In military-ruled Myanmar, there seemed to be a new criminal offense this week: wearing a flower in one’s hair on June 19.
Pro-democracy activists say more than 130 people, most of them women, have been arrested for participating in a “flower strike” marking the birthday of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the civilian leader who was ousted by Myanmar’s military in a February 2021 coup. Imprisoned by the junta since then, she turned 78 on Monday.
The protest — a clear, if unspoken, rebuke of the junta — drew nationwide support, and many shops were reported to have sold all their flowers. Most of the arrests occurred on Monday, but they continued through the week as the military tracked down participants and supporters.
In some cities and towns, soldiers seized women in the streets for holding a flower or wearing one in their hair. Some were beaten, witnesses said. The police have also been rounding up people who took to Facebook to post a birthday greeting or a photo of themselves with a flower.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, called the campaign the latest example of the “paranoia and intolerance” of Myanmar’s military rulers.
“It’s astonishing the junta hasn’t figured out that such tactics are backfiring by redoubling people’s determination to fully and finally push the military out of power, regardless of the cost,” Mr. Robertson said.
The junta is facing an increasingly well-armed resistance from pro-democracy forces allied with rebel ethnic armies. The military has responded with brutal attacks on civilians, including airstrikes on public gatherings. More than 19,000 political prisoners are in custody, according to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights group.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize as a dissident in 1991, and she is still widely admired in Myanmar, though her defense of the military’s bloody crackdown on Rohingya Muslims when she led the civilian government tarred her image as an international human rights icon.
She spent 15 years under house arrest for advocating for democracy during an earlier period of military rule; this time, she is being held in a prison in Naypyidaw, the capital, serving a 33-year sentence on corruption and other charges her supporters say were trumped up. Her son, Kim Aris, said this week that she was being held in isolation.
In the southern city of Mawlamyine, one supporter of the flower strike said she was arrested in a florist’s shop on Monday along with the owner and seven other customers, all women, moments after she arrived to buy a flower.
Taken to a police station, they were forced to sign a statement saying they had been wrong to participate in the demonstration and pledging not to discuss politics or Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in the future, said the woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of being arrested again.
She and the other customers were released later in the day, the woman said on Thursday, but the florist was still in custody and her shop had been closed.
In London on Monday, Mr. Aris went to the Myanmar Embassy, where he tried to leave flowers and a birthday card addressed to his mother. The staff refused to open the door, so he attached the bouquet to a railing and pushed the card through a gap by the door frame.
In a video, he called on the junta to consider his mother’s “advancing years” and let her return to the family home in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, where she spent years under house arrest. At the least, he said, she could be reunited with her dog.
“Even though she is well practiced at being alone, it is not something she should have to accept,” he said.
Many of those arrested since Monday were targeted in a pro-military Telegram channel called Han Nyein Oo, which posts personal information about people who criticize the junta. Often, they are arrested within minutes.
U Kyee Myint, 78, a veteran human rights lawyer, has been in hiding since being named in the channel. He said by telephone that the arrests this week showed “that Myanmar is ruled by madmen and cowards.”
“I am afraid that the girls who were arrested because they were found with flowers in their hair will be tortured in the infamous interrogation centers,” he said.
A jewelry salesman in Mandalay, U Myint Naing, said that on Tuesday, the Telegram channel posted a call for the arrest of his 34-year-old son for writing “Happy Birthday Mother Su” on Facebook, alongside a photo of himself wearing a red rose over his ear. Hours later, he said, soldiers came to their door and arrested his son.
The soldiers said they were taking him to one of the junta’s many interrogation centers, which are notorious for torture. He has not been heard from since, Mr. Myint Naing said.
“This was just a birthday wish for someone he loves,” he said. “He is not harming anyone. How can the military be afraid of one person with a flower?”