More Myanmar protests held as South Korea suspends defence exchanges

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, on March 11, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

YANGON (REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - Myanmar activists held more rallies against the junta on Friday (March 12) as South Korea said it would suspend defence exchanges and reconsider development aid to the Southeast Asian nation because of the military's harsh crackdown on the protests.

Friday's rallies came a day after a rights group said security forces killed 12 protesters and as the lawyer of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi ridiculed new bribery allegations against her.

The deaths took to more than 70 the number of protesters killed since the coup, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) advocacy group said.

"Despite repeated demands of the international community, including South Korea, there are an increasing number of victims in Myanmar due to violent acts of the military and police authorities," South Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said Seoul would suspend defence exchanges, ban arms exports, limit exports of other strategic items, reconsider development aid and grant humanitarian exemptions allowing Myanmar nationals to stay in South Korea until the situation improved.

Protests were held in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, and several other towns on Friday, according to photographs posted on social media by witnesses and local news organisations. There were no immediate reports of violence.

Former colonial ruler Britain on Friday advised its citizens to get out of Myanmar if they could, warning that "political tension and unrest are widespread since the military takeover and levels of violence are rising".

"The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office advises British nationals to leave the country by commercial means, unless there is an urgent need to stay," the British foreign ministry said.

The South-east Asian country has been in crisis since the army ousted Ms Suu Kyi's elected government in a Feb 1 coup, detained her and officials of her National League for Democracy party and set up a ruling junta of generals.

Junta spokesman, Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, said on Thursday Ms Suu Kyi had accepted illegal payments worth US$600,000 (S$803,000), as well as gold, while in government, according to a complaint by Mr Phyo Mien Thein, a former chief minister of Yangon.

Adding corruption charges to the accusations against Ms Suu Kyi could mean she faces a harsher penalty. She currently faces four comparatively minor charges - including illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and flouting coronavirus restrictions.

"This accusation is the most hilarious joke," Ms Suu Kyi's lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said in a statement posted on social media. "She might have other weaknesses but she doesn't have weakness in moral principle."

In Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, protester Chit Min Thu was killed in the North Dagon district. His wife, Ms Aye Myat Thu, told Reuters he had insisted on joining the protests despite her appeals for him to stay home for the sake of their son.

"He said it's worth dying for," she said through her tears. "He is worried about people not joining the protest. If so, democracy will not return to the country."

The bloodshed also came hours after the United Nations Security Council had called for restraint from the army, which has been trying to put down daily anti-coup protests and paralysing strikes.

Pro-democracy activists urged people not to be cowed and in posts on social media, called for night demonstrations on Friday and for strikes and civil disobedience campaigns that have paralysed swathes of the economy to continue.

Candlelight vigils by protesters in defiance of a curfew have occurred more frequently in recent weeks.

'Crimes against humanity'

Thursday's deaths brought the number of protesters killed since the coup to more than 70, the AAPP said. Some 2,000 people have also been detained since the coup, it says.

UN human rights investigator Thomas Andrews told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva the military may have committed crimes against humanity. He called for multilateral sanctions on the junta and the state energy firm, Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise.

The army did not respond to requests for comment on the latest deaths but the junta spokesman said on Thursday the security forces were disciplined and used force only when necessary.

Amnesty International accused the army of using lethal force against protesters and said many killings it had documented amounted to extra-judicial executions.

Ms Suu Kyi, 75, fought for decades to overturn military rule under previous juntas before the start of tentative democratic reforms in 2011. She had spent a total of around 15 years under house arrest.

The army has justified taking power by saying that a November election, overwhelmingly won by Ms Suu Kyi's party, was marred by fraud - an assertion rejected by the electoral commission.

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun reiterated the military would only be in charge for a certain period before holding an election. The junta has said a state of emergency will last for a year, but has not set a date for the election.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.