UN warns Myanmar military as generals defend power grab

Military insists fraud in November polls without offering proof as it accuses protesters of inciting violence.

Myanmar was plunged into a internet blackout on Monday night as demonstrators against the military coup continued [AP Photo]

The United Nations has warned the Myanmar military of “severe consequences” if it responds harshly to the protests that have taken place across the country following the February 1 coup, as the military rulers justified anew on Tuesday the seizure of power from civilian control.

“Ms Schraner Burgener has reinforced that the right of peaceful assembly must fully be respected and that demonstrators are not subjected to reprisals,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said in New York, referring to the UN special envoy who spoke to the deputy head of the junta.

“She has conveyed to the Myanmar military that the world is watching closely, and any form of heavy-handed response is likely to have severe consequences.”

In an account of the meeting, Myanmar’s army said Soe Win, the regime’s second in command, had discussed the administration’s plans and information on “the true situation of what’s happening in Myanmar”.

Despite the UN warning, the spokesman of the coup leaders later said the military’s action to takeover power was justified because fraud in a November election was not addressed, adding that it would hand back power after a new election.

“Our objective is to hold an election and hand power to the winning party,” Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said on Tuesday, without specifying when the election would be held. The military has imposed a state of emergency for one year.

The general also accused protesters of inciting violence, adding that one police officer has denied – sparking fears of more violent military reprisals.

Myanmar was plunged into a second internet blackout on Monday night after the 10th day of demonstrations against the coup and an increased presence of troops and military vehicles. Injuries were reported in Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, after police used force to break up a protest there.

Internet monitoring group NetBlocks said the blackout came into force at 1am local time (18:30 GMT) but that connectivity was restored eight hours later.

“Internet service in #Myanmar has been restored from 9am after a second night under internet curfew leaving residents offline and without a voice following the military coup,” NetBlocks tweeted on Tuesday morning.

People again began gathering in the commercial hub of Yangon, and other cities across the country on Tuesday, in a continuation of days-long protests demanding the military, who seized power on February 1, step down and free the country’s elected leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi.

The 75-year-old leader has been charged with the illegal possession of walkie-talkies and is expected to appear in court by video-link on Wednesday.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which is tracking detentions, expressed concern that the military could use the internet blackouts to “commit unjust activities including arbitrary arrests.”

It said at least 426 people had been picked up since the coup and 391 remained in custody.

The army has been carrying out nightly arrests and has given itself enhanced search and detention powers through amendments to the colonial-era Penal Code.

The AAPP said the amendments made the law more “arbitrary” and were “aimed at the civil disobedience movement” noting that the changes could allow the military to target pamphlets, protest banners and even songs. People found guilty of such offences could face as long as 20 years in prison, the group added.

A new cybersecurity bill, which would allow those in power to ban content they dislike, restrict internet providers and intercept data, is also under consideration.

On Monday, mobile operator Telenor said it was “of the strong opinion” that the law should not be passed given the potential impact on human rights. It also noted the broad scope of the bill, and questioned the military’s move to pass the legislation during a state of emergency.

“A Cyber Sec bill should give due consideration to fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech and privacy to people in Myanmar,” Telenor’s CEO Sigve Brekke said on Twitter.

Scuffles in Mandalay

At least two people were slightly wounded during protests on Monday when police in the city of Mandalay used rubber-coated bullets and catapults to break up the crowd, media and residents said.

Demonstrators threw bricks, said a rescue team member who assisted with the injured.

“One of them needed oxygen because he was hit with a rubber bullet in his rib,” rescue team head Khin Maung Tin told the AFP news agency.

At least two people were hurt in Mandalay when soldiers and polices used rubber-coated bullets and catapults to break up a protest [Stringer/Reuters]

Journalists on the scene also said police had beaten them.

A demonstration led by student groups in Naypyidaw, the country’s military-built capital, was also met with force after the gathering had retreated. Police also arrested dozens of the young protesters, although some were later released.

Coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing told a junta meeting on Monday that authorities were trying to proceed softly, but warned: “Effective action will be taken against people who are harming the country, committing treason through violence.”

As well as the demonstrations in towns and cities, civil servants including doctors and teachers have gone on strike as part of a civil disobedience movement that has crippled many functions of government.

On Tuesday, railway workers joined the campaign with protesters stopping the service between Yangon and the southern city of Mawlamyine. Buddhist monks also joined the movement.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a 2015 election and another on November 8 – by an even larger majority – but the military claimed the vote was fraudulent and used that complaint to justify its coup. The electoral commission has dismissed accusations of fraud.

Aung San Suu Kyi spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during the previous military regime.

The United States last week announced targeted sanctions on the generals who led the coup, and diplomacy continues over an international response.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told a briefing in Jakarta that Myanmar, a fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), should stick to the path to democracy.

“The safety and security of the people of Myanmar is the main issue and that the transition to democracy is advanced,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies