YANGON (REUTERS) - Myanmar police broke up demonstrations against military rule in several places with tear gas and gunfire on Thursday (March 4), a day after the United Nations said 38 people had been killed in the most violent day of unrest since last month's military coup.
In a statement released on Thursday, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Myanmar security forces to "halt their vicious crackdown on peaceful protesters", citing a death toll of "at least 54 people" since Feb 1 and potentially higher numbers. Bachelet also highlighted in the statement that "over 1,700 people have been arbitrarily arrested and detained", with "at least 29 journalists have reportedly been arrested" as well.
Undeterred by the crackdown, activists said they refused to accept the Feb 1 military coup and were determined to press for the release of elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and recognition of her victory in a November election.
"We know that we can always get shot and killed with live bullets but there is no meaning to staying alive under the junta," activist Maung Saungkha told Reuters.
Police later opened fire to break up a protest in the town of Pathein, to the west of Yangon, early on Thursday, media reported, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
On Wednesday, police and soldiers opened fire with live rounds with little warning in several cities and towns, witnesses said, a day after neighbouring countries had called on the junta to show restraint.
Police later also used tear gas to break up protests in Yangon and the central town of Monywa, according to witnesses. Police also fired in the town of Pathein, to the west of Yangon, media reported.
Protesters gathered elsewhere including in the historic temple town of Bagan where hundreds marched carrying pictures of Suu Kyi and a banner saying: "Free our leader", a witness said.
In some parts of Yangon, protesters hung sheets and sarongs on lines across the street to obscure the view of police aiming their guns. They also uncoiled barbed wire to reinforce barricades.
Five fighter jets made several low passes in formation over the second city of Mandalay early on Thursday, residents said, in what appeared to be a show of military might.
On Wednesday, police and soldiers opened fire with live rounds with little warning in several cities and towns, witnesses said.
UN special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said in New York that Wednesday was the bloodiest day since the Feb 1 coup with 38 deaths, bringing the total toll to more than 50 as the military tries to cement its power.
"Myanmar's security forces now seem intent on breaking the back of the anti-coup movement through wanton violence and sheer brutality," said Mr Richard Weir, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
In one particularly brutal incident, a man in custody appeared to have been shot in the back, the group said.
A spokesman for the ruling military council did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party said in a statement that flags would fly at half mast at its offices to commemorate the dead.
Ms Schraner Burgener said she warned Myanmar deputy military chief Soe Win that the military was likely to face strong measures from some countries and isolation in retaliation for the coup.
"The answer was: 'We are used to sanctions, and we survived'," she told reporters. "When I also warned they will go (into) isolation, the answer was: 'We have to learn to walk with only few friends'."
The UN Security Council is due to discuss the situation on Friday in a closed meeting, diplomats said.
UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said the "systematic brutality" of the military was again on display.
"I urge members of the UN Security Council to view the photos/videos of the shocking violence being unleashed on peaceful protesters before meeting," he said on Twitter.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States was "appalled" by the violence and was evaluating how to respond.
The United States has told China it expects Beijing to play a constructive role, the spokesman said. China has declined to condemn the coup, with Chinese state media calling it a "major Cabinet reshuffle".
The European Union said the shootings of unarmed civilians and medical workers were clear breaches of international law. It also said the military was stepping up repression of the media, with a growing number of journalists arrested and charged.
'Everything will be ok'
In Yangon, witnesses said at least eight people were killed on Wednesday, while local media reported six were killed in the central town of Monywa.
"I heard so much continuous firing. I lay down on the ground, they shot a lot," protester Kaung Pyae Sone Tun, 23, told Reuters.
Save the Children said four children were killed including a 14-year-old boy who Radio Free Asia reported was shot dead by a soldier on a passing convoy of military trucks. The soldiers loaded his body onto a truck and left, according to the report.
Security forces breaking up protests in Yangon detained about 300 protesters, the Myanmar Now news agency reported.
Images of a 19-year-old woman, one of two shot dead in Mandalay, showed her wearing a T-shirt that read "Everything will be OK".
Police in Yangon ordered three medics out of an ambulance and beat them with gun butts and batons, video broadcast by US-funded Radio Free Asia showed. Reuters was unable to verify the video independently.
The military justified the coup by saying its complaints of voter fraud in the Nov 8 vote were ignored. Ms Suu Kyi's party won by a landslide, earning a second term.
The election commission said the vote was fair.
Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold new elections but given no time frame.
Suu Kyi, 75, has been held incommunicado since the coup but appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing this week and looked in good health, a lawyer said.