Anti-coup crackdown takes fatal turn

Anti-coup crackdown takes fatal turn

Protesters run to contain tear gas fired by security forces in an attempt to disperse them during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon yesterday. AFP
Protesters run to contain tear gas fired by security forces in an attempt to disperse them during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon yesterday. AFP

Myanmar's security forces have unleashed a concerted crackdown on the country's peaceful protesters leaving 23 dead and thousands injured throughout the country in the last two days. In planned pre-emptive strikes, the police moved ruthlessly to disperse and arrest protestors preparing to join yesterday general strike. "They used teargas, stun grenades and fired live ammunition indiscriminately into the crowds," said Soe Soe, a young university student at a protest site told the Bangkok Post.

In response to the shooting of unarmed civilians, Myanmar's special envoy to the UN called on the international community to bring the authorities to justice for "crimes against humanity". "It's time for the international community to act to protect our innocent, defenceless people who dare to stand up to these thugs who now controlling our country," said Dr Sa Sa, who is the special envoy appointed by the committee representing the elected MPs from the majority National League for Democracy (NLD).

Dr Sa Sa told the Bangkok Post in an extensive interview that the regional group Asean -- due to have a digital Foreign Minister's special meeting today at which the situation in Myanmar will be discussed -- "should isolate and punish Myanmar for ignoring concerns about avoiding bloodshed and not protecting its people".

"Asean should not talk to the military -- don't give them credibility -- don't accept them, don't give these generals any legitimacy," he insisted. At the very least, he said Asean should consider suspending Myanmar from Asean, if they do not abide by the rules. Other organisations suspend or expel member states if they do not conform to the rules or expectations -- like the Commonwealth, an organisation of former British colonies of which Myanmar used to be a member.

"We may be a family, but if someone misbehaves they have to be punished -- they can't be allowed to get away with impunity -- more serious action is needed," he appealed to the leaders of the regional bloc. "Likewise if a family member gets sick, the whole family is affected," he said. All the more with the region's heavy interdependence and interconnectivity -- economically, socially, culturally and demographically, he added.

This weekend was the turning point in the continued confrontation between the security forces and the unarmed, non-violent civil disobedience movement demonstrating in the streets for the past four weeks against the coup.

International condemnation has been swift and strong, but the protestors are demanding immediate intervention. "Protestors are being shot: We are very angry, we are very upset," Sakura, a young graduate in Yangon, told the Bangkok Post. "How many dead bodies does the UN need to act?" she asked, after spending the morning protesting and surveying the carnage on the streets of Yangon yesterday.

In the past week the junta leaders have been ratcheting up the pressure on the protestors: threats, intimidation and arrests. Clear crowd control measures were being planned and put into place, and street patrols stepped up. Parts of the country's main cities -- especially Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw and Mandalay -- were cordoned off, with barricades and blockades erected to enable police and soldiers to clear the crowds more easily using riot shields and baton charges. Clearly rehearsals for yesterday's devastating relentless attack on the protestors -- but with unlimited firepower and live ammunition.

The police have continued to indiscriminately arrest protesters in the streets during the day -- though many are later released after signing a form promising not to protest in future. There was also a massive sweep against civil servants active in the civil disobedience campaign, with police making surgical strikes in the middle of the night on the homes of suspected protest leaders and political activists, including NLD politicians. The numbers of those detained rises day by day which makes it difficult to confirm a definitive figure.

Political prisoner groups, who monitor arrests, estimate that since the start of the coup over a thousand had been detained. Monitors believe at least two thousand people were detained over the weekend: authenticated videos and photos on social media show hundreds of doctors and nurse being rounded up and hauled away in trucks in many cities throughout Myanmar yesterday. Similar pictures show lines of teachers and university lecturers being carted off.

Most of those arrested who have not been released, have not been arraigned or had a bail hearing. And much worse have not been allowed access to a lawyer -- including Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's civilian leader, whose trial is due to commence later today. All of this is really a gross infringement of the rule of law -- despite the junta having neatly revised the law after the coup to allow for indefinite detention, according to legal experts.

This is rule by orders -- as in the 1988 coup -- and is intended to disguise the illegitimacy of their military regime: it is selective legality, according to the Australian lawyer and constitutional expert Janelle Saffin who has been advising on legal and parliamentary matters in Myanmar over the past ten years. "It's rule by orders, it's only to effect legality. What's more, it's unconstitutional," she said.

"The changes to the penal code to detain people longer than 24 hours and without a judicial order, violates Section 376 of their own 2008 constitution," she told the Bangkok Post.

"We are a non-violent movement, our weapons are our voice, our mobile phones and social media," reflected Dr Sa Sa. "It's the army that are committing crimes. These are the ones who facing real criminal charges and international justice at the Hague [at the International Court Justice], they are the ones who should be in prison … not our leaders [referring to Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders] … they must be made accountable for their crimes."

On this day, when Myanmar experienced the worst violence in its tragic history since 1988, attention clearly shifts to the international community. Pressure is bound to build in the capitals of the West -- Washington, Brussels, London and Tokyo -- to take swift action, it will no doubt to be referred again to the UN Security Council with the UK in the presidency, and it will reverberate around the capitals of Asia -- Asean, Beijing and Delhi. Myanmar's security forces have crossed the line, and Min Aung Hlaing and his coup cohorts will be asked to have to be brought to book, according to Dr Sa Sa.

Until now, the West has blown its trumpet loudly but been ineffectual in practice; India, Japan and much of Asean has remained quiet waiting to see developments. Indonesia and Thailand were quick to understand the enormous potential ramifications for the region if Myanmar's political crisis got out of control and ended in bloodshed. The region also has faced Washington's aggressive bullying on one hand a subtle pressure from Beijing. Asean thought it had got itself out ahead of the game, with the planned special foreign ministers' meeting tomorrow to discuss Covid and other matters, a euphemism for Myanmar, but now all eyes will be on that meeting -- the first diplomatic get-together since the bloodshed.

One thing the international community has insisted on publicly and behind the scenes was for the new Myanmar regime to release Ms Suu Kyi and the other political leaders and to do their utmost to avoid bloodshed. That was Asean's clear message last week during the attempted "shuttle diplomacy". Most countries involved in Myanmar are singing more or less from the same hymn book. But now more than ever there will be demands for an internationally-sponsored mediation process, though that is difficult to envisage at this stage.

But the role of Beijing in the coming days and weeks is going to prove critical in trying to sort out the political quagmire Myanmar has placed the region in. The coup leader and army chief General Min Aung Hlaing flew to China on Saturday evening, according to reliable sources close to the military. So far there been no official confirmation from either side.

"While the world and Myanmar waits to see the result of international negotiations, we must maintain political pressure, economic pressure and international pressure on the generals, " said Dr Sa Sa.

"The international community must recognise the results of these 2020 elections -- they were free and fair -- the people have spoken loud and clear, they overwhelmingly chose us [the NLD] to represent them. The international community must understand that a democratic Myanmar would be a really good ally; when we have democracy, a flourishing democracy, the country will grow and develop, and everyone will benefit."

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

Larry Jagan

A specialist on Myanmar

Larry Jagan is a specialist on Myanmar and a former BBC World Service News editor for the region.

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