Anti-coup protests rock Myanmar for fifth day despite bloodshed

Teachers flash the three-finger salute during a protest in front of the US Embassy in Yangon on Feb 10, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

YANGON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - Protesters took to the streets of Myanmar for a fifth straight day on Wednesday (Feb 10), even after a woman was critically injured in clashes with police the previous day.

The protesters appealed directly to China's President Xi Jinping to withdraw Beijing's support for Myanmar's junta, which has seized power in a coup and ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The United Nations' human rights body, meanwhile, prepared to consider a resolution tomorrow to condemn the coup and demand urgent access to Myanmar.

"We cannot stay quiet," said youth leader Esther Ze Naw. "If there is blood shed during our peaceful protests, then there will be more if we let them (the junta) take over the country."

Thousands of people joined protests in Yangon on Wednesday. In the capital, Naypyitaw, hundreds of government workers marched in support of a growing civil disobedience campaign.

A group of police in Kayah state joined the march in uniform, with a sign that read: "We don't want dictatorship."

There were no reports of violence on Wednesday, but soldiers took over a clinic that had been treating wounded protesters in Naypyitaw.

A doctor said a woman protester was expected to die from a gunshot wound to the head sustained during a Tuesday confrontation with police in Naypyitaw. She was hurt when police fired, mostly into the air, to clear the protesters.

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Social media video showed her with other protesters some distance from a row of riot police as a water cannon sprayed and several shots could be heard. The woman, wearing a motorcycle helmet, suddenly collapsed. Pictures of her helmet showed what appeared to be a bullet hole.

Three other people were being treated for wounds from suspected rubber bullets.

Protesters were also hurt in Mandalay and other cities, where security forces used water cannon and arrested dozens.

Four policemen were injured on Tuesday as they tried to disperse protesters, some of whom threw stones and bricks, the military said.

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The sister of a teenage girl shot in the head by police at a protest in Myanmar has spoken of her heartbreak.

"Now we see the military takes brutal action against us," said interpreter Htet Shar Ko. "But we young people will keep fighting against the regime under our motto - military dictatorship must fail."

Protesters appeal to China's Xi

Outside China's embassy in Yangon, protesters pleaded with President Xi to help reverse the coup, while others held signs reading "we are watching you" and "we know what you're up to".

Protesters also gathered in front of the UN offices and foreign embassies in a bid to get international support for the return of a civilian government.

"Our aim is just to convey our message to the world's top leaders... so that they don't support and interact with the military junta," said student Kyaw Soe Thu, 22. "We are not worried about water cannons and gun shots because the military dares not do so in front of these embassies."

As Myanmar's biggest trading partner, China has bolstered its relationship with the military in recent years amid a push to develop Belt and Road Initiative projects.

Even as the United Nations Security Council last week called for the "immediate release" of all those detained by the military, China's diplomats sought to strike a balance by issuing a separate statement noting that it is still a "friendly neighbour" to Myanmar.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Wednesday rubbished rumours that Beijing was sending equipment and experts to censor the Internet in Myanmar as "untrue".

"We hope that all parties in Myanmar will bear in mind the larger picture of their national stability... and development and exercise restraint and properly deal with their differences within a constitutional and legal framework so as to preserve political and social stability," Mr Wang said.

Junta leader seeks out Thai PM

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said Myanmar's new junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing had written to him for help to support democracy in the country.

"We are supportive of the democratic process in Myanmar but what is most important today is to maintain good relations because it impacts the people, the economy, border trade, particularly now," said Mr Prayut, who himself first seized power in a coup in 2014. "Thailand supports the democratic process. The rest is up to him to see how to proceed."

Meanwhile, the United States and UN condemned Tuesday's use of force against the Myanmar protesters and called on the authorities to respect the people's right to protest peacefully.

The US State Department said it was reviewing assistance to Myanmar to ensure those responsible for the coup face "significant consequences".

"We repeat our calls for the military to relinquish power, restore democratically elected government, release those detained and lift all telecommunication restrictions and to refrain from violence," spokesman Ned Price said in Washington.

"The use of disproportionate force against demonstrators is unacceptable," said Mr Ola Almgren, the UN representative in Myanmar.

UN contemplates condemning coup

The UN Human Rights Council will on Friday consider a resolution, drafted by Britain and the European Union, to condemn the Myanmar coup and demand urgent access to the country.

The draft resolution - circulating among diplomats amid heavy lobbying - has formal support from 19 members, including Japan and South Korea, at the 47-member forum.

But China and Russia - members of the council with ties to Myanmar's military - have raised concerns over "virtual voting" at the forum, required because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The UN Security Council last week called for the release of Ms Suu Kyi and others detained by the military, but stopped short of condemning the coup.

"It's all a matter of time until there is a big-scale confrontation," said a UN official who declined to be identified.

Dr Avinash Paliwal, a senior lecturer in international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said Myanmar will not be as isolated now as it was in the past, with China, India, Asean and Japan unlikely to cut ties.

"The country is too important geo-strategically for that to happen. The US and other Western countries will put sanctions - but this coup and its ramifications will be an Asian story, not a Western one," Dr Paliwal said.

The protests are Myanmar's largest in more than a decade, reviving memories of almost half a century of direct army rule and spasms of bloody uprisings until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.

The military has imposed restrictions on gatherings and a night curfew in the biggest cities.

The junta justified its takeover on the grounds of fraud in a Nov 8 election that Ms Suu Kyi's NLD party won by a landslide, as expected. The electoral commission dismissed the army's complaints.

Western countries have condemned the coup but taken little concrete action to press for the restoration of democracy.

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