March 9, 2021

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UN warns of Myanmar violence, as protesters create gridlock

4 min read

Thousands throng streets of Yangon in bid to shatter military’s claims that coup has widespread public support.

Tom Andrews, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, has said he is “terrified” of an escalation in violence in Myanmar as thousands of people on Wednesday stepped up their campaign against the military coup.

Protesters are calling for big rallies on Wednesday to shatter the army’s claims that it has widespread backing for the February 1 coup and that many people supported its move to seize power from civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was returned to office in a landslide in elections held in November.

The UN’s Andrews said that he had received reports of troop movements around the country and was worried the protesters were facing real danger.

“I fear that Wednesday has the potential for violence on a greater scale in Myanmar than we have seen since the illegal takeover of the government on February 1,” Andrews said in a statement.

“I am terrified that given the confluence of these two developments – planned mass protests and troops converging – we could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar.”

As internet networks came back to life after the third nightly blackout in a row, protests appeared to be attracting more people than in recent days in Yangon, the country’s biggest city.

Crowds of protesters including civil engineers, teachers and other government workers gathered at key locations including the UN office, carrying banners calling for Aung San Suu Kyi to be freed and the military to leave.

There were also mass “breakdowns” as people stopped their vehicles on roads and junctions, some with their bonnets raised in an act of civil disobedience – and their drivers at a loss to explain the problem.

Myanmar’s military has a history of violence and impunity during the decades that it ruled the country before the transition to democracy began 10 years ago.

Armed forces chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led the coup, also directed the 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya in the western state of Rakhine, which the United Nations has said was carried out with “genocidal intent“.

“The security forces’ approach could take an even darker turn fast,” the International Crisis Group warned in a briefing released on Wednesday. “Soldiers and armoured vehicles have begun to reinforce the police lines and, should the generals become impatient with the status quo, could easily become the sharp end of a bloody crackdown, as has happened in the past.”

At a news conference on Tuesday, the generals claimed they had not staged a coup and that their actions were necessary because of fraud in the November election. Those claims have been rejected by the elections commission, whose officials are among hundreds of people the generals have detained since seizing power.

Teachers join protests against the military coup in Myanmar, outside the UN office in Yangon [Nyein Chan Naing/EPA]
Demonstrators call for the end of the military coup, as thousands took to the streets of Yangon on Wednesday after Aung San Suu Kyi was charged for breaching the country’s natural disaster management law [Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

The military insisted they would hold new elections without saying when the polls might take place.

In 1990, the military refused to accept the result after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), then a newly-formed party, swept the elections.

It also used force against protesters in 1988, and in 2007, when a hike in fuel prices triggered mass protests led by Buddhist monks.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not been seen since she was detained on February 1 and is thought to be under house arrest. On Tuesday, she was charged with breaching COVID-19 regulations while campaigning for the elections. She has also been charged with illegally importing walkie-talkies that were found in her home.

The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar is worried the protesters face increasing danger given the size of the demonstrations and reports of troop movements around the country [Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

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