay on Monday, the military said.
(Writing by Matthew Tostevin, Robert Birsel; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Kim Coghill and Nick Macfie)