YANGON (REUTERS) - International pressure on Myanmar’s military junta to halt its repression of pro-democracy protests following last month’s coup increased on Friday (March 19) but on the streets, security forces shot dead at least nine demonstrators in an unrelenting crackdown.
Calls for dialogue and the end to the bloodshed came from several of Myanmar’s South-east Asian neighbours led by Indonesia - an unusual stance in regional diplomacy.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned what he denounced as the military’s continuing brutal violence. A “firm, unified international response” was urgently needed, he said, quoted by his spokesman.
The US House of Representatives approved legislation condemning the coup and lawmakers decried the increasingly harsh tactics used to suppress the demonstrations that have swept over Myanmar since the overthrow of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb 1.
The total number of people killed in weeks of unrest has risen to at least 234, based on a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group.
But crowds of protesters turned out again on Friday.
Security forces opened fire in the central town of Aungban as they tried to clear a protesters’ barricade, media and a witness reported.
“Security forces came to remove barriers but the people resisted and they fired,” the witness, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.
An official with Aungban’s funeral service told Reuters eight people were killed, seven on the spot and one wounded person who died after being taken to hospital.
The spokesman for the junta was not available for comment but has previously said security forces have used force only when necessary.
One protester was killed in the northeastern town of Loikaw, the Myanmar Now news portal said. One person was shot and killed in Myanmar’s main city Yangon, social media posts showed.
Reuters could not confirm that death.
Police ordered people in some Yangon neighbourhoods to dismantle barricades and have been hunting for protest leaders, residents said. Parts of Yangon are under martial law.
Demonstrators were also out in the second city of Mandalay, the central towns of Myingyan and Katha, and Myawaddy in the east, witnesses and media reported.
The military has shown no sign of being swayed and has defended its takeover, which derailed a slow transition to democracy in a country that has been ruled by the army for most of its post-independence history.
It says a Nov 8 election won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was fraudulent and its claims were ignored by the electoral commission. It has promised a new election but not set a date and has placed Myanmar under a state of emergency.
Suu Kyi, 75, faces accusations of bribery and other crimes that could see her banned from politics and jailed if convicted.
Her lawyer says the charges are trumped up. The Nobel peace laureate, who has campaigned for democracy in Myanmar for three decades, is being held at an undisclosed location.
Authorities have tightened restricted on internet services, making information increasingly difficult to verify, and also clamped down on private media.
Ambassadors of Western countries condemned the violence as “immoral and indefensible”, in particular in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar industrial district, where dozens were killed over several days after Chinese-owned garment factories were torched last weekend.
“Internet blackouts and suppression of the media will not hide the military’s abhorrent actions,” they said, in a statement on Friday.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo called for an end to the bloodshed.
In some of the strongest comments yet by a regional leader on the crackdown, he said he would ask Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the current chairman of the Association of South-east Asian Nations, to call an urgent meeting.
“Indonesia urges that the use of violence in Myanmar be stopped immediately so that there are no more victims,” Jokowi said in a virtual address.
“The safety and welfare of the people must be the top priority. Indonesia also urges dialogue, that reconciliation is carried out immediately to restore democracy, to restore peace and to restore stability in Myanmar.”
Backing Indonesia’s call for a meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said he was appalled by the persistent use of lethal violence against unarmed civilians.
Philippine foreign minister Teodoro Locsin said that Asean had to act.
The 10 Asean countries have long held to the principle of not commenting on each other’s internal affairs so the words were notable.
The coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, took part in a video conference with regional defence chiefs on Thursday, his first international engagement since seizing power.
At the meeting, the head of Indonesia’s armed forces, Hadi Tjahjanto, expressed concern over the Myanmar situation, the Indonesian military said.
Singapore’s military chief, Lieutenant-General Melvyn Ong, also expressed “grave concern” and urged Myanmar to avoid lethal force, the Singapore defence ministry said.
The US resolution condemned the coup and the detention of Myanmar’s civilian leaders, called for the release of all those detained, and for those elected to serve in parliament to resume their duties.
And in a sign of uneasiness in the business world about the situation, French power group EDF confirmed it had suspended the development of a hydropower project in Myanmar over human rights concerns.
“It is official,” a spokesman for EDF told Reuters.
The European Union is expected to impose sanctions on military leaders and army-run businesses next week, following similar action by Washington.
Three international aid agencies criticised the military for occupying educational facilities and hospitals. More than 60 schools and universities had been taken over, a serious violation of children’s rights, Save the Children, Unesco and Unicef said in a joint statement.
Teachers were beaten in at least one incident, they said.