Opponents of military rule in Myanmar staged a "silent strike" on Thursday as the country marked three years since the coup that ousted the elected government of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The show of defiance against the junta, which said the previous day it would extend a state of emergency for another six months, follows prolonged conflict between the military and pro-democracy resistance groups as well as ethnic minority rebels, with the opposition forces gaining momentum since last October.

There was reduced traffic and fewer people in the streets of the largest city Yangon during the strike that began at 10 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m., with protestors having asked people to stay at home.

Downtown Yangon sees reduced traffic and fewer people on the streets on Feb. 1, 2024. (Kyodo) 

"The silent strike is the only way to convey my protest," said a 17-year-old high school student in the city, who said he had been arrested before when participating in an anti-junta protest.

But many other people were shopping at markets as usual on narrow streets during the time of the strike.

Hundreds of people marched in downtown Yangon in the afternoon in support of the military, in a rally apparently backed by the junta because it has strictly prohibited assemblies since the coup.

The pro-military demonstrators, including dozens of Buddhist monks wearing orange robes, chanted such slogans as "Down with PDF," referring to the People's Defense Force comprised of citizens who have taken up arms against the military.

The military staged the coup on Feb. 1, 2021, alleging widespread voter fraud in the 2020 general election in which Suu Kyi's then-ruling National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory.

Suu Kyi has been detained in a small building in the compound of a prison in the capital Naypyitaw since June 2022, after being under house arrest following the coup, according to sources familiar with her situation.

The democracy icon was sentenced to imprisonment of 33 years on 19 charges, including corruption. While that was reduced to 27 years last year, it remains essentially a life sentence for the 78-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Suu Kyi's younger son, Kim Aris, received a letter from his mother in mid-January, for the first time since before the coup, Radio Free Asia Burmese's reported Wednesday.

"It's just sending love to the rest of the family and saying that she's in good spirits. Her spirit is strong, even if her health is not as good as it was in the past," Aris, who lives in Britain, said in an interview with the radio station.

Aris sent a care package to her after hearing that she was not well and she responded in a letter to him that she received it at the end of last year, he said, according to the report.

"I believe she is in reasonable health. I think she has ongoing issues with her teeth and with problems with her neck as well," he said, adding the junta has not allowed him to meet his mother.

Meanwhile, people outside of Myanmar also held protests Thursday and called for the return of democracy to the Southeast Asian country.

A Tokyo event held by Japanese lawmakers was attended by members of the Myanmar diaspora and a senior member of the National Unity Government, Myanmar's parallel government.

Win Myat Aye, its minister for humanitarian affairs and disaster management, said that the parallel government and its ethnic minority allies have been on the offensive against the military and asked the international community to step up pressure against the junta.

"The spring revolution in Myanmar has reached a turning point," Win Myat Aye said, referring to the three-year-old resistance movement. "This has opened a path for a victory by the people."

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa, in a statement Thursday, condemned the situation, saying "the Myanmar military has repeatedly extended the state of emergency without working toward a peaceful resolution while many civilians are killed" daily by airstrikes and other acts of violence.

The United States and seven other countries as well as the European Union issued a joint statement Wednesday and condemned the military regime's "ongoing atrocities."

"The military's actions have fueled a growing humanitarian crisis with 2.6 million people displaced from their homes, and more than 18 million people in need," the statement said, urging the military to immediately cease violence against civilians and to release all unjustly detained political prisoners.

Resistance to military rule intensified when three ethnic minority rebel groups launched a coordinated offensive in October, with the rebel groups claiming to have taken hundreds of army outposts and seized over a dozen strategic towns in the country's northern region.

Together with offensives by other ethnic rebel groups and the parallel government, the attacks have posed the biggest challenge to the military since the coup.

In the past three years, more than 4,400 coup opponents have been killed, with over 25,900 arrested and nearly 20,000 still being detained, according to the activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, based in neighboring Thailand.

As the junta announced the fifth extension of a state of emergency Wednesday, the deadline for holding a general election to restore civilian rule will be pushed back to Feb. 1 next year.

Even if the election is held, pro-military parties would win because the NLD, which is the only opposition party strong enough to defeat such parties, was dissolved by the junta-appointed election commission last year.

The military's grip on power is threatened not only by the coordinated offensive by opposition forces. Military soldiers are reportedly suffering morale deterioration due to exhaustion from the relentless fighting, affecting their combat capabilities.

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