Huge rallies in Myanmar as backlash grows over protester killings

Facebook deletes the military’s main page as the UN condemns deadly violence and Singapore warns of ‘adverse consequences’.

A protester holds a placard as people rally against the military coup, in Yangon on February 20 [Stringer/Reuters]

Tens of thousands of anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of cities and towns across Myanmar, undeterred by the killing of at least two people during a military crackdown on a demonstration in the country’s second-largest city of Mandalay.

The rallies on Sunday came as international condemnation of Myanmar’s military rulers also grew, with Facebook deleting the army’s main page and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres joining the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Singapore in denouncing the shootings at a Mandalay shipyard.

In Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, several thousand young people gathered at two sites to chant slogans, while thousands massed peacefully in Mandalay.

“They aimed at the heads of unarmed civilians. They aimed at our future,” a young protester told the crowd in the central city.

In the town of Myitkyina, which has seen confrontations in recent days, people laid flowers for the dead protesters while young people with banners drove around on motorbikes.

Crowds also marched in the central towns of Monywa and Bagan and in Dawei and Myeik in the south, pictures showed.

Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power on February 1 after alleging fraud in an election that returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to power last November. The takeover, which came a decade after the end of 49 years of strict military rule, has prompted a civil disobedience campaign of strikes and protests across the Southeast Asian nation.

The more than two weeks of protests have been largely peaceful, but tensions escalated on Saturday when soldiers and police fired live rounds at striking workers at Mandalay’s Yadanabon dock.

One victim was shot in the head and died immediately, according to the Frontier Myanmar magazine, while another was shot in the chest and died en route to the hospital. An emergency worker told the AFP news agency 30 others had been wounded, with half of the injuries caused by live rounds.

‘Dangerous escalation’

Thomas Andrews, the UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, said he had received reports that the Tatmadaw’s 33rd Light Infantry Division was involved in the shootings. That unit was responsible for the campaign of mass killings, rape, and arson that forced 730,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic minority into Bangladesh in 2017.

Andrews called the shootings “a dangerous escalation by the junta in what appears to be a war against the people of Myanmar”.

Following the shootings, Guterres, the UN chief, repeated his call for a return to civilian rule and urged all parties in Myanmar to respect the results of the November election.

“The use of lethal force, intimidation and harassment against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable,” he said in a tweet.

“Everyone has a right to peaceful assembly.”

The US, the UK, France and Singapore have all expressed concern, with British foreign secretary Dominic Raab threatening “further action” and the Singaporean foreign ministry calling the shootings “inexcusable”.

“We strongly urge the security forces to exercise utmost restraint to avoid further injuries and loss of lives, and take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation and restore calm,” Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

It added: “If the situation continues to escalate, there will be serious adverse consequences for Myanmar and the region.”

In addition to the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand have announced targeted sanctions on Myanmar’s military leaders, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The European Union said its foreign ministers will meet on Monday to discuss their own measures against the military.

Despite the growing backlash, the Tatmadaw has ignored calls for a return to civilian rule, saying it will hold new elections and hand over power to a winner.

A representative for Facebook also said on Sunday the military’s True News Information Team Page was taken down for “repeated violations” of its community standards prohibiting incitement of violence and coordinating harm.

‘Profound impact’

Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok in neighbouring Thailand, said it was not yet clear if Saturday’s shooting was intended as a “warning shot to protesters across the country or if this is the start of a much wider crackdown”.

“The campaign of civil disobedience appears to be having a fairly profound impact – people are refusing to go to their jobs and that’s affecting the transport systems and the banking systems particularly badly,” he said.

“We understand that the railways in Yangon are now effectively shut down. We’ve heard that flight schedules for domestic flights in Myanmar have closed down, with pilots refusing to turn up. Many civil servants are not going in to work, and while this is a huge problem for the general public, it is also a major problem for the military.

“It seems most people are determined to put up with these discomforts if it forces out the military. That is going to push the military into a corner, where they will either have to come out fighting or they will have to back down.”

The killings on Saturday came a day after a young woman who was shot in the head during a protest on February 9 in the capital, Naypyidaw, died from her wounds.

A funeral for Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, who turned 20 last Thursday as she lay unconscious in a hospital bed, is set to take place in the capital Naypyidaw later on Sunday.

The Tatmadaw said a policeman who sustained injuries during a protest has also died.

Nearly 570 people have been arrested since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.

Aung San Suu Kyi – who has not been seen since she was detained in a dawn raid – has been hit with two charges by the new military government, one of them for possessing unregistered walkie-talkies.

Her hearing is expected on March 1.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies