Yangon: Demonstrators in several areas of Myanmar protesting last month’s seizure of power by the military held small, peaceful marches before dawn on Tuesday, avoiding confrontations with security forces who have shot dead scores of their countrymen in the past few days.
Still, tensions remained high in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, where casualties have been the highest. There were several unconfirmed reports that police had again fired on demonstrators in the city.
The United Nations said Monday that at least 138 protesters have been killed in Myanmar since the February 1 military coup. The figure includes 38 killed on Sunday, the majority in the Hlaing Thayer area of Yangon, said UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.
Other credible estimates put the death toll higher. The independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said 183 people have been killed since the coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemns this ongoing violence against peaceful protesters and the continuing violation of the fundamental human rights of the people of Myanmar, Dujarric said.
The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar, which for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions.
Protesters in some areas have recently started to use tactics meant to avoid violent confrontations. On Tuesday, reports on social media said candlelight marches before sunrise were held in Mawlamyaing in Mon State in southeastern Myanmar.
Another tactic has been to use signboards as proxies for human protesters, placing them in neat rows in public places. This tactic was reported to have been used Tuesday by an organised group of engineers in the country’s second-biggest city, Mandalay, in central Myanmar.
More conventional peaceful protests of the sort that have been occurring daily were held without incident Tuesday morning in Monywa and Ye-U in central Myanmar, Loikaw city in the eastern state of Kayaw and Kalaw in Southern Shan State, also in the east.
Complicating efforts to organise new protests, as well as media coverage of the crisis, cellphone internet service was cut Sunday night, although access was still available through fixed broadband connections.
Mobile data service had been used to stream live video coverage of protests, often showing security forces attacking demonstrators. It previously had been turned off only from 1 am to 9 am for several weeks, with no official explanation.
Sunday’s violence in Yangon virtually all committed by police led to Myanmar’s ruling junta declaring martial law in a large part of the city.
The martial law announcements said that the junta, formally called the State Administrative Council, acted to enhance security and restore law and order, and that the Yangon regional commander has been entrusted with administrative, judicial and military powers in the area under his command. The orders cover six of Yangon’s 33 townships, all of which suffered major violence in recent days.
Protesters in the past week have responded to increased police violence by taking a more aggressive approach to self-defence, burning tires at barricades and pushing back when they can against attacks.
A statement issued Sunday by the Committee Representing Pyihtaungsu Hluttaw, the elected members of Parliament who were not allowed to take their seats, announced that the general public has the legal right to self-defense against the junta’s security forces.
The group, which operates underground inside the country and with representatives abroad, has established itself as a shadow government that claims to be the sole legitimate representative body of Myanmar’s citizens. It has been declared treasonous by the junta.
The state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported Tuesday that junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing told colleagues that the protests have now turned into riots and violence.
Speaking at a Monday meeting of the junta in the capital, Naypyitaw, Min Aung Hlaing was cited as saying that the military was aiding police as rearguards in required places to solve the difficulties and obstacles.
Although there have been fewer protests, violent acts emerged in some areas, such as burning public property and factories. So, security forces had to handle the situation very hard, said the story’s account.
The protesters raided police stations and administrative offices and burned factories. Meanwhile, the shooting had to disperse the protesters, resulting in some security forces and protesters’ casualties.
Virtually all independent accounts place full blame on the security forces for initiating violence against unarmed protesters.