Myanmar Coup: Sleepless residents patrol neighbourhoods across country as junta detains hundreds, frees 'troublemakers'

Many are on edge over social media rumours that recently freed prisoners are being sent into communities to sow havoc. Myanmar's junta last week released more than 23,000 inmates

Agence France-Presse February 15, 2021 20:28:30 IST
Myanmar Coup: Sleepless residents patrol neighbourhoods across country as junta detains hundreds, frees 'troublemakers'

Traditional Myanmar spirit mediums hold up signs during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon. AFP

Yangon: Myanmar's sleepless residents are patrolling their neighbourhoods at night to guard against arrest raids and troublemaking prisoners released by the military junta.

Since the army detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ousted her government on 1 February, the new regime has detained hundreds of people to quell a burgeoning civil disobedience campaign against the coup.

In response, communities across Myanmar have formed neighbourhood watch brigades to prevent night-time arrests. "Of course we are scared because they are armed... but we will continue our watch every night," Myo Ko Ko, who has been helping guard streets in Yangon, told AFP. "We can't let anyone be taken."

Many are also on edge over rumours proliferating on social media that claim recently freed prisoners are being sent into the community to sow havoc.

Myanmar's junta last week released more than 23,000 inmates.

While mass amnesties to empty the country's overcrowded prison system are common on significant local dates, some rights groups suspect this release was to free up space for opponents of the military.

Pushing fears into overdrive are images of armoured vehicles around major Myanmar cities, as well as another internet shutdown in the early hours of Monday. For the last few nights, Myo Ko Ko has helped barricade roads leading into his community, where neighbours announce the arrival of strangers by banging pots and pans.

The practice was initially a staple of nightly protests that began in the days after the coup and it traditionally symbolises the driving out of evil spirits, but now signals a call to protect the streets.

"We chased after a suspicious guy and caught him, but when we questioned him we got nothing concrete except that he came out of a prison," the 39-year-old Myo Ko Ko said, adding the man in question was later handed over to police.

Fear and rumours

Rumours of evening disturbances in urban centres have spread on social media, along with anger at what some believe is a deliberate campaign of fear orchestrated by the generals.

A crowd of people, some brandishing clubs, sprinted through one part of Yangon in the dark on Saturday while hunting for suspected hoodlums. Reports have so far been difficult to verify, but more neighbourhoods are mobilising to guard against intruders.

"We've heard many rumours and followed the news here and there," said Ko Ko Naing, a shop owner in the city's west, where residents met on the weekend to form a volunteer security team, bypassing officials from closed municipal offices.

The 45-year-old said his neighbours had also taken to the streets at the weekend to search for suspected vandals.

But tensions have surged in the days since, and the din of banging cookware has meant restless nights for some. "I couldn't sleep well last night because of the many rumours around my neighbourhood," said taxi driver Tun Tun, before adding that he supported the watch groups.

"We want things to stay peaceful," he said. "But we have no choice. We have to stand for the good side."

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