KUALA LUMPUR/YANGON (REUTERS) - Protesters in Myanmar clapped together in a show of dissent against the military junta on Monday (April 5) as a regional bloc prepared for talks on the crisis that has killed nearly 600 people.
Asean chair Brunei on Monday threw its support behind a regional leaders' meeting to discuss developments in Myanmar and said it has asked officials to prepare for a meeting in Jakarta.
Myanmar has been in crisis since a Feb 1 military coup that ousted the elected government of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. Activists say at least 557 people have since been killed in a crackdown by security forces on protests and strikes across the country, where the junta has restricted Internet access.
Indonesia has led efforts by members of Asean, of which Myanmar is a member, to encourage a negotiated solution despite a longstanding policy of not commenting on each other’s domestic problems.
In a joint statement with Malaysia, Brunei said both countries have asked their ministers and senior officials to undertake "necessary preparations for the meeting that will be held at the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia".
The statement followed a meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah on Monday.
"Both leaders agreed for Asean leaders to meet to discuss the ongoing developments in Myanmar," they said. They did not say when the meeting would be held.
Both leaders expressed concern over the rising number of fatalities in Myanmar.
“They urged all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to immediately exercise utmost restraint and flexibility,” according to the statement.
Asean operates by consensus but the divergent views of its 10 members on how to respond to the army’s use of lethal force against civilians and the group’s policy of non-interference has limited its ability to act.
Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore have all expressed alarm over the killings of demonstrators and support an urgent high-level meeting on Myanmar.
Their foreign ministers each separately held talks last week with their counterpart in China, Myanmar’s influential northern neighbour.
Protesters clap to denounce junta
Meanwhile, protesters in Myanmar clapped together in a show of dissent against the military junta on Monday.
Clapping began in various parts of the main city Yangon at 5pm (1030 GMT) in response to a call by protest organisers, residents said.
The gesture would honour “Ethnic Armed Organisations and Gen Z defence youths from Myanmar including Yangon who are fighting in the revolution... on behalf of us,” Ei Thinzar Maung, a protest leader, wrote on Facebook.
Despite the killing of at least 564 people by the security forces since the Feb 1 coup, protesters have come out across the country every day to voice opposition to the overthrow of the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the return of military rule.
The movement, which some protesters are calling a “spring revolution”, has included street marches, a civil disobedience campaign of strikes, and quirky acts of rebellion organised via social media.
In addition to the crackdown on the streets, the junta has sought to suppress the campaign by shutting down wireless broadband and mobile data services.
On Monday, one person was killed in the central Sagaing region when security forces broke up a protest, the Myanmar Now news outlet reported.
Earlier, demonstrators with placards of Suu Kyi and signs calling for international intervention marched through the second-biggest city Mandalay, images posted on social media showed.
Junta rebuts UN envoy
The junta said on Monday that comments last week by UN Special Envoy Christine Schraner Burgener about an impending“bloodbath” in Myanmar were inaccurate and misleading.
“Ms Burgener’s remarks contravene the basic principles of sovereignty, and the fact that the United Nations is meant to work towards peace and stability of the world’s nations,” it said in a notice in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.
Schraner Burgener told the UN Security Council on March 31 it must consider “potentially significant action” to reverse the course of events as “a bloodbath is imminent.”
The junta said the remarks were a “a far cry from reality and could delay and destabilise the efforts by the State Administration Council to establish a genuine and disciplined multiparty democracy”.
The coup and subsequent crackdown has led to Western sanctions on the military and its lucrative businesses. Fitch Solutions said on Monday a conservative forecast for Myanmar’s economy would be for a 20 per cent contraction in the fiscal year that began in October, instead of the 2 per cent seen before the coup.
People arrested for speaking to CNN freed
External pressure is growing on the military to stop the violence, with some countries calling for it to cede power and free all detainees, and others urging dialogue and new elections soon. A total of 2,667 people have been detained under the junta, the Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group said on Monday.
The RFA news service said 11 people arrested last week for speaking to a visiting CNN news crew had been freed.
CNN said it knew that eight of the 11 had been freed. The junta has also announced arrest warrants for about 80 celebrities, social media influencers, journalists, models and musicians on charges of incitement. The military, which ruled for half a century until 2011, has also seen fighting with armed ethnic minorities reignite on at least two fronts.