Myanmar security forces fire on anti-coup protesters as South-east Asian ministers call for peaceful solution

Protesters wearing protective gear gather behind shields during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 1, 2021.
Protesters wearing protective gear gather behind shields during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 1, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP, REUTERS) - Three protesters were critically injured when security forces fired live rounds at anti-coup protesters in north-western Myanmar on Tuesday (March 2), medics said, as regional powers met to pressure the junta over its deadly crackdown.

Authorities have steadily stepped up its use of force, with tear gas, water canon, rubber bullets and, increasingly, live rounds.

In the north-western town of Kale on Tuesday, a rally turned violent when security forces opened fire on protesters, according to medics who witnessed events and treated those wounded. 

“About 20 people were injured in a morning crackdown by police and soldiers in Kale,” said a rescue worker, on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

“Three... were hit by live rounds and are in critical condition,” he said, adding that police had initially deployed tear gas and rubber bullets, before doubling back with live rounds.

A doctor who treated the patients in a local hospital confirmed the number of people in critical condition. 

“One was hit in his thigh and he’s now under operation. Another one got hit in the abdomen and he requires blood transfusions... Another one got hit in the chest,” he told AFP. “His condition is a concern – we do not like it.”

In Myanmar's largest city Yangon,  police fired stun grenades to disperse protesters on Tuesday, witnesses said.

Protesters, many wearing hard hats and clutching makeshift shields, had gathered behind barricades in different parts of Yangon to chant slogans against military rule. 

Crowds also gathered in other parts of the country, media reported. 

"If we’re oppressed, there will be explosion. If we’re hit, we’ll hit back," the crowd chanted at one Yangon protest before police moved in to break up it up with stun grenades, witnesses said. 

There were no reports of any injuries in Yangon. 

At least 21 protesters have been killed since the turmoil began. The army said one policeman was killed.

Tuesday's bloodshed came on the same day as the funeral of a 23-year-old student who died on Sunday. 

The mourners in Yangon sang a revolutionary song as the coffin carrying Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing was taken to an altar.

“No mercy, just bullies – dead bodies are here and there,” the mourners sang in unison as they flashed a three-finger salute. “Oh the brave heroes who died for democracy.”

The coup on Feb 1 halted Myanmar's tentative steps towards democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule, and has drawn condemnation and sanctions from the United States and other Western countries, and growing concern among its neighbours.

The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) on Tuesday called on all parties to refrain from instigating further violence in Myanmar and to seek a peaceful solution.

 A statement issued after an informal meeting of Asean foreign ministers also said that the 10-member bloc stood ready “to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner”.

Asean groups Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

Sunday was the bloodiest day since the Feb 1 coup, with the United Nations saying that at least 18 protesters were killed across the country.

The military justified the coup, saying its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's party were ignored. The election commission said the vote was fair.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in remarks read on state television by a newscaster, said protest leaders and "instigators" would be punished, and threatened action against civil servants refusing to work.

Gen Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold new elections and hand power to the winner, but has given no time frame.

'Utterly unacceptable'

Asean's effort to engage with Myanmar's military has been criticised by supporters of democracy, with a committee of ousted Myanmar lawmakers declaring the junta a "terrorist" group and saying Asean's engagement will give it legitimacy.

Dr Sasa, the committee's anointed envoy to the United Nations, said Asean should have no dealings with "this illegitimate military-led regime".

The alumni of Asean youth programmes in Myanmar said the bloc should be talking to the international representatives of Ms Suu Kyi's administration, not to the regime.

"Asean must understand that the coup or the re-election promised by the military junta is utterly unacceptable to the people of Myanmar," it said it a letter to Asean.

Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin indicated on Twitter that Asean would be firm with Myanmar and said the bloc's policy of non-interference in members' internal affairs "is not a blanket approval or tacit consent for wrong to be done there".

Ms Suu Kyi, 75, appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing on Monday and looked in good health, one of her lawyers said. Two more charges were added to the two filed against her earlier after the coup, the lawyer said.

The Nobel Peace laureate has not been seen in public since her government was toppled and she was detained along with other party leaders.

Hundreds of people have been arrested since the coup, according to activists, the latest a journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma, who live-streamed security forces outside his apartment on Monday in the coastal town of Myeik, where he had been filming protests. DVB confirmed the arrest.

The United States warned Myanmar's military on Monday that it would take more action if security forces kill unarmed people and attack journalists and activists, which State Department spokesman Ned Price called "abhorrent violence".

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was preparing further costs on those responsible for the coup.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said she hoped to use Washington's presidency of the United Nations Security Council in March to push for more "intense discussions" on Myanmar.