Pope salutes Myanmar youth as protesters decorate Easter eggs

Pope salutes Myanmar youth as protesters decorate Easter eggs

This photo taken and received courtesy of an anonymous source on Sunday shows protesters holding up eggs to coincide with Easter Sunday and making the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Taunggyi in Myanmar's Shan state. (Photo by Handout / ANONYMOUS / AFP)
This photo taken and received courtesy of an anonymous source on Sunday shows protesters holding up eggs to coincide with Easter Sunday and making the three-finger salute during a demonstration against the military coup in Taunggyi in Myanmar's Shan state. (Photo by Handout / ANONYMOUS / AFP)

Anti-coup demonstrators in Myanmar decorated boiled eggs on Sunday, as Pope Francis in his Easter message expressed solidarity with the country's youth.

Myanmar has been gripped by turmoil since a Feb 1 coup ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi and derailed the country's tentative transition to democracy.

Security forces have sought to quell a mass uprising with lethal force and the death toll reached 557 as of Saturday, according to local monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

On Easter, decorated eggs became the latest emblem of resistance as scores of Myanmar protesters painted political messages on them and left them on neighbour's doorsteps.

Pictures posted on social media showed eggs adorned with images of Suu Kyi and three-finger salutes -- a protest gesture -- while others said "save our people" and "democracy".

"I am Buddhist but I have joined this campaign because it is easy to get a hold of eggs. I spent almost one hour decorating my eggs," a Yangon-based protester told AFP.

"I am praying for Myanmar's current situation to get back to democracy."

Delivering his Easter message at the St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday, Pope Francis singled out Myanmar youth "committed to supporting democracy and making their voices heard peacefully, in the knowledge that hatred can be dispelled only by love".

Myanmar's most senior Catholic, Cardinal Charles Bo, also shared an Easter message on Twitter: "Jesus has risen: Hallelujah - Myanmar will rise again!"

Protesters also hit the streets again Sunday, some carrying flags and riding motorbikes.

In Pyinmana, a town in Naypyidaw region, security forces opened fire on demonstrators.

"A man who was in the walking crowd got hit and killed. Another one was also shot," a resident told AFP.

A 30-year-old protester was also killed in the early hours of Sunday morning in a small town in northern Kachin state.

"They shot him at the roadside. He was wounded and died later. They took away his dead body this morning at 6 a.m.," an eye witness told AFP.

The military junta insists security forces are "exercising utmost restraint," as they respond to the protests, state-run newspaper Myawady reported Sunday.

In Pyay, a town in Bago region, people plastered photos of Myanmar children killed since early February on a billboard and on fences.

- Total to stay -

While foreign companies have faced growing calls to sever ties with the junta, French energy giant Total announced Sunday it will not halt gas production in coup-hit Myanmar.

Chief executive Patrick Pouyanne said Total has a duty to stay the course.

"Can a company like Total decide to cut off the electricity supply to millions of people -- and in so doing, disrupt the operation of hospitals, businesses?" he told the Journal du Dimanche.

Pouyanne said he was "outraged by the repression" in Myanmar but would refuse to "act to the detriment of our local employees and the Burmese population who are already suffering so much."

Unrest -- supported by a widespread strike by civil servants -- has crippled Myanmar's economy, leaving gas exports as one of the junta's main sources of revenue.

The military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise has partnerships with Total and US rival Chevron and generates annual revenues of around $1 billion from the sale of natural gas.

Total paid about $230 million to the Myanmar authorities in 2019 and $176 million in 2020 in taxes and "production rights", according to the company's financial statements.

The company has not yet paid taxes -- worth around $4 million per month -- to the junta because the banking system has ceased to operate, Pouyanne said.

But he said Total rejected calls to put the taxes into an escrow account, saying it could put local managers at risk of arrest or imprisonment.

- More arrests -

At least 2,658 civilians are in detention across the country, according to AAPP.

This weekend, Myanmar authorities issued arrest warrants for 40 celebrities -- most of whom are in hiding.

Meanwhile, ten rebel groups held online talks over the weekend about Myanmar's crisis, fanning fears that a broader conflict could erupt in a country long plagued by fighting between the military and the ethnic armies.

In a statement issued on Sunday, the groups demanded an end to the bloodshed, called for the release of political prisoners and expressed support for the ongoing civil disobedience movement.

It also backed protesters' demand for an overhaul of the military-scripted 2008 constitution, however, there was no mention about pulling out of a 2015 national ceasefire agreement.

The country's 20 odd ethnic armed groups control large areas of territory, mostly in border regions.

About 300 Myanmar citizens, some wearing their ethnic group's traditional costumes, protested on Sunday in Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai against a lack of international intervention in Myanmar's crisis.

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