YANGON, Myanmar: Protesters in Myanmar on Thursday (Apr 1) marked two months since the military seized power by again defying the threat of lethal violence and demonstrating against its toppling of the country's democratically elected government.
Security forces have been unable to crush the massive public resistance to the Feb 1 coup despite their use of escalating violence, including routinely shooting protesters. International efforts including sanctions imposed by Western nations on the military regime have failed to restore peace.
In Yangon, the country’s biggest city, a group of young people gathered shortly after sunrise on Thursday to sing songs honouring the more than 500 protesters killed so far. They then marched through the streets chanting slogans calling for the fall of the military government, the release of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the return of democracy.
Protests were also held in Mandalay and elsewhere.
The demonstrations followed a night of violence including police raids and several fires. In Yangon, several retail shops owned in whole or part by Myanma Economic Holdings Ltd., an investment arm of the military, went up in flames. The shops are also targets of boycotts by the protest movement.
The crisis in the Southeast Asian nation has expanded sharply in the past week, both in the number of protesters killed and with military airstrikes against the guerrilla forces of the Karen ethnic minority in their homeland along the border with Thailand. The UN special envoy for Myanmar warned the country faces the possibility of civil war.
That's a stark reversal for Myanmar, which prior to the coup had been making slow progress toward greater democracy following decades of brutal military rule.
In areas controlled by the Karen, more than a dozen civilians have been killed since Saturday and more than 20,000 have been displaced, according to the Free Burma Rangers, a relief agency operating in the area.
The UN Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia called on countries in the region on Thursday “to protect all people fleeing violence and persecution in the country” and “ensure that refugees and undocumented migrants are not forcibly returned given the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation inside the country,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at UN headquarters in New York.
In addition to those deaths, an airstrike on a gold mine in Karen guerrilla territory on Tuesday killed as many as 11 more people, according to a local news outlet and an education worker in touch with residents near the site.
Saw Kholo Htoo, the deputy director of the Karen Teacher Working Group, said residents told him five people were killed at the mine and six others at a nearby village. The Bago Weekly Journal also reported the attack.
“Our soldiers know how to escape, but the air strike killed the civilians,” said Saw Thamein Tun, a central executive committee member of the Karen National Union, the leading political body representing the Karen minority.
About 3,000 Karen villagers have fled to neighbouring Thailand in recent days, but many have returned under unclear circumstances. Thai authorities said they went back voluntarily after a brief stay, but aid groups say they are not safe and many remain in hiding in the jungle and in caves on the Myanmar side of the border.
The UN special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, urged the UN Security Council on Wednesday to consider “potentially significant action” to restore democracy.
Burgener didn’t specify what action she considered significant, but painted a dire picture of the military crackdown and told the council in a closed briefing that Myanmar “is on the verge of spiralling into a failed state.” A video presentation of the briefing was obtained by The Associated Press.
Any UN resolutions for actions such as a comprehensive ban on weapons sales to Myanmar would almost certainly be vetoed by China or Russia, which are political allies of the military government as well as major suppliers of arms to the military.
Inside Myanmar, an opposition group consisting of ousted lawmakers on Wednesday declared the country’s 2008 constitution, drafted under military direction, void and put forward an interim replacement charter in another challenge to the military government.
The move, while more symbolic than practical, could help woo the country’s armed ethnic militias to ally themselves with the mass protest movement based in cities and towns.
Demonstrators in several areas burned copies of the 2008 constitution on Thursday to celebrate the action by the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the country's legislature, which calls itself the legitimate government.
In Mandalay, protesters burned pages under the gaze of Buddhist monks who gave their backing with the three-fingered salute adopted by the resistance.
The 2008 constitution ensured that the military maintained its dominance by reserving it enough seats in the legislature to block any charter changes and by retaining control of key government ministries.
One of the goals of the interim constitution proposed by the ousted lawmakers is to meet the longstanding demands of ethnic minority groups for greater autonomy. In seeking an alliance with ethnic minority armed groups, the lawmakers hope to form a joint army as a counterweight to the government armed forces.
READ: Myanmar 'traitors' hounded in online anti-coup campaign
More than a dozen ethnic minority groups have sought greater autonomy from the central government for decades, sometimes through armed struggle. Even in times of peace, relations have been strained and cease-fires fragile.
Several of the major groups - including the Kachin, the Karen and the Rakhine Arakan Army - have denounced the coup and said they will defend protesters in their territories.
Ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, already charged with four minor criminal offences, is facing an additional one of violating Myanmar’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which is punishable by up to 14 years' imprisonment, said one of her lawyers, Khin Maung Zaw.
He said Aung San Suu Kyi and Australian economist Sean Turnell, who served as her adviser and was also detained on the day of the coup, were officially charged on Mar 25 in a Yangon court. He provided no other details.
The military government has announced it is also investigating Aung San Suu Kyi for alleged corruption, and has presented video testimony on state television of a business tycoon and a fellow politician accusing her of accepting large amounts of cash and gold. Her supporters dismiss the accusations as politically motivated and aimed at preventing her return to politics.
A hearing that Aung San Suu Kyi attended by video was held Thursday at a court in the capital, Naypyitaw, to discuss her legal representation.