YANGON, Myanmar – Police in Myanmar repeatedly used tear gas and rubber bullets on Tuesday against crowds protesting last month’s coup. However, the demonstrators regrouped after each volley and tried to defend themselves with barricades as the clashes between demonstrators and security forces intensified.
The authorities have tightened the crackdown on the protests in recent days. The United Nations said at least 18 people were killed on Sunday when security forces fired en masse, while a rights group said more than 1,000 people were detained over the weekend, including an Associated Press journalist. A lawyer for the journalist said he was charged with a criminal offense that could have imprisoned him for up to three years.
Despite the increasingly brutal behavior, protesters have continued to flood the streets – and are beginning to attempt to get them to disperse, to oppose more strictly. Hundreds, many with hard hats and makeshift shields, gathered in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, where police had repeatedly fired tear gas the day before. They dragged bamboo poles and debris to form barricades, sang slogans, and sang songs along the police lines. They even threw banana peels on the street in front of them to slow the police onslaught.
The mostly young protesters fled in a panic every time tear gas canisters were fired, but soon returned to their barricades. Videos posted on social media showed similar chaotic scenes in the Insein neighborhood of northern Yangon.
The demonstrators also picked up their flags and banners to march through the streets of Dawei, a small town in southeast Myanmar where large demonstrations against the coup took place almost daily. A group of protesters were targeted by security forces as they stepped into a narrow street to pay their respects on their way to a man who was killed in the crackdown on Sunday. Another was attacked on the main street in the city center.
Yangon, Dawei and Mandalay belonged to the U.N. Human Rights Office to the cities where security forces reportedly fired live ammunition en masse on Sunday. There were reports that they also fired live rounds on Tuesday, but they could not be confirmed immediately.
Some fear the junta’s escalating use of force is set to provoke a violent backlash from demonstrators, who have remained largely non-violent, to discredit them and justify even tougher action. Videos from the last few days show a large number of demonstrators trying to assert themselves and throwing objects at the police.
« I ask the people of Myanmar not to fall into this trap in order to remain peaceful », UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener said in an interview with CNN, admitting that it was easier for her to safely urge peaceful protest. She also accused the authorities of spreading rumors about the conditions of the detainees in order to cause even more trouble on the streets.
The February 1 coup reverted years of slow progress towards democracy in Myanmar after five decades Military rule around. It was the day a newly elected parliament was due to take office. The ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party would have been installed for a second term of five years, but instead she was jailed along with President Win Myint and other high-ranking officials. year-old Suu Kyi was charged with several offenses that critics claim were only sentenced to prison and potentially preventing them from voting in the military’s promised elections a year from now. Her party says she does not know where Suu Kyi – who has long been fighting for democracy in Myanmar – is being held.
The weekend’s actions were condemned internationally. In addition to the use of force, the authorities have arrested more than 1,000 people, according to the Independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Among them were at least eight journalists, including Thein Zaw of the AP, who was arrested while reporting on the protests. His lawyer said Tuesday that he and five other Myanmar journalists were charged with violating a public order law. The AP has condemned his detention as arbitrary and called for his immediate release.
United States Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the use of force and arbitrary arrests « unacceptable », according to his spokesman. The US, UK and other governments made similar worrying statements.
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The protesters and their supporters have asked for help from abroad, but there is little prospect of major intervention. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional group of 10 nations, seeks consensus among its members so it is unlikely to take strong action. A virtual meeting of the group’s foreign ministers on Tuesday only ended with a statement made by the group’s chairman, rather than a joint statement calling for an end to violence and talks to find a peaceful solution. The independent UN expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has suggested that countries put a global embargo on the sale of arms to Myanmar and « tough, targeted and coordinated sanctions » against those responsible for the coup, the conduct and the act could impose other violations.
Any kind of coordinated act at the United Nations would be difficult, however, as two permanent members of the United States Security Council, China and Russia, would almost certainly veto it. Some countries have imposed or are considering their own sanctions.
Associate press writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia contributed to this report.
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