Protesters defy Myanmar junta's campaign of fear

Protesters defy Myanmar junta's campaign of fear

Military using forced labour to dismantle demonstrators' barricades in Yangon

Security forces remove a barricade across a road in Yankin township in Yangon as a crackdown on demonstrations against the military coup continues. (AFP Photo)
Security forces remove a barricade across a road in Yankin township in Yangon as a crackdown on demonstrations against the military coup continues. (AFP Photo)

YANGON: Protesters took to the streets across Myanmar again on Saturday, defying the junta which has increasingly sought to crush the uprising with a campaign of violence and fear.

The country has been in turmoil since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power in a Feb 1 coup, triggering a nationwide uprising as protesters call for a return to democracy.

So far, more than 230 people have been killed in anti-coup unrest, according to a local monitoring group, as security forces have deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds against anti-coup protesters.

But the movement has pushed ahead — albeit in smaller numbers.

Local media showed protesters in gas masks gathering in northern Shan state, while in the southern coastal city of Dawei, motorists hoisted posters of Aung San Suu Kyi and signs that said “end the dictatorship”.

The protesters in Shan state hoisted home-made shields that said “protect unarmed civilians”.

Outside of protests, crackdowns by security forces continue on the streets and residential areas across Myanmar, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

“Casualties and unprovoked shootings are increasing day by day,” it said.

In the central ruby-producing city of Mogok, the local media outlet Myanmar Now reported that a small quarter’s night guards were shot overnight.

“One died on the spot last night while two others are in critical condition in the hospital,” a rescue team member confirmed to AFP, declining to give more details.

Yangon has emerged as a hotspot for unrest, as security forces armed with guns continue to root out protesters wielding homemade protection gear.

But the resistance movement remains defiant.

“Who says we have to give up because of unequal weapons? We are born for victory,” tweeted prominent activist Ei Thinzar Maung, with the hashtag #SpringRevolution.

Tom Andrews, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said the junta could not defeat a population “united in peaceful opposition” against its rule.

“Desperate, it launches ruthless attacks to provoke a violent response to try and justify even more violence,” he tweeted Saturday.

“It’s not working. The world must respond by cutting their access to money and weapons. Now.”

Urban war zone

Makeshift barricades of bamboo, brick and burning rubber tyres have lent the streets of Myanmar’s largest city the look of an urban war zone, and now the military are forcing civilians to dismantle them, piece by piece … at gunpoint.

Constructed using any material to hand, the barriers that have sprung up across Yangon offer scant protection against the live rounds the security forces have resorted to with increasing frequency and lethal effect.

The protesters have the numbers, but no real means of fighting the tear gas, rubber bullets and rifle fire of the army and police.

The barricades have become something of a protester trademark, blocking main roads and employing everything from sand-filled cement bags and bamboo screens to large, wheely garbage bins and housing bricks.

They have been partially successful in slowing down the movement of the security forces, who are now intent on forcing local residents — including those not involved in the protests — to dismantle and remove them.

Tun Hla, 60, was at home when armed personnel banged on his door and demanded he work on clearing a barrier erected in his neighbourhood.

“I have experienced this kind of situation before and it shouldn’t happen again,” Tun Hla, not his real name, told AFP.

During an earlier junta regime, it was typical for military personnel across the country to order families to provide one able-bodied person to perform backbreaking work.

“This use of forced labour is nothing new in Myanmar,” said John Quinley of Fortify Rights, adding that it was a “brutal tactic used to create an environment of fear and intimidation”.

Despite being afflicted with chronic back pain, Tun Hla had no option but to follow the orders of the armed guards and — hiding his children at home — joined his neighbours in removing the sandbags and bamboo poles piled up in the street.

“I was worried for my children since … there are young people dying,” he said.

Martial law has been imposed in six Yangon districts, effectively placing nearly two million people under the direct control of military commanders.

'Deplorable situation'

Myanmar's regional neighbours on Friday condemned the escalating violence, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo calling for a high-level regional meeting "to discuss the crisis".

"Indonesia urges that the use of violence in Myanmar stop to avoid more victims," he said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin echoed the need for an "emergency" summit among the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"I am appalled by the persistent use of lethal violence against unarmed civilians ... The use of live ammunition against peaceful protests is unacceptable," he said in a statement Friday.

"This deplorable situation must stop immediately."

Thailand's Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, urged the military to hold talks with the protesters before conditions get any worse.

International condemnation by the United States, former colonial power Britain and the United Nations has so far failed to slow the violence.

European Union foreign ministers are set to approve sanctions on Monday against 11 junta officials, according to EU diplomats.

Information blackout

Since the military took over in February, the junta has sunk Myanmar further into isolation, throttling mobile data this week that left citizens without WiFi capabilities in an information blackout.

It has also instated a nightly internet shutdown for more than a month.

Security forces have also gone after the country's press corps, raiding multiple newsrooms and arresting more than 30 since the coup, according to AAPP.

A Burmese journalist, Aung Thura, with BBC's Myanmar language service was taken away by men on Friday in the capital Nay Pyi Taw while reporting outside a court.

"The British Embassy ... shares the BBC's concerns about missing BBC Burmese journalist Aung Thura," the embassy said on Friday. "We echo the call for the authorities to help confirm his location and that he is safe."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Saturday once again condemned as "unacceptable" the killing of demonstrators and "arbitrary arrests in Myanmar, including of journalists".

"The continuing brutal violence by the military in Myanmar must stop," he said in a tweet.


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