YANGON (REUTERS) - Supporters of ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi clashed with police on Friday (Feb 12) as hundreds of thousands joined nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in defiance of the junta’s call to halt mass gatherings.
Mostly peaceful protests erupted around the South-east Asian country in the biggest mass demonstrations so far against last week’s military coup, a day after Washington slapped sanctions on the generals who led the takeover.
Three people were injured when police fired rubber bullets to break up a crowd of tens of thousands of protesters in the south-eastern town of Mawlamyine, a Red Cross official told Reuters.
Footage broadcast by Radio Free Asia showed police charging at protesters, grabbing one of them and smashing him in the head. Stones are then thrown at police before the shots are fired.
"Three got shot – one woman in the womb, one man on his cheek and one man on his arm," said Red Cross official Kyaw Myint, who witnessed the clash. "The crowd is still growing," he added.
In the biggest city Yangon, hundreds of doctors in white duty coats and scrubs marched past the golden Shwedagon pagoda, the country’s holiest Buddhist site, while in another part of town, football fans wearing team kits marched with humourous placards denouncing the military.
Soldiers broke up a protest in the south-eastern town of Mawlamyine and arrested several people.
In the coastal town of Dawei, the streets were crowded with protesters giving fiery speeches, many carrying red flags with peacocks, a national symbol of pride and resistance.
Thousands also gathered in Myitkyina, the capital of the far northern Kachin state, with young men playing rap music and staging a dance-off.
In the capital of Naypyitaw, some demonstrators put sheets over their heads and dressed as ghosts with sunglasses under the scorching sun. One carried a placard saying "Not all ghosts are scary. But the Burmese police are more frightening".
Social media giant Facebook said it would cut the visibility of content run by Myanmar’s military, saying they have "continued to spread misinformation" after seizing power.
As Washington announced a first round of sanctions, European Union lawmakers called for action from their countries and Britain said it was considering measures to punish the coup leaders.
Supporters of Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) welcomed the US sanctions but said tougher action was needed to push the military out of power and force it to recognise the NLD's landslide victory in November elections.
"We are hoping for more actions than this as we are suffering every day and night of the military coup here in Myanmar, " Ms Suu Kyi supporter Moe Thal, 29, told Reuters.
"We want to finish this ASAP. We may need more punishment and action against Myanmar's acting president and generals."
The coup and the detention of Ms Suu Kyi along with more than 260 others have prompted the biggest demonstrations since a 2007 'Saffron Revolution' that ultimately became a step towards now halted democratic change.
Friday’s protests marked the seventh consecutive day of protests, including one on Thursday outside the Chinese embassy where NLD supporters accused Beijing of backing the junta despite Chinese denials.
Security forces carried out another series of arrests overnight Thursday.
The junta remitted the sentences of more than 23,000 prisoners on Friday, saying the move was consistent with "establishing a new democratic state with peace, development and discipline" and would "please the public".
Among the prisoners released was influential ethnic leader Aye Maung from the western state of Rakhine.
He and writer Wai Hin Aung were arrested in 2018 over allegedly speaking favourably of the Arakan Army, one of the country’s most powerful ethnic armed groups.
They were both found guilty of high treason and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Frontier Myanmar news magazine reported the prisoners given amnesty included four supporters of a gunman who shot dead a prominent Ms Suu Kyi ally and constitutional lawyer in 2017.
One of the four men wished coup leader Gen Min Aung Hlaing "good health" and urged against the protests because "the military is acting according to the law", Frontier Myanmar reported.
The military launched the coup after what it said was widespread fraud in the Nov 8 election. The electoral commission has said there is no evidence of fraud.
Ms Suu Kyi, who was swept to power following a historic election victory in 2015, faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios.
The US sanctions target 10 current and former military officials deemed responsible for the coup, including Gen Min Aung Hlaing. It also blacklisted three gem and jade companies it said were owned or controlled by the military.
The sanctions prevent the named individuals from doing business in the United States, though the military leadership is not known to have major US interests. Washington is also taking steps to prevent the generals from having access to US$1 billion (S$1.33 billion) in Myanmar government funds held in the United States.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the United States was "prepared to take additional action should Burma's military not change course".
Gen Min Aung Hlaing and other top generals are already under US sanctions over abuses against Rohingya Muslims and other minorities.
Mr Derek Mitchell, former US ambassador to Myanmar and president of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute on the US sanctions on Myanmar, said sanctions on military holdings companies were a "de facto blanket sanction" on Myanmar because the firms were so deeply embedded in the economy.
But he said US sanctions alone would have little impact on Myanmar’s generals without "tough messages" from US partners such as Japan, Singapore and India.
"Min Aung Hlaing had already been sanctioned, so ... I don’t think he is concerned about the United States right now," he said.
The UN Human Rights Council is due to discuss Myanmar at a special session on Friday.
The protests have revived memories of almost half a century of direct army rule, punctuated by bloody crackdowns, until the military began relinquishing some power in 2011.
Ms Suu Kyi, 75, won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for campaigning for democracy and remains hugely popular at home despite damage to her international reputation over the plight of the Rohingya.
She spent nearly 15 years under house arrest under previous juntas. Her lawyer says he has not been allowed to see her.
The ruling generals have promised to stick to the 2008 Constitution and hand over power after elections, but doubts over the army's plans for the constitution were raised by announcements in state media on Friday.
They listed one of Myanmar's objectives as "to work for the emergence of a constitution that is in alignment and harmony with the Democratic Federal Union". No date has yet been set for elections.