A protest has erupted at a prison in Myanmar’s commercial capital of Yangon against what activists said was a worsening COVID-19 outbreak at the jail, which is used to hold opponents of February’s military takeover.
The protest on Friday was one of the first of its kind since the February 1 coup in the Southeast Asian country, where people across the country demonstrate daily against military rule.
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Protest chants in opposition to the military government could be heard from inside the colonial-era Insein Prison early on Friday in videos recorded from outside the prison and posted by local residents to Facebook.
“End the dictatorship! Our cause! Protest, protest! Start, start! Revolution! Must prevail!” the call-and-response chant went.
The Thailand-based activist group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said the protest began in the women’s detention block and had been supported by some prison staff members. Reuters could not immediately verify the report.
“A riot happened in the prison,” Myanmar Prison Department’s Deputy Director Chan Nyein Kyaw told state-run news outlet Myawaddy. “There was a negotiation and accepted the prisoners’ demands and requests.”
AAPP said the military had entered the prison compound earlier on Friday and confiscated staff weapons.
Prison spokesperson Zaw Zaw did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment about the protest and the report that the military had intervened. He told local media the protest had been brought under control. Calls to military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun went unanswered.
Diplomats called for an end to the standoff.
“We urge the relevant authorities to resolve the situation peacefully and respect the basic right to proper healthcare for all those detained inside this and other prisons,” a group of diplomatic missions including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and nine European Union member states said in a joint statement posted on Facebook.
Earlier this month, Myanmar freed more than 2,000 detainees from the prison, among them journalists and others who the military said had been held on incitement charges for taking part in protests.
Myanmar’s military has struggled to impose order and a growing COVID-19 outbreak has added to the chaos. Myanmar registered more than 6,000 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday after reporting 286 deaths a day earlier, both record highs.
Medics and funeral services have said the real death toll is far higher, with crematoriums unable to keep pace, and the military has arrested several doctors treating COVID-19 patients independently.
“The protest reportedly began because prisoners have not been provided with medical care, and neither have prison staff been given protection from COVID-19,” the AAPP statement said.
Nyan Win, a senior adviser to overthrown leader Aung San Suu Kyi, died in hospital on Tuesday after becoming infected with COVID-19 in the prison.
UK ambassador replaced
In a separate development, Myanmar has appointed a new temporary head of its embassy in London, the UK’s foreign ministry said, replacing the previous ambassador who was removed after breaking ranks with the military government over the coup.
The selection of the new “charge d’affaires ad interim” did not require the consent of the British government, a foreign ministry spokesperson told Reuters, which first reported the move earlier on Friday.
More than 900 people opposing the military government have been killed by security forces since the coup, drawing international condemnation and sanctions including from the UK.
“The consent of the receiving State is not required,” the spokesperson said in a statement, citing the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The statement did not name the new appointee.
A spokesperson for the military-controlled government in Myanmar did not respond to calls from Reuters seeking comment.
The Myanmar Accountability Project, a UK-based rights group, said the appointee for the London job was Htun Aung Kyaw, who served as a fighter pilot during a long army career.
A source familiar with the matter also said Htun Aung Kyaw was Myanmar’s new pick, but Reuters could not confirm that.
In a statement this week, the Myanmar Accountability Project urged the UK not to recognise the representative appointed by the military saying it would be “a gross double standard and a moral outrage”.
The former ambassador, Kyaw Zwar Minn, was locked out of the London embassy in April after calling for the release of detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Kyaw Zwar Minn remains in the UK and has urged the British government to refuse to recognise any envoys appointed by the military government and to send them back to Myanmar.
The UK has imposed sanctions on members of Myanmar’s military and some of its business interests following the coup, and has called for democracy to be restored.
The UK on Friday appointed a new ambassador to Myanmar, Pete Vowles, who previously worked in diplomatic and international development roles in Africa and Asia.