Myanmar death toll edges up to 550 as online crackdown tightens

Several deaths reported on Saturday as the country marks one week since the deadliest day of anti-government protests.

At least 46 children and young people were among the 550 deaths in the protest crackdown in Myanmar [EPA]
At least 46 children and young people were among the 550 deaths in the protest crackdown in Myanmar [EPA]

Security forces in central Myanmar opened fire on anti-coup protesters on Saturday in violence that a human rights group said has killed 550 civilians since the February 1 military takeover.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group said security forces have killed 550 people, 46 of them children, since the military overthrew an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Some 2,751 people have been detained or sentenced, the group said.

At least two deaths were reported on Friday, with several more reported on Saturday, including in Monywa, the largest city in the Sagaing region. Saturday marks one week since the deadliest day of the anti-government protests.

In Mandalay, there were reports of security forces opening fire at protesters and destroying barricades.

Videos posted on social media also showed security forces firing at protesters and detaining others in Loikaw township in Kayah state.

Despite the repression, opponents of the coup march every day in cities and towns across the country, often holding what they call “guerrilla rallies” – small, quick shows of defiance before security forces can respond.

Photos posted on social media showed hundreds of people marching against the military government in the southern city of Dawei in Tanintharyi region on Saturday.

 

“The protesters are still very determined to get out. In some places they are going out very early in the morning, in other places they are going out on motorbikes to disperse quickly, trying to give themselves an easy exit when the security services come after them,” Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok, said.

“They are definitely not stopping their protests.”

Overnight, people also gathered for candle-lit vigils but the huge rallies that drew tens of thousands in the early days of defiance have largely stopped in big cities.

Attempts by Myanmar’s military to end dissent are turning to the virtual world with internet censorships and arrest warrants for online critics as big rallies become rarer in the face of a relentless deadly crackdown by security forces.

The authorities, who had already shut down mobile data in a bid to stifle opposition, ordered internet providers from Friday to cut wireless broadband, depriving most customers of access.

Warrants issued

Authorities also issued warrants for 18 show business celebrities, including social media influencers and two journalists, under a law against material intended to cause a member of the armed forces to mutiny or disregard their duty, state media reported late on Friday.

All of them are known to oppose military rule. Actress Paing Phyoe Thu said she would not be cowed.

“Whether a warrant has been issued or not, as long as I’m alive I’ll oppose the military dictatorship who are bullying and killing people. The revolution must prevail,” she said on Facebook.

Paing Phyoe Thu regularly attended rallies in the main city of Yangon in the weeks after the coup. Her husband, film director Na Gyi, has been wanted by the authorities under the same law since February.

Her whereabouts were not immediately known and it was not clear how she was able to post her message. Social media users in Myanmar did not appear to be connected early on Saturday.

The charge can carry a prison term of three years.

State broadcaster MRTV announced the warrants with screenshots and links to each of their Facebook profiles.

While the military government has banned social media platforms such as Facebook, it has continued to use social media to track critics and promote its message.

MRTV maintains a YouTube channel and shares links to its broadcasts on Twitter, both of which are officially banned.

The grandmother of Zaw Ko Latt, who was shot dead on April 1 by security forces during a crackdown on demonstrations against the military coup, cries beside his coffin during his funeral in Mandalay on Friday [AFP]

‘Inhuman actions’

The United States condemned the internet shutdown.

“We hope this won’t silence the voices of the people,” a State Department spokeswoman, Jalina Porter, told a briefing.

Porter said the shutdown would also have consequences for people who use the internet to benefit from online health programmes.

Security forces have arrested numerous suspected opponents of the coup.

Myanmar Now news portal reported on Friday that five women who spoke to a visiting CNN news crew on the streets of Yangon this week had been taken away by security men.

Separately, one person was shot and wounded in a raid in the second city of Mandalay on Friday night, the Mizzima news service said.

The coup has also rekindled old wars with autonomy-seeking ethnic minority forces in the north and the east.

Myanmar’s oldest rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU), has seen the first military air raids on its fighters in more than 20 years since announcing its support for the pro-democracy movement.

The KNU said more than 12,000 villagers had fled from their homes because of the air attacks and it called for an international embargo on arms sales to the military.

“Their inhuman actions against unarmed civilians have caused the death of many people including children and students,” the group said in a statement. “These terrorist acts are clearly a flagrant violation of local and international laws.”

Media have reported about 20 people were killed in air raids in KNU territory in recent days, including nearly a dozen at a gold mine run by the group.

The KNU signed a ceasefire with the government in 2012 to end their 60-year armed uprising.

Fighting has also flared in the north between the army and ethnic Kachin fighters. The turmoil has sent thousands of refugees fleeing into Thailand and India.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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