US embassy staff leaving Myanmar amid risk of civil unrest

Death toll from military crackdown on anti-coup protesters and clashes in ethnic border areas continue to pile up on Wednesday.

An anti-coup protester walks past burning tyres after activists launched a 'rubbish strike' against the military rule in Yangon [Stringer/Reuters]

Myanmar activists held candle-lit vigils overnight as the death toll from the military crackdown on anti-coup protesters and clashes in ethnic border areas continues to mount on Wednesday, prompting the United States to order all non-essential embassy staff to leave the country.

At least four more protesters were reported killed by security forces during demonstrations in the country’s southern Tanintharyi region on Wednesday morning, according to Myanmar Now news agency, while social media images showed soldiers patrolling the Kamayut township of Yangon.

Meanwhile, dozens of protesters marched in the Seikkyi Kanaungto township of Yangon, while a few young protesters carrying anti-military government banners took to the streets in North Dagon.

Social media also showed hundreds of people in Mogaung township in Kachin state who began marching at dawn on Wednesday.

More than 520 civilians have been killed in two months of protests against the February 1 coup, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

More funerals are expected to be held on Wednesday for those who died in Tuesday’s violent crackdown.

AAPP said a further eight people died on Tuesday, when thousands came out to march in several towns, according to media and photos on social media.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the army arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and reimposed military rule after 10 years of tentative steps towards democracy.

Border-area violence

Fighting has also flared between the army and armed rebels in frontier regions and refugees are spilling over the border into Thailand.

The Karen National Union armed group, which operates along the eastern border with Thailand, said on Tuesday it was bracing for a big government offensive.

The group urged the international community, neighbouring Thailand in particular, to help Karen people fleeing the “onslaught” and called for countries to cut ties with the military government to stop the violence against civilians.


Meanwhile, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel group in the north, attacked a police station in Kachin state at 3am (20:30 GMT on Tuesday) on Wednesday, the Kachin News Group said.

Police and a spokesman for the Myanmar generals did not answer calls seeking comment.

Threat of civil unrest

Amid growing concern over civil unrest, the United States on Tuesday ordered the departure of non-emergency US government employees and their family members from Myanmar.

“It’s quite clear the situation in Myanmar is deteriorating rapidly and creating quite interesting bedfellows,” Brian Harding, a senior expert on Southeast Asia at the United States Institute of Peace, told Al Jazeera. “The military coup and the crackdown has managed to unite fractious groups.”

Rebels have battled the government for decades for greater autonomy in remote border regions. The military has justified its long grip on power by saying it is the only institution capable of ensuring national unity.

Military aircraft bombed KNU fighters on the weekend, sending about 3,000 villagers fleeing to Thailand.

An injured Myanmar refugee is being carried on a stretcher after crossing the Salween River into Thailand on Tuesday [Royal Thai Army handout photo/AFP]

Thailand denied accusations from activists that refugees were being forced to return, but a Thai official on the border said the army was sending most people back because it was deemed safe on the Myanmar side.

A spokesman for the UN refugee agency told the Reuters news agency it was concerned about reports people were being sent back and it was seeking information from Thailand.

A border state in India withdrew an order to refuse refugees food and shelter after the measure drew fierce public criticism.

‘Reprehensible violence’

The military seized power in February saying that the November elections won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

A civil disobedience campaign of strikes has paralysed parts of the economy and protesters stepped it up by asking residents to leave their rubbish at city intersections in Yangon.

Western countries have condemned the coup and the violence and called for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and some have imposed specific sanctions.

In Washington, DC, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said some foreign countries and companies with significant investments in enterprises that support Myanmar’s military should reconsider those stakes.

He said the recent violence was “reprehensible” and followed a pattern of “increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence” against demonstrators opposing military rule.

Indonesia has led efforts by members of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Myanmar is a member, to encourage a negotiated solution, despite the group’s convention not to comment on each other’s problems.

Foreign criticism and Western sanctions against previous Myanmar military governments have had little short-term effect.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies