Hundreds of thousands swell Myanmar protests against coup

Protests on Friday the biggest so far, and came a day after the US imposed sanctions on generals who led the coup.

The sanctions name top military commander Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy Soe Win, as well as four members of the State Administration Council [Sai Aung Main/AFP]
The sanctions name top military commander Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy Soe Win, as well as four members of the State Administration Council [Sai Aung Main/AFP]

Anti-coup protesters in Myanmar clashed with police as hundreds of thousands joined nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in defiance of the military government’s call to halt mass gatherings.

The United Nations human rights office said more than 350 people, including officials, activists and monks, have been arrested in Myanmar since the February 1 military coup that removed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, including some who face criminal charges on “dubious grounds”.

The UN rights investigator for Myanmar told a special session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva that there were “growing reports, photographic evidence” that security forces have used live ammunition against protesters, in violation of international law.

The mass protests on Friday were mostly peaceful but were the biggest so far, and came a day after Washington slapped sanctions on generals who led the takeover.

More than 100,000 people joined various protests in Yangon that remained peaceful.

But three people were wounded when police fired rubber bullets to break up a crowd of tens of thousands in the southeastern city of Mawlamyine, a Myanmar Red Cross official told Reuters news agency.

Footage broadcast by Radio Free Asia showed police charging at protesters, grabbing one and smashing him in the head. Stones were then thrown at police before the shots were fired.

“Three got shot – one woman in the womb, one man on his cheek and one man on his arm,” said Myanmar Red Cross official Kyaw Myint, who witnessed the clash.

“The crowd is still growing,” he added.

Doctors do not expect a 19-year-old woman shot during a protest in the capital Naypyitaw on Tuesday to survive. She was hit in the head with a live round fired by police.

On Friday, protesters welcomed the US decision hours earlier imposing new sanctions against Myanmar the country’s top military officials who ordered this month’s coup.

US President Joe Biden signed an executive order that allowed the Treasury Department to also target the spouses and adult children of those being sanctioned.

“As a part of today’s action, Treasury is designating 10 current and former military officials responsible for the February 1, 2021 coup or associated with the Burmese military regime,” the US Treasury said in a statement announcing the sanctions.

The sanctions name top military commander Min Aung Hlaing and his deputy Soe Win, as well as four members of the State Administration Council.

A police officer aims a gun during clashes with protesters taking part in a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw on February 9, 2021 [STR/AFP]
The move will prevent the generals from accessing more than $1bn in Myanmar government funds held in the United States. The sanctions also will affect the Myanmar Ruby Enterprise and Myanmar Imperial Jade Co, businesses controlled by the regime.

President Win Myint, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials were arrested in what Biden administration said earlier this month was a coup. The declaration set the stage for the administration to levy the new sanctions.

“Today’s sanctions need not be permanent,” the White House said in a statement.

“Burma’s military should immediately restore power to the democratically elected government, end the state of emergency, release all those unjustly detained, and ensure peaceful protestors are not met with violence.”

 

In a separate statement of social media, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on the generals “to relinquish power, restore the democratically elected government, and release those unjustly detained.”

While welcoming the sanctions, supporters of detained leader Suu Kyi and her party, National League for Democracy (NLD), said tougher action was needed to push the military out of power and force it to recognise the NLD’s landslide victory in November elections.

“We are hoping for more actions than this as we are suffering every day and night of the military coup here in Myanmar, ” Suu Kyi supporter Moe Thal, 29, told Reuters news agency on Friday.

“We want to finish this ASAP. We may need more punishment and action against Myanmar’s acting president and generals.”

 

The military cited unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud as part of the reason for the February 1 takeover of the government and declaration of a one-year state of emergency.

The generals have maintained the actions are legally justified, and have cited an article in the Constitution that allows the military to take over in times of emergency.

It remains to be seen what, if any, affect the sanctions will have. Many of the military leaders are already under sanctions because of attacks against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the US is “prepared to take additional action should Burma’s military not change course. If there is more violence against peaceful protestors, the Burmese military will find that today’s sanctions are just the first.”

The White House also announced that USAID, the US foreign development agency, is redirecting $42.4m of assistance that had been slated for Myanmar, funding that was intended to support efforts to overhaul the nation’s economic policy, as well as programmes that support civil society and the private sector.

USAID, however, is keeping in place $69m to support healthcare, food security, independent media, and peace and reconciliation efforts.

Meanwhile, arrests and detentions continue across Myanmar against those who are suspected of expressing their opposition to the military rule.

One social media posted on Friday showed a man being taken away by authorities, as his daughter confronted them, saying his father is not a criminal.

At the same time, the government announced that at least 23,000 prisoners have been pardoned, or have been issued shorter sentences.

The order is signed by Min Aung Hlaing, the chairman of the military junta government.

According to reports, among those included in the pardon is the controversial Buddhist monk, Wirathu, who has a history of inciting violence against minority Muslims in the country including the Rohingya.

There is a serious concern that the release of the prisoners is meant to clear space for the detention of more political detainees and anti-military protesters.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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