Myanmar Buddhist group signals break with authorities after violent crackdown

Buddhist monks stand in front of protesters holding signs during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon, on March 14, 2021 PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (REUTERS) - The most powerful group of Buddhist monks in Myanmar called on the junta to end violence against protesters and accused an "armed minority" of torture and killing innocent civilians following last month's coup, media reported on Wednesday (March 17).

In its most forthright condemnation of the military's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, the government-appointed body also said in a draft statement its members intended to halt activities in an apparent protest.

The State Sahgha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana) planned to release a final statement after consulting the religious affairs minister on Thursday, the Myanmar Now news portal reported, citing a monk who attended a meeting of the committee.

Monks have a long history of activism in Myanmar and were at the forefront of a 2007 "Saffron Revolution" against military rule, an uprising which, though suppressed, helped usher in democratic reforms.

Mahana members could not immediately be reached for comment, but their reported stance signals a rift with the authorities by a group that usually works closely with the government.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military ousted Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government on Feb 1 and detained her and other members of her party, drawing wide international condemnation.

More than 180 protesters have been killed as security forces try to crush a wave of demonstrations, according to the activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

On Tuesday night, security forces fired shots and one 28-year-old man was killed at a demonstration in the commercial capital of Yangon, a brother of the victim said.

While the security forces have focused on stamping out dissent in the main city of Yangon, small protests are being held elsewhere.

Several hundred people gathered with protest signs in Demoso in the east, Pathein in the Irrawaddy river delta and Dawei in the south on Wednesday, pictures on social media showed.

Residents of the second city of Mandalay and the central town of Monywa also reported protests.

In one Yangon neighbourhood, protesters left rows of coconuts on a road, representing people, with a sign that read, "Give back our future!"

A total mobile Internet shutdown made it difficult to verify information and very few in Myanmar have access to Wi-Fi.

A junta spokesman did not answer telephone calls to seek comment.

SPH Brightcove Video
Residents in Yangon were building a complex barricade with sharpened bamboo sticks and sandbags amid ongoing protests and a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations.

Residents flee

Parts of Yangon have been placed under martial law and thousands of residents have fled the industrial suburb of Hlaingthaya where security forces killed 40 people on Sunday and Chinese-financed factories were set ablaze.

"Here is like a war zone, they are shooting everywhere," a labour organiser in the area told Reuters, saying that most residents were too frightened to go outside.

Two doctors said there were still wounded people in need of medical attention in the area, but the army had blocked access.

Chinese state media has warned Beijing could take unspecified action if there are further attacks on Chinese-owned businesses.

Many people in Myanmar believe Beijing is backing the military. Unlike Western powers, China has not condemned the coup and, along with Russia, has prevented the UN Security Council from denouncing the military's actions.

Buddhist monks showing the three-finger salute as they join a rally in a protest against the military coup and to demand the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon, Myanmar, on Feb 8, 2021. PHOT: REUTERS

Treason charges

France said the European Union would approve sanctions against those behind the coup next Monday.

The junta charged with treason an emissary of ousted lawmakers who are attempting to re-establish the civilian government.

Mr Sasa, who goes by a single name and is not in the country, said he was proud to have been charged.

"These generals have committed acts of treason every day," he said in a statement.

The charges, which army-run television said were for encouraging a civil disobedience campaign and calling for sanctions, carry a possible death sentence.

The Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organisation founded by billionaire George Soros, called on Tuesday for the immediate release of a staff member held in Myanmar and said allegations of financial misconduct were false.

State media in Myanmar reported that the authorities had detained an official from the Open Society Myanmar and were looking for 11 other employees on suspicion the group passed funds to opponents of military rule.

The army said it took power after its accusations of fraud in a Nov 8 election won by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy were rejected by the electoral commission. It has promised to hold a new election but has not set a date.

Ms Suu Kyi, 75, has been detained since the coup and faces various charges including illegally importing walkie-talkie radios and infringing coronavirus protocols.

UN team seeks evidence

A UN team of investigators on Myanmar appealed on Wednesday for people to collect and preserve documentary evidence of crimes ordered by the military in order to build cases against its leaders.

"The persons most responsible for the most serious international crimes are usually those in high leadership positions," Mr Nicholas Koumjian, the head of the Geneva-based UN team, said in a statement.

"They are not the ones who physically perpetrate the crimes and often are not even present at the locations where the crimes are committed. To prove their responsibility requires evidence of reports received, orders given and how policies were set."

People with such information should contact the investigators through secure means of communication, he added, citing apps such as Signal or a ProtonMail account.

On Tuesday, the UN human rights office condemned the use of live ammunition against the protesters.

"They are completely unchecked and getting more brutal every day. It's a calculated escalation of brutality," a senior UN official, declining to be identified, said on Wednesday.

The UN investigators are collecting evidence of the use of lethal force, unlawful arrests, torture and detentions of people whose families are not told of their whereabouts, the statement said.

The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar was set up by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 to consolidate evidence of the most serious crimes. It aims to build case files for proceedings in national, regional or international courts.

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