The killing of at least 65 protesters on March 14 in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, was planned and premeditated, a human rights group has found.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday released a report accusing security forces of deliberately encircling and using lethal force against crowds calling for the reinstatement of the democratically-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi following a military coup on February 1.
“Soldiers and police armed with military assault rifles fired on trapped protesters and on those trying to assist the wounded, killing at least 65 protesters and bystanders” in Yangon’s working-class neighbourhood of Hlaing Tharyar, the New York-based organisation said.
Its findings were based on interviews with six witnesses and analyses of 13 videos and 31 photographs of the violence posted on social media.
Footage reviewed by HRW included a TikTok video posted by a police officer in which security officials discussed the weapons they would use. One of them is heard saying: “I will show no mercy for these people.”
Following the army’s power grab, largely peaceful demonstrations nationwide were met with increasingly brutal suppression. The coup leaders have described the protesters as “rioters.”
‘I will never forget’
Before dawn on March 14, protesters headed to Yangon’s main Hlaing River Road to stage a sit-in. Security forces arrived about 10am, forcing protesters to disperse into side streets.
Based on analysis of two videos and satellite imagery, HRW said security forces encircled or “kettled” the protesters between noon and 12:40pm.
One protester, identified as “Zaw Zaw” to protect their identity, said security forces started out with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets and then fired live rounds.
“From our side, we used slingshots and rocks, and some even threw Molotov cocktails back … Many people died in front of my eyes … I will never forget that day,” Zaw Zaw said.
Witnesses described situations in which they believed the security forces were aiming at and shooting demonstrators.
HRW said it had corroborated witness accounts with videos showing security forces cutting off protesters’ exit routes and deliberately attacking demonstrators and health care workers trying to assist the wounded.
At least four people appeared to have been visibly injured as they tried to help others. One was limp and motionless as he was carried away and another was bleeding from his back on the pavement, HRW said.
Since the army’s takeover, at least 1,300 protesters and bystanders have been killed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-profit rights group which documents political repression and has been monitoring the crackdown.
HRW’s Myanmar researcher Manny Maung told The Associated Press news agency that violations were continuing.
“Whatever happened even nine months ago is still important because we can and we will hold these people to account and we can prove that they did this with intent,” she said.
The organisation has urged the international community to “respond to ongoing human rights violations and crimes against humanity in Myanmar by supplementing, strengthening, and coordinating international sanctions against the junta leadership and military.”
No action is known to have been taken against members of the security forces and no military official immediately responded to requests for comment.
“It’s necessary to make sure that such figures are made aware that they can be tried and held to account at a later time,” Maung said.
Thousands of civilians have fled their homes due to attacks on pockets of resistance to military rule.
The country was plunged into chaos after the military seized power in February, hours before the new parliament – elected in November 2020 – was about to sit.
Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy or NLD to a landslide victory in that contest, as she had at the previous election in 2015, after spending years under house arrest during decades of military rule.
The generals have tried to justify their coup by claiming fraud in the November 2020 poll, although observers said there was no evidence of that.