At least 18 people have been killed and dozens wounded across Myanmar in the most violent crackdown yet by security forces against peaceful demonstrators protesting against a February 1 military coup, according to the United Nations human rights office.
“Throughout the day, in several locations throughout the country, police and military forces have confronted peaceful demonstrations, using lethal force and less-than-lethal force that – according to credible information received by the UN Human Rights Office – has left at least 18 people dead and over 30 wounded,” the office said on Sunday.
Police were out in force early and opened fire in different parts of Yangon after stun grenades, tear gas and shots in the air failed to break up crowds in Myanmar’s largest city. Soldiers also reinforced police.
Myanmar Now media group posted a video of a wounded man lying on the street near the Hledan Centre intersection in Yangon, and said he had been “shot in his chest area by what appeared to be live ammunition”.
A man who witnessed the shooting told Frontier Magazine that the police had fired live rounds at protesters sheltering at a bus station and that “one person died and others are wounded”.
A doctor at the hospital the man was taken to confirm his death to Reuters news agency.
Police also opened fire in Dawei in the south, killing three and wounding several, politician Kyaw Min Htike told Reuters from the town.
An emergency services charity reported two dead in the central town of Bago. Ambulance driver Than Lwin Oo told AFP news agency he had sent the bodies of the 18-year-olds to the mortuary at Bago’s main hospital.
The deaths were confirmed by media based in the town.
The Irrawaddy online media outlet reported one person had been killed in a protest in the second city of Mandalay.
Police broke up protests in other towns including Lashio in the northeast and Myeik in the deep south, residents and media reported.
A woman also died of a suspected heart attack after police broke up a teachers’ protest with stun grenades in the main city of Yangon, her daughter and a colleague said.
“We strongly condemn the escalating violence against protests in Myanmar and call on the military to immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protesters,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, said in a statement.
“Myanmar is like a battlefield,” the Buddhist-majority nation’s first Catholic cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, said on Twitter.
Sunday’s police action came after state television announced that Myanmar’s envoy to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, had been fired for betraying the country after he urged the global body to use “any means necessary” to reverse the February 1 coup that deposed elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The military’s power grab and its detention of the country’s civilian leadership have plunged Myanmar into fresh chaos, just a decade after the end of nearly 50 years of strict military rule. For three weeks now, huge crowds have taken to the streets of cities and towns across Myanmar, calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and the restoration of civilian rule.
As the popular uprising gathered steam, security forces have become more aggressive in using force. Three other protesters were killed earlier in February, while the military said a policeman has also been killed.
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok, said reports coming in across the country of much more brutal tactics being used by the security services signalled a clear shift in approach.
“We saw a change in tactics [on Saturday] when they started to push back against the protesters much more aggressively, but today it appears they are using live rounds and they are not afraid to take life,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, condemned the use of lethal force as “outrageous and unacceptable,” and said it must be halted immediately.
“Live ammunition should not be used to control or disperse protests, and lethal force can only be used to protect life or prevent serious injury,” he said on Twitter. “Any deaths and serious injuries should be promptly and impartially investigated. Those found responsible for any unlawful acts should be held accountable.”
Robertson called for the release of several journalists detained by security forces and said medics treating wounded demonstrators at protest sites have also been targeted for arrest “in blatant attempts to intimidate anyone attempting to assist the pro-democracy protesters”.
“The military junta’s broad nationwide restrictions against public protests, and banning of any assembly of more than five persons, blatantly violates basic rights to peaceful, public assembly and must be urgently rescinded,” he said.
‘Trying to instill fear’
The violence in Yangon erupted early on Sunday morning when medical students were marching in the streets near the Hledan Centre intersection.
Footage showed protesters running from police who charged at them, and residents set up makeshift roadblocks to slow their advance. Nearby, residents were pleading with police to release those they picked up from the street and shoved into police trucks to be taken away.
Police also opened fire and threw stun grenades at demonstrating teachers in the district of Yankin.
Hayman May Hninsi, who was with a group of fellow teachers in Yangon, said “police got out of their cars and started throwing stun grenades without warning”.
“Some teachers got hurt running. We’re assessing the situation and whether to go out again or not.”
Despite the crackdown, hundreds of protesters remain on the streets of Yangon, with many of them setting up makeshift barricades and carrying shields to protect themselves.
Youth activist Esther Ze Naw told Reuters people were battling to overcome the fear they had lived with for so long.
“This fear will only grow if we keep living with it and the people who are creating the fear know that. It’s obvious they’re trying to instill fear in us by making us run and hide,” she said.
“We can’t accept that.”
Police in the second city of Mandalay also fired guns into the air, trapping protesting medical staff in a city hospital, a doctor there told Reuters by telephone. In the northern city of Lashio, police fired tear gas to disperse crowds, according to the Irrawaddy news website.
Sunday’s crackdown followed a similar wave of action against largely peaceful anti-coup rallies around the country a day earlier.
State-run MRTV television said 479 people had been arrested on Saturday.
While Western countries have condemned the coup and some have imposed limited sanctions, the generals have traditionally shrugged off diplomatic pressure. They justified the February 1 power grab alleging fraud in an election last November that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide.
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has promised fresh elections, but has not set a date for a new vote.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s party and supporters say the result of the November vote must be respected.
The 75-year-old had spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during military rule. She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and of violating a natural disaster law by breaching coronavirus protocols.
The next hearing in her case is set for Monday.
Maung Zarni, a Myanmar human rights activist, told Al Jazeera from London that he did not think the escalation in violence would quell the protests.
“The [Myanmar people] have been doing this over three generations,” he said. “Many of our relatives, friends and families served 20 years behind bars, [or were] in exile – lives and livelihoods destroyed. The people this time are using the slogan ‘the more you repress us, the fiercer our resistance will become’.”
Zarni said the countries that have condemned the coup should not recognise representatives of the military government, whether as ambassadors or at the UN.
“That will strengthen the [Myanmar] people’s resolve … denying recognition that this is a legitimate government is a very very powerful message.”