NAYPYITAW • Myanmar's most powerful Buddhist monks' association yesterday called on the junta to end the violence against anti-coup demonstrators, threatening to stage a protest of its own as cities and towns across the country turn into battle zones.
The call came as a United Nations team of investigators on Myanmar appealed yesterday for people to collect and preserve documentary evidence of crimes ordered by the military since the Feb 1 coup, to build future cases against its leaders.
Those with information should contact the investigators through secure means of communication, said Mr Nicholas Koumjian, head of the UN team, citing apps such as Signal or a ProtonMail account.
In its most forthright condemnation of the military's bloody crackdown, the government-appointed State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee accused an "armed minority" of torture and killing innocent civilians since last month's coup.
It said that it planned to release a final statement after consulting the religious affairs minister today, the Myanmar Now news portal said, citing a monk who attended a meeting of the committee.
The organisation also said in a draft statement that its members intended to halt activities, in an apparent protest.
Monks have a long history of activism in Myanmar and were at the forefront of a 2007 "Saffron Revolution" against military rule, an uprising that, although suppressed, helped usher in democratic reforms.
Committee members could not be reached for comment, but their reported stance would signal a significant rift.
The monks' apparent backing for the protesters came as an exodus of thousands of residents continued from the suburb of Hlaingthaya, where security forces killed 40 people on Sunday and Chinese-financed factories were set ablaze.
Workers said the violence erupted after a dispute over pay at a Chinese-owned factory in the industrial zone. The owner allegedly called the security forces, who shot dead a woman labour leader and then at least four people, sparking the arson attacks.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said yesterday Myanmar should take "more concrete and more vigorous" measures to ensure the safety of Chinese citizens and companies there.
Separately, the Global Times refuted a report that said Chinese state enterprises with operations in Myanmar had received orders to evacuate non-essential staff. Many people in Myanmar believe Beijing is backing the military.
Those who stayed behind in Hlaingthaya reported scenes akin to war. "There were constant gunshots the entire night and we didn't get to sleep," one resident said.
In a residential area of a neighbouring township, video footage showed volleys of gunfire going non-stop for roughly 15 seconds.
Elsewhere in Yangon, social media footage showed protesters confronting security forces over a sandbag barricade.
Police opened intermittent fire and one man appeared to be shot in the head.
Several hundred people also gathered with protest signs in Demoso in the east, Pathein in the Irrawaddy river delta and Dawei in the south yesterday, pictures on social media showed.
Residents of the second-largest city of Mandalay and the central town of Monywa also reported protests. Two protesters were killed in the central town of Kale, the BBC reported.
In a related development, the junta has charged the acting leader of a parallel civilian government, Mr Mahn Win Khaing Than, with treason, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported.
The senior member of imprisoned Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party is on the run.
He was appointed this month by a panel of ousted lawmakers pushing for recognition as the rightful government.
The junta charged the lawmakers' foreign affairs emissary with treason this week.
Meanwhile, France has said the European Union will approve sanctions against those behind the coup next Monday.
Pope Francis again called for an end to violence in Myanmar yesterday, referencing a nun who fell to her knees to beg armed police for mercy in Myitkyina city.
"I, too, kneel on the streets of Myanmar and say, 'end the violence,'" the 84-year-old Pontiff said during his weekly audience, although he did not directly reference the nun.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE