Myanmar: Fear of crackdown as military deploys tanks, shots fired

Security forces urged to refrain from violence after opening fire on anti-coup protesters amid reports of an internet shutdown.

An armoured vehicle drives next to the Sule Pagoda, following days of mass protests against the military coup, in Yangon on February 14, 2021 [Thet Htoo/AFP]

Armoured vehicles have rolled into Myanmar cities and internet access has been largely cut off amid fears of a crackdown on anti-coup protesters after nine days of mass demonstrations demanding a return to civilian rule.

In a statement, United Nations’ Secretary General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” about the situation in the country “including the increasing use of force and the reported deployment of additional armoured vehicles to major cities.”

Western embassies – from the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and 11 other nations – earler released a statement calling on security forces to “refrain from violence against demonstrators and civilians, who are protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government”.

“We support the people of Myanmar in their quest for democracy, freedom, peace and prosperity. The world is watching,” the statement said.

In the early hours of Monday, internet blockage monitor NetBlocks said “a near-total internet shutdown was in effect in Myanmar as of 1am local time”, confirming a warning by the US embassy in Myanmar over a telecommunication interruption overnight between 1am and 9am.

All four major telecommunications networks were inaccessible, residents told Reuters news agency.

Earlier on Sunday, soldiers were deployed to power plants in the northern state of Kachin, leading to a confrontation with demonstrators, some of who said they believed the army intended to cut off the electricity.

Security forces opened fire to disperse protesters outside one plant in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, footage aired live on Facebook showed, although it was not clear if they were using rubber bullets or live fire.

As evening fell, armoured vehicles appeared in the country’s largest city of Yangon, Myitkyina and Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, live footage aired online by local media showed, the first large-scale roll-out of such vehicles across the country since the February 1 coup.

On Monday, more than a dozen police trucks with four water cannon vehicles were deployed near the Sule Pagoda in Yangon, which has been one of the city’s main centres for protest.

The government and army could not be reached for comment.

The US embassy in Myanmar urged American citizens to “shelter in place”, citing reports of the military movements in Yangon, while the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar warned the generals that they would be “held accountable” for any suppression of the civil disobedience campaign.

“It’s as if the generals have declared war on the people of Myanmar,” Tom Andrews wrote on Twitter. “These are signs of desperation. Attention generals: You WILL be held accountable.”

As well as the mass protests across Myanmar, which continued for a ninth day on Sunday, the country’s military rulers have been faced with a strike by civil workers, part of a civil disobedience movement to protest against the coup that deposed the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The Nobel laureate’s detention, on charges of importing walkie-talkies, is due to expire on Monday.

Trains in parts of the country stopped running after staff refused to go to work, local media reported, while the military deployed soldiers to power plants where they were confronted by angry crowds.

The military government ordered civil servants to go back to work, threatening action. The army has been carrying out nightly mass arrests and on Saturday gave itself sweeping powers to detain people and search private property.

But hundreds of railway workers joined demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday, even as police went to their housing compound on the outskirts of the city to order them back to work. The police were forced to leave after angry crowds gathered, according to a live broadcast by Myanmar Now.

Richard Horsey, a Myanmar-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the work of many government departments had effectively ground to a halt.

“This has the potential to also affect vital functions – the military can replace engineers and doctors, but not power grid controllers and central bankers,” he said.

Many of the protesters nationwide held up images of Aung San Suu Kyi’s face.

Neighbourhood watch brigades

In Yangon, many areas have begun forming neighbourhood watch brigades to monitor their communities overnight – in defiance of a curfew – and to prevent the arrests of residents joining the civil disobedience movement.

Some have also expressed fears that a mass prisoner amnesty this week was orchestrated to release inmates into the public to stir up trouble while freeing up space in overcrowded jails for political detainees.

“We don’t trust anyone at this time, especially those with uniforms,” Myo Ko Ko, a member of a street patrol in Yangon, told the AFP news agency.

Near the city’s central train station, residents rolled tree trunks onto a road to block police vehicles and escorted away officers who were attempting to return striking railway employees to work.

Tin Myint, a Yangon resident, was among the crowds who detained a group of four people suspected of carrying out an attack in the neighbourhood.

“We think the military intends to cause violence with these criminals by infiltrating them into peaceful protests,” he said.

He cited pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, when the military was widely accused of releasing criminals into the population to stage attacks, later citing the unrest as a justification for extending their own power.

The army had on Saturday reinstated a law requiring people to report overnight visitors to their homes, allowed security forces to detain suspects and search private property without court approval, and ordered the arrest of well-known backers of mass protests.

The country’s new military leadership has so far been unmoved by a torrent of international condemnation.

An emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday called for the new military government to release all “arbitrarily detained” people and for the military to hand power back to Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration.

Traditional allies of the country’s armed forces, including Russia and China, have distanced themselves from what they have described as interference in Myanmar’s “internal affairs”.

The military rulers insist they took power lawfully and have instructed journalists in the country not to refer to itself as a government that took power in a coup.

“We inform … journalists and news media organisations not to write to cause public unrest,” said a notice sent by the information ministry to the country’s foreign correspondents’ club late on Saturday.

The military launched the coup after what it claimed was widespread fraud in a November election, won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in a landslide. The electoral commission had rejected those claims.

Some 400 people have been arrested since the coup, according to the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which keeps track of the mostly nightly arrests. Of those, 375 people remain in detention, it said.

The UN is urging the generals to allow Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener to visit Myanmar and assess the situation.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies