At least 38 people were killed in anti-coup protests in Myanmar on Wednesday, the United Nations said, in the bloodiest crackdown yet on peaceful demonstrations against a military coup.
Security forces opened fire on people protesting against military rule across Myanmar, a day after neighbouring countries called for restraint and offered to help resolve the crisis.
Police and soldiers opened fire with live rounds with little warning, witnesses said.
Describing Wednesday’s death toll as “shocking”, Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN’s envoy on Myanmar, said in New York there were “now more than 50 people [dead] since the coup started and many are wounded”.
She cited weapons experts who examined video footage that appeared to show police using 9mm sub-machine guns to fire live ammunition at people.
“I saw today very disturbing video clips. One was [showing] police beating a volunteer medical crew; they were not armed,” Burgener told a virtual briefing.
“Another video clip showed a protester was taken away from police and they shot him from very near, maybe one metre. He didn’t resist his arrest and it seems he died on the street.”
The envoy said about 1,200 people have been detained in Myanmar since last month’s coup and many families do not know their health condition or whereabouts.
“How can we watch this situation longer? Every tool available is needed now to stop this situation. We need now a unity of the international community, so it’s up to the member states to take the right measures,” Burgener said.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), which has been tracking arrests since the coup, says 1,498 people have been detained with 1,192 still in detention. In its nightly briefing on the situation in the country it condemned the use of force against peaceful protesters, saying live ammunition had been used in seven cities across the country.
“The military and so-called police are making an enemy of the peaceful protesters, terrorising and directing their guns towards peoples face, chest, head, back and abdomen,” the group said.
A spokesperson for Myanmar’s ruling military council did not answer telephone calls seeking comment, Reuters news agency reported.
Earlier on Wednesday, videos from various locations showed security forces firing slingshots at demonstrators, chasing them down, and even beating an ambulance crew with rifle butts and batons.
Frontier, a leading current affairs magazine, reported a death toll of at least 16 pro-democracy protesters, including six people in Yangon, the country’s largest city.
Witnesses said security forces opened sustained fire in a neighbourhood in the north of the city in the early evening. “I heard so much continuous firing. I lay down on the ground, they shot a lot,” said protester Kaung Pyae Sone Tun, 23.
A doctor told the AFP news agency one protester was shot in the chest in the second city Mandalay while another, a 19-year-old woman, was shot in the head.
“It’s horrific, it’s a massacre. No words can describe the situation and our feelings,” youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi said.
Save the Children said in a statement that four children were among the dead, including a 14-year-old boy who Radio Free Asia reported was shot dead by a soldier on a passing convoy of military trucks. The soldiers loaded his body onto a truck and left the scene.
Hundreds of protesters were arrested, local media reported.
The US condemned the junta’s latest deadly violence against protesters and called for more global action.
“We are appalled and revulsed to see the horrific violence perpetrated against the people of Burma for their peaceful calls to restore civilian governance,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, using Myanmar’s former name.
“We call on all countries to speak with one voice to condemn the brutal violence by the Burmese military against its own people,” he told reporters.
Myanmar has been in chaos since February 1 when the military detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and much of the country’s civilian leadership, and seized power in a coup d’etat.
The military justified the takeover with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in the November 2020 election that returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to power in a landslide. The election commission, whose members were also detained in the coup, said the vote was fair.
A candlelight vigil was held on the street in North Okkalapa in honor of those killed in the anti-military movement on Wednesday night.
The violent crackdown killed at least 8 people, 4 were shot dead at the spot. pic.twitter.com/9DGalfate5
— Hnin Zaw (@hninyadanazaw) March 3, 2021
The #Myanmar military is carrying out a widespread & systematic attack on the population. What began as a crackdown against peaceful protesters is now a military attack involving targeted extrajudicial killings and 1,000+ arrested. The attack is ongoing. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar
— Matthew Smith (@matthewfsmith) March 3, 2021
Campaigners are calling on the international community to impose targeted sanctions, and an arms embargo in response to the coup, and to refer the military, which earlier led the brutal 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya, to the International Criminal Court.
Schraner Burgener is due to brief the UN Security Council on developments on Friday, with the envoy urging countries to take “very strong measures” to restore democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
She told reporters in New York that she had warned Myanmar’s deputy military chief Soe Win of the potential for firm action.
“The answer was: ‘We are used to sanctions, and we survived’,” she told reporters. “When I also warned they will go in isolation, the answer was: ‘We have to learn to walk with only few friends’.”