Myanmar forces fire rubber bullets, warning shots at protesters

Protesters take to the streets for a fourth day as international observers call on military to refrain from violence.

People run after police fire warning-shots and use water cannons to disperse protesters in Mandalay [AP Photo]

Police in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw fired gunshots into the air on Tuesday to disperse demonstrations against the ruling military, witnesses said, as protesters defied bans on gatherings amid nationwide outrage at last week’s coup.

One witness said demonstrators were running away as weapons were fired into the air, but not in the direction of the crowd.

Police initially used water cannon and tried to push a large crowd back, but demonstrators responded with projectiles. Footage on social media showed people running with the sound of several gunfire in the distance.

“They fired warning shots to the sky two times, then they fired [at protesters] with rubber bullets,” a unnamed resident told AFP news agency, adding he saw some people injured.

Demonstrators began a fourth day of protests on Tuesday, defying a ban on gatherings of five or more people, and threats from coup leader Senior General Minh Aung Laing to take “action” against large rallies.

In Yangon’s San Chaung township, dozens of teachers marched on the main road, waving a defiant three-finger salute, a gesture borrowed from pro-democracy movements across Asia.

“We are teachers, We want justice”! “Free Daw Aung San Suu Kyi!” they yelled as they marched down the main road, where cars passing by honked their horns in support.

“Down with the military dictatorship!”

‘Slaves of dictatorship’

Soe Aung, a human rights activist based in neighbouring Thailand, said it was encouraging to see young people leading the demonstrations and predicted the protesters will not go away quietly.

“I think they [the generals] are trying to scare the demonstrators by various means but the protesters are very determined. Many civil servants joined the protests so it is very encouraging,” Soe Aung told Al Jazeera.

“More importantly, it is not just the students and young people but also the ethnic minorities in different parts of the country. So, they are not going to back down. They understand if they back down, they will be the slaves of the dictatorship forever.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader and founder of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) was detained along with dozens of members of her government as the generals moved to seize power last week.

Videos posted on social media showed the police using water cannon against protesters in a number of locations including the capital Naypyidaw and Bago, northeast of Yangon, as human rights experts urged the military to refrain from violence.

Several people were seen injured in Naypyidaw after they got hit by water cannons, while in Mandalay, at least two protesters have reportedly been detained.

“Security forces have a moral and legal obligation to defy any unlawful orders to use excessive force against peaceful protests in Myanmar,” Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar wrote on Twitter. “All in the chain of command can be held liable for committing crimes against humanity. ‘Following orders’ is no defense.”

Many of the protesters were wearing hard hats and running shoes, and appeared to be more prepared for the risk of violence, according to reporters on the ground.

During previous demonstrations in 1988 and 2007, the brutal military response left thousands dead.

“As peaceful demonstrations grow, the risk of violence is real. We all know what the Myanmar army is capable of: mass atrocities, killing of civilians, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests, among others,” said Tom Villarin, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), urging the leaders of the the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to use its leverage with the military leadership. Myanmar joined the organisation in 1997.

Martial law, curfew

Groups gathered around Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, including in front of the headquarters of Suu Kyi’s NLD party.

Wearing red – the NLD’s colours – the protesters carried Suu Kyi’s portraits and chanted for the military to free her.

Despite a tarnished reputation in the West for her handling of the Rohingya crisis, the woman known as “The Lady” remains an immensely popular figure in her own country, with her party sweeping more than 80 percent of the votes in November’s election.

On Monday, Myanmar’s new military rulers imposed martial law and a curfew across the country in a bid to quell growing protests against the coup.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader, also appeared on television repeating the unsubstantiated claim that there were irregularities in November’s election.

Thousands of people across Myanmar took to the streets for a third day of mass protests on Monday, and demanded that the military free State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar president Win Myint [Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

A one-year state of emergency is currently in effect in the country, and aside from the curfew and the ban on mass gatherings, motorised processions have also been prohibited.

The military warned of action against protesters, saying there had been violations of the law and threats of force by groups “using the excuse of democracy and human rights”.

International pressure

The United Nations’ Human Rights Council is due to hold a special session to discuss Myanmar on Friday with rights groups urging action against the military including selected sanctions against senior generals and their families.

On Tuesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that her government would suspend all high-level political and military contact with Myanmar and impose a travel ban on its military leaders. Ardern told a news conference that New Zealand would ensure its aid programme does not include projects that are delivered with the military government or provide benefits to the generals.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a separate statement that New Zealand does not recognise the legitimacy of the military-led government and called on the army to immediately release all detained political leaders and restore civilian rule.

Myanmar was under military rule for decades after a 1962 coup that led to international isolation and economic decline.

A slow transition to democracy began a decade ago with the NLD securing a foothold in parliament in by-elections in 2012 and winning a landslide in the first full elections in 2015. In November’s poll, it further increased its vote share to the detriment of the military’s proxy party.

The constitution ensures the military maintains significant power, however, with the control of key ministries and a quarter of seats in parliament.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies