Soldiers in Myanmar rampaged through several villages, raping, beheading and killing at least 17 people, residents said, in the latest of what critics of the ruling military say are a series of war crimes since the army seized power two years ago. The bodies of 17 people were recovered last week in the villages of Nyaung Yin and Tar Taing — also called Tatai — in Sagaing region in central Myanmar, according to members of the anti-government resistance and a resident who lost his wife. They said the victims had been detained by the military and in some cases appeared to have been tortured before being killed. Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military’s February 2021 seizure of power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi prompted nationwide peaceful protests that security forces suppressed with deadly force. The violence triggered widespread armed resistance, which has since turned into what some U.N. experts have characterized as a civil war. The army has been conducting major offensives in the countryside, including burning villages and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. It has faced some of its toughest resistance in Sagaing, in Myanmar’s historic heartland. The soldiers involved in last week’s attacks were in a group of more than 90 who were brought to the area by five helicopters on Feb. 23, said local leaders of the pro-democracy People’s Defense Forces and independent Myanmar media. They said the bodies of 14 people, including three women, were found Thursday on a small island in a river in Nyaung Yin. Three more male victims were found in Tar Taing, including two members of the local resistance. One of the two was dismembered, with his head cut off, they said. The neighboring villages are about 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of the major city of Mandalay. Tar Taing resident Moe Kyaw, 42, survived the attack but said his 39-year-old wife, Pan Thwal, and 18-year-old nephew were among those killed. Contacted by phone, he said Friday they were among 70 villagers detained in the middle of the night last Wednesday by soldiers who shot into the air as they herded their captives from their homes to the local Buddhist monastery. Moe Kyaw said the soldiers stole beer and other items from his aunt’s small shop, and as they beat her, he fled for his life, escaping two soldiers who shot at him. He said his wife and other villagers were tortured at the monastery and then taken away from the village, apparently as hostages against any attack. He said his wife and two other women were beaten, raped and shot dead on Thursday by the soldiers, who also took his spouse’s earrings, His two sons, 9 and 11 years old, were released when the soldiers departed, he said. Moe Kyaw did not explain how he knew the details about his wife’s treatment. Myanmar’s underground National Unity Government — the main organization opposed to military rule that describes itself as the country’s legitimate government — said in an online news conference on Monday that the soldiers were from the 99th Light Infantry Division based in Mandalay Region. A leader of a Sagaing resistance group called the Demon King Defense Force said his group attacked the better-armed government troops on Wednesday in a failed effort to rescue the detained villagers. When they went Thursday morning to the small island where the soldiers had taken about 20 villagers they found 14 bodies in three spots, said the resistance leader, who asked not to be identified because of fear of reprisals by the military. Acknowledging that he had not seen the killings, he said he also believed the women had been raped. In an earlier incident apparently involving the same army unit, two boys aged 12 and 13 assisting the People’s Defense Force were captured by government troops on Feb. 26 and beheaded after being forced to show the locations of their camps, according to independent Myanmar media. Photos said to be of their bodies, found at Kan Daw village, about 12 kilometers (7 miles) northwest of Tar Taing, were circulated on social media. A separate group, the Sadaung Lighting People’s Defense Force, has said that two of its older teenage members were also killed and beheaded in fighting at Kan Daw on the same day. The military government has not responded to the allegations. In the past, it has denied documented abuses and said that casualties occurred in the course of fighting against armed anti-government guerrillas. Online media supportive of the military government have made the same claim about the recent incidents in Sagaing or suggested that they were the result of factional fighting within the resistance. Myanmar’s military has long been accused of serious human rights violations, most notably in the western state of Rakhine. International courts are considering whether it committed genocide there in a brutal 2017 counterinsurgency campaign that caused more than 700,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority to flee to neighboring Bangladesh for safety. Last week, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk accused the ruling generals of carrying out “a scorched earth policy in an attempt to stamp out opposition.” His agency said credible sources have verified the deaths of at least 2,940 civilians and 17,572 arrests by the military and its allies since the 2021 takeover.
The head of the U.N. body investigating the most serious crimes in Myanmar said Friday that preliminary evidence collected since the military seized power on Feb. 1 shows a widespread and systematic attack on civilians “amounting to crimes against humanity.” Nicholas Koumjian told U.N. reporters that the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, which he heads, has received over 200,000 communications since the army takeover and has collected over 1.5 million items of evidence that are being analyzed “so that one day those most responsible for the serious international crimes in Myanmar will be brought to account.” Also Read: Xi vows to continue expanding opening up, sharing development opportunities, promoting economic globalization In determining that the crimes against civilians appear to be widespread and systematic, he said investigators saw patterns of violence -- a measured response by security forces to demonstrations in the first six weeks or so after the military takeover followed by “an uptick in violence and much more violent methods used to suppress the demonstrators.” “This was happening in different places at the same time, indicating to us it would be logical to conclude this was from a central policy,” Koumjian said. “And, also, we saw that particular groups were targeted, especially for arrests and detentions that appear to be without due process of law. And this includes, of course, journalists, medical workers and political opponents.” Myanmar for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip, culminating in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise to leadership in 2015 elections, the international community responded by lifting most sanctions and pouring investment into the country. Also Read: 10 dead in India Covid hospital fire The Feb. 1 military takeover followed November elections which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won overwhelmingly and the military rejects as fraudulent. Since the takeover, Myanmar has been wracked by unrest, with peaceful demonstrations against the ruling generals morphing first into a low-level insurgency in many urban areas after security forces used deadly force and then into more serious combat in rural areas, especially in border regions where ethnic minority militias have been engaging in heavy clashes with government troops. Christine Schraner Burgener told The Associated Press shortly before her 3 ½ year term as the U.N. special envoy for Myanmar ended on Oct. 31 that “civil war” has spread throughout the country. The U.N. investigative body was established by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in September 2018 with a mandate to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar. Koumjian, an American lawyer who served as an international prosecutor of serious crimes committed in Cambodia, East Timor and Bosnia, was appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as its head in 2019 with instructions to prepare files that can facilitate criminal prosecutions in national, regional or international tribunals to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Also Read: 8 dead, several injured at Astroworld Festival in Houston Koumjian said his team has been collecting evidence from a wide variety of sources including individuals, organizations, businesses and governments, and the evidence includes photographs, videos, testimonies and social media posts “that could be relevant to show that crimes happened and who is responsible for those crimes.” The investigative body has received information from social media companies, which he wouldn't name except for Facebook because it had made its cooperation public. “We began engaging with Facebook as soon as we were created in 2019, and they have been meeting with us regularly,” Koumjian said. “We have received some, but certainly not all, that we have requested. We continue to negotiate with them and actually I am hopeful that we are going to receive more information.” He said the Human Rights Council specifically instructed the investigators to cooperate with the International Criminal Court's probe into crimes committed against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority and the case at the International Court of Justice brought by Gambia on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation accusing Myanmar of genocide against the Rohingya. “So we are sharing documents with those proceedings,” Koumjian said. The court actions stem from the Myanmar military’s harsh counterinsurgency campaign against the Rohingya in August 2017 in response to an insurgent attack. More than 700,000 Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh to escape what has been called an ethnic cleansing campaign involving mass rapes, killings and the torching of homes. Koujian said: “All we’re doing is collecting evidence of the very worst violence, hopefully sending a message to perpetrators: `If you commit this, you run the risk that you will be held to account.’”
When the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations holds a special summit Saturday to discuss Myanmar, the regional body will be under as much scrutiny as the general who led the February coup ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Opponents of the junta are furious that ASEAN is welcoming its chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to its meeting in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, arguing that because he seized power by force, he is not Myanmar’s legitimate leader. Also weighing heavily against him is the lethal violence perpetrated by the security forces he commands, responsible for killing hundreds of largely peaceful protesters and bystanders. “Min Aung Hlaing, who faces international sanctions for his role in military atrocities and the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, should not be welcomed at an intergovernmental gathering to address a crisis he created,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. Also read: Myanmar refugee crisis brewing as turmoil hits economy “ASEAN members should instead take this opportunity to impose targeted, economic sanctions on junta leaders and on businesses that fund the junta, and press the junta to release political detainees, end abuses, and restore the country’s democratically elected government.” The junta’s foes have promoted the idea that the opposition’s parallel National Unity Government, recently established by the elected lawmakers the army barred from being seated, should represent Myanmar, or at least have some role in the Jakarta meeting. It has not been invited. “It’s unacceptable that they invite this murderer-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who has just killed more than 730 people in Myanmar, and I think it is very unfortunate that they, again and again, talk to the military generals and not to the civilian government of Myanmar, which is the NUG,” says the parallel government’s Minister of International Cooperation, Dr. Sasa, who uses one name. Evan Laksmana, a researcher for Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank with close government ties, told The Associated Press there is a very practical reason for engaging Min Aung Hlaing face to face. ASEAN recognizes “the reality is that one party is doing the violence, which is the military, and therefore that’s why the military is being called to the meeting. So this is not in any way conferring legitimacy to the military regime,” he said. By talking to the general, ASEAN hopes to initiate a longer term framework process, starting with ending the violence, that will “hopefully help facilitate dialogue among all the stakeholders in Myanmar, not just (with) the military regime.” Skeptics feel ASEAN faces more basic problems in seeking to resolve Myanmar’s crisis. They point to the divergent interests of the group’s members, its longstanding conventions of seeking consensus and avoiding interference in each other’s affairs, and the historic obstinacy of Myanmar’s generals. One faction in the group, comprising Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, believes the instability engendered by the coup threatens the entire region as well as ASEAN’s credibility as a group powerful enough to act independently of big power influence. They also point out that the ASEAN Charter — adopted in 2007, 40 years after the group’s founding — includes democracy, human rights, good governance and rule of law as guiding principles. “Now is a grave time for ASEAN’s much-touted centrality, the idea that ASEAN is a central regional platform for regional dialogue, for promoting peace and stability in the region,” said Prof. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. He said that conception of ASEAN is now facing “its most severe, grave challenge” in 53 years of existence. Member countries with more authoritarian regimes — Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — see little benefit in paying more than lip service to such principles, and have treated Myanmar’s crisis as its own internal matter. The Jakarta meeting is a hybrid one, with onsite attendance encouraged but virtual participation by video an option because of the coronavirus pandemic. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte both announced they will stay home and send their foreign ministers in their stead, but they are dealing with serious COVID-19 outbreaks, obscuring any political message in their decisions. “It is more difficult to communicate on a personal level between the leaders without the leaders being present fully, particularly with regards to the prime minister of Thailand, whom we believe to have the best relationship with the current senior general from Myanmar,” observed Indonesia’s Laksmana. He believes ASEAN has a unique opportunity to engage productively with Myanmar’s ruling junta “because right now there is no other option on the table.” Also read: ASEAN urged to engage Myanmar's National Unity Govt to end crisis, military rule “We haven’t seen any progress from the U.N. Security Council, for example. There is no collective effort by other countries. This is it. This is the first potential breakthrough for the current crisis,” he told The Associated Press. U.N. specialized agencies and experts have been active in criticizing the coup and the junta’s crackdown. U.N. Special Envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener will not take part in ASEAN’s deliberations, but intends to take part in sideline consultations. The junta has rejected her repeated requests to visit Myanmar. The Security Council could effectively coordinate actions such as arms embargoes to pressure the junta, but Russia and China, major weapons suppliers to the junta, would veto such moves. Western nations have already enacted targeted sanctions against members of the junta and businesses giving them financial support, but Myanmar’s past military governments have successfully stood up to such pressures, and would be expected to do so again, especially with support from Beijing. ASEAN prefers quiet diplomacy to intimidation, seeking incremental gains. Even getting the two Myanmar sides to talk to each other could take some time, acknowledges Laksmana. “I think the gravity of the situation on the ground is as such now that there is no space or even willingness for dialogue until we end the violence,” he said. “So I think the first steps would be to what extent can ASEAN facilitate the observance of a humanitarian pause first and then the delivery of the humanitarian aid,” he said. Only after that might a forum be possible where all the stakeholders could talk. A Southeast Asian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said another opening move is under consideration. This would involve having ASEAN’s current chairman, Brunei’s Prime Minister Hassanal Bolkiah, travel to Myanmar for meetings with the military leadership and Suu Kyi’s camp to encourage dialogue. He would go there with the ASEAN Secretary General Lim Jock Hoi — also from Brunei — if the junta gives them the nod. ASEAN-style diplomacy with Myanmar has borne fruit in the past. The military regime in charge in 2008 was incapable of mounting sufficient rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of devastating Cyclone Nargis, but refused to open up the country to an international aid effort. ASEAN took the initiative in offering to open a channel for foreign assistance, and the much-needed aid started flowing.
Security forces in Myanmar used violence on Monday against demonstrators who sought to celebrate last week’s formation of a shadow government to serve as an alternative to the military junta that has held power since a February coup. Myanmar media and posts on social networks said the violence was especially intense in Myingyan, a town in central Myanmar, where the online news site The Irrawaddy reported at least one person was killed Sunday. Unconfirmed reports on social media said at least one more person was killed there Monday. Marches were held in Mandalay, the country’s second biggest city, and elsewhere to show support for the “National Unity Government” announced Friday by protest leaders. Security forces reportedly broke up a march at dawn in Mandalay that included Buddhist monks. Also read: Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit Social media were flooded with appeals to “Please save Myingyan.” Another news site, Myanmar Now, said security forces on Sunday launched attacks in Myingyan with the main target being a street stronghold set up by protesters, some believed armed with hunting rifles. It said the stronghold, fortified with sandbags, was destroyed by government forces, rebuilt overnight and then destroyed again Monday morning. Setting up street barricades is one of the tactics used by protesters against the Feb. 1 army takeover that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Often the strongholds last for just a few hours before being captured and destroyed by police and soldiers, then are rebuilt overnight. Their defenders use homemade weapons, such as gasoline bombs, and security personnel respond with overwhelming force, frequently resulting in multiple fatalities. Most protesters, however, embrace nonviolence and seek to avoid confrontations in their marches and motorcycle processions. Security personnel frequently employ lethal force to break up their rallies as well. Also read: Media Freedom Coalition concerned over Myanmar military’s efforts to muzzle media Security forces have killed at least 737 protesters and bystanders since the military takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests. The government in recent weeks seems to be pursuing a strategy of hunting down individual protest leaders nationwide, while using overwhelming force, town by town, to smash street protests and intimidate participants. The military has issued widely circulated wanted lists of more that 200 protest supporters -- including actors, internet influencers and medical personnel -- accused of endangering public order, a charge punishable by up to three years in prison. Arrests are also highly publicized. In a further apparent attempt at psychological warfare, government television stations on Sunday night showed photos of young people who had been arrested, looking badly bruised. The reports said they were accused of carrying out a series of explosions on Saturday in Yangon, the country’s biggest city. Their supporters charged they were tortured in custody. A Japanese journalist in Yangon was also arrested Sunday. Japan’s government said it is asking Myanmar authorities to explain the arrest and release him as soon as possible. Also read: Myanmar coup foes tout minority-backed shadow government On Friday, the protest movement advanced on the political front with its declaration of the National Unity Government, including members of Suu Kyi’s ousted Cabinet and representatives of ethnic minority groups and other allies. Opponents of the coup had been seeking an alliance with ethnic minority groups as a way of strengthening their resistance. The minorities have kept up on-again, off-again armed struggles for greater autonomy in borderlands for decades. In the north, armed guerrillas of the Kachin Independence Organization have launched a series of attacks on government military outposts, while the Karen National Union in the east, on the border with Thailand, has offered shelter to fleeing protesters in the territory it controls.
Myanmar’s junta on Saturday released more than 23,000 prisoners to mark the traditional new year holiday, including at least three political detainees, and the military leader behind the February coup confirmed he would attend a regional summit later this month. It wasn’t immediately clear if those released included pro-democracy activists who were detained for protesting the coup. State broadcaster MRTV said that junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. He also reduced sentences for others. As security forces continued the deadly crackdown, unconfirmed but credible accounts with photos on social media said that three people were killed Saturday in the central city of Mogok, in Myanmar’s gem mining region. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 728 protesters and bystanders since the takeover. The group says 3,141 people, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are in detention. Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019. They are members of the Peacock Generation performing troupe who were arrested during that year’s new year celebrations for skits that poked fun at military representatives in Parliament and military involvement in business. Also read: Stepping up Myanmar coup penalties, US suspends trade deal Their traditional style of acting is called Thangyat, a mash-up of poetry, comedy and music with a sharp undertone of satire. Several members of the troupe were convicted under a law banning circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize members of the military. The actors may have drawn the special wrath of the military because they performed in army uniforms. Several members were also found guilty of online defamation for livestreaming their performances. It’s not clear if all of them were released. Another freed prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper entrepreneur sentenced in 2019 to 13 years on charges of drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported. Dunkley co-founded the The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was forced to give up his share in it. He became well-known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states that were seeking foreign investment, but was sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes. Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, and this is the second batch the ruling junta has announced since taking power. Also read: 93 killed in one of deadliest days since Myanmar coup Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on Feb. 12, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic, especially by setting fires. Some areas responded by setting up their own neighborhood watch groups. In March, more than 600 people who were imprisoned for demonstrating against the coup were also released from Insein Prison, a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared aimed at placating the protest movement. They were mostly young people caught in sweeps of street rallies while those considered protest leaders were kept locked up. Neither the military government nor those opposed to it show any signs of backing off. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions with little effect. Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, concerned about the prospects for regional instability, are also trying to get the junta to start back on the path to restoring democracy, or at least end its violent repression. A spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry in Bangkok said Saturday that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has confirmed he will attend a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — ASEAN — expected to be held on April 24. Tanee Sangrat said in a text message to journalists that Brunei, the current chair of the 10-nation body, confirmed it had proposed the date for a meeting at the group’s secretariat in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Indonesia has taken the lead in calling for the special meeting to discuss the crisis in Myanmar.
Opponents of Myanmar’s ruling junta went on the political offensive Friday, declaring they have formed an interim national unity government with members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted cabinet and major ethnic minority groups. The move comes on the eve of a diplomatic initiative to solve Myanmar’s crisis by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is expected to hold a summit next week. A violent crackdown by the junta has failed to stem opposition to the coup, and as the army has spread the fight to ethnic minorities in border areas, some ASEAN members believe the crisis threatens regional stability. Opponents of the coup have been seeking an alliance with ethnic minority groups as a way of strengthening their resistance. The minorities for decades have kept up on-again, off-again armed struggles for greater autonomy in the borderlands. While it was not clear if the minority political organizations had formally joined an alliance, the appointment of prominent personalities from their ranks showed a commitment to a joint struggle against the military, which is certain to boost morale to the anti-coup cause. Also read: Stepping up Myanmar coup penalties, US suspends trade deal Security forces have killed at least 726 protesters and bystanders since the Feb. 1 military takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests. The protests and the killings have been continuing on a daily basis. The National Unity Government is nominally an upgrade from what had been called the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, which was formed shortly after the coup by elected lawmakers who were barred by the army from taking their seats. The CRPH sought international recognition as Myanmar’s sole legitimate government body, but won only popular support from those opposed to military rule. The junta declared the CRPH an illegal organization, and issued arrest warrants for its leading members. A video posted Friday on social media showed veteran activist Min Ko Naing announcing the formation of the new body. He was a leader of the failed 1988 uprising against a previous military dictatorship and is one of the country’s most respected political figures aside from Suu Kyi. He went quickly underground after the coup and apparently has been active in political organizing against the junta since then. “Please support the National Unity Government for the future of our citizens and our younger generation.” he said. “The people are the decision makers and the people will fight the final battle. Victory is coming, We must win our revolution.” Also read: 93 killed in one of deadliest days since Myanmar coup More details were provided in a statement on social media by Dr. Sasa, a physician and philanthropist who though in hiding has been the online public face of the CRPH.. “Today, at the end of Thingyan on the eve of Myanmar’s new year, we are proud to announce the formation of a new National Unity Government and the dawn of a new era for the people of Myanmar,” said Sasa. “For the first time in our history, Myanmar has a unity government that will reflect one of our nation’s greatest strengths - the diversity of our people.” The CRPH announced that Suu Kyi retains her post as state counsellor and Win Myint as president, though both were arrested in the coup and remain in detention, with criminal charges against them that supporters call politically motivated. Sasa said the interim’s government’s vice president — its acting president - is Duwa Lashi La, a political leader of the Kachin minority from the country’s north, while the prime minister is Mahn Win Khaing Than, from the Karen minority in eastern Myanmar, who had been speaker of the elected upper house of Parliament. Sasa himself comes from the Chin minority, while Myanmar’s government and military have always been dominated by the Burman majority. Also read: Myanmar coup leader: 'Join hands' with army for democracy It is not the first time in recent decades that opponent to military rule in Myanmar have formed a shadow government. In 1990, they formed the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma after a military regime refused to recognize the results of a general election won in a landslide by Suu Kyi’s party. That shadow government maintained a presence in territory controlled by the Karen on Myanmar’s eastern frontier, but also operated as a lobbying group based in Maryland in the United States. It dissolved itself in September 2012 after Suu Kyi’s party took part in by-elections earlier that year, capturing 43 of the 44 seats it contested.
Security forces in Myanmar cracked down heavily again on anti-coup protesters Friday even as the military downplayed reports of state violence. Reports on online news outlets and social media said at least four people were killed in Bago, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Yangon, in an attack by government troops and police that began before dawn and continued sporadically until after dark. The Bago Weekly Journal Online said a source at the city’s main hospital, whom it didn’t name, believed about 10 people had been killed. It was the third attack this week involving the massive use of deadly force by security forces to try to crush active opposition to the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. On Wednesday, attacks were launched on opponents of military rule in the towns of Kalay and Taze in the country’s north. In both places, at least 11 people -- possibly including some bystanders -- were reported killed. Security forces were accused of using heavy weapons in their attacks, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The allegations could not be independently confirmed by The Associated Press. Also read:Will Myanmar learn its lessons? Some of the protesters used homemade weapons, especially in Kalay, where defenders called themselves a “civil army,” and some were equipped with rudimentary hunting rifles. Most protests in cities and town around the country have been nonviolent, with demonstrators espousing civil disobedience. Violence by security forces was also reported Friday in several other areas, including Loikaw, the capital of Kayah sate in the east, where live ammunition was employed, according to numerous social media posts. At least 614 protesters and bystanders have been killed by security forces through Thursday, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests. At a news conference in the capital, Naypyitaw, a spokesman for the ruling junta defended the actions of the security forces. Also read:Myanmar cuts wireless internet service amid coup protests Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, when asked about reports that automatic weapons have been fired at protesters, replied that if that were the case, 500 people would have been killed in just a few hours. He challenged the death toll issued by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners and said the government’s tally was 248. He also said 16 policemen had been killed. Asked about air strikes carried out by government jets on territory held by guerrillas from the Karen ethnic minority in eastern Myanmar, which reportedly killed at least 14 civilians, Zaw Min Tun said the aerial raids allowed more exact targeting than ground attacks which would have caused more deaths. Supporters of the Karen charge that the army is carrying out a ground offensive as well, including the use of artillery.
The Biden administration on Thursday hit Myanmar’s junta with new sanctions in response to February’s coup in the Southeast Asian nation. The State and Treasury departments announced they were imposing sanctions on the country’s main, state-owned gem company, Myanmar Gems Enterprise. The sanctions freeze any assets the firm holds in the U.S. or in U.S. jurisdictions and bar American citizens from doing business with it. Also Read: Myanmar death toll mounts amid protests, military crackdown... The company is a major exporter of gems and semi-precious stones like jade, which bring in significant amounts of revenue to government coffers. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the sanctions send “a clear signal to the military that the United States will keep increasing pressure on the regime’s revenue streams until it ceases its violence, releases all those unjustly detained, lifts martial law and the nationwide state of emergency, removes telecommunications restrictions, and restores Burma to the path of democracy.” Also Read: Will Myanmar learn its lessons? The U.S. and other Western nations have been steadily ramping up sanctions pressure on Myanmar, also known as Burma, since the Feb. 1 coup and subsequent deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. “The Burmese military regime has ignored the will of the people of Burma to restore the country’s path toward democracy and has continued to commit lethal attacks against protesters in addition to random attacks on bystanders,” Blinken said.
The military launched more airstrikes Tuesday in eastern Myanmar after earlier attacks forced thousands of ethnic Karen to flee into Thailand and further escalating violence two months after the junta seized power. Thailand’s prime minister said the villagers who fled the weekend airstrikes returned home of their own accord, denying that his country’s security forces had forced them back. But the situation in eastern Myanmar appeared to be getting more, not less, dangerous. The Karen National Union, the main political body representing the Karen minority, said the airstrikes were the latest case of Myanmar’s military breaking a cease-fire agreement and it would have to respond. The attacks came as protests continued in Myanmar cities against the coup Feb. 1 that ousted an elected civilian government and reversed a decade of progress toward democracy in the Southeast Asian country. Hundreds of civilians have been killed by security forces trying to put down opposition to the coup. The U.S. State Department on Tuesday ordered non-essential U.S. diplomats and their families to leave Myanmar, expecting the protests to continue. The U.S. earlier suspended a trade deal and imposed sanctions on junta leaders as well as restricted business with military holding companies. Tuesday’s air raids in eastern Myanmar killed six civilians and wounded 11, said Saw Taw Nee, head of the KNU’s foreign affairs department. Also read: Freed Polish journalist urges pressure put on Myanmar junta Dave Eubank, a member of the Free Burma Rangers, which provides medical assistance in the region, provided the same information on casualties. The KNU has been fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen people. It issued a statement from one of its armed units saying “military ground troops are advancing into our territories from all fronts” and vowing to respond. “We have no other options left but to confront these serious threats posed by the illegitimate military junta’s army in order to defend our territory, our Karen peoples, and their self-determination rights,” said the statement, issued in the name of the KNU office for the district that was first attacked on Saturday. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, speaking before the latest air attacks, said his country is ready to shelter anyone who is escaping fighting, as Thailand has done many times for decades. His comments came a day after humanitarian groups said Thailand has been sending back some of the thousands of people who fled. Also read: Myanmar junta deepens violence with new air attacks “There is no influx of refugees yet. We asked those who crossed to Thailand if they have any problem in their area. When they say no problem, we just asked them to return to their land first. We asked, we did not use any force,” Prayuth told reporters. “We won’t push them back,” he said. ’If they are having fighting, how can we do so? But if they don’t have any fighting at the moment, can they go back first?” The governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, where as many as 3,000 refugees had sought shelter, said later that those still on Thai soil were expected to return to their own country in a day or two. Protests against the junta continued in several Myanmar cities Tuesday despite its lethal crackdown that killed more than 100 people on Saturday alone. Engineers, teachers and students from the technology university in the southern city of Dawei marched without incident. The number of protesters killed in the city rose to eight with the announcement of the death of a teenager who was shot by soldiers on Saturday as he rode a motorbike with two friends. According to local media, a hospital certificate attributed his death to “serious injuries as he fell from a motorbike.” Medical workers in Mandalay, the country’s second-biggest city, honored three of their colleagues who have been killed by security forces. The two doctors and a nurse were remembered in a simple ceremony in front of a banner with their photographs and the words “Rest In Power.” At a cemetery in the biggest city, Yangon, three families gave their last farewells to relatives killed Monday in a night of chaos in the South Dagon neighborhood. Residents said police and soldiers moved through the streets firing randomly with live ammunition. At least 510 protesters have been killed since the coup, according to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which counts those it can document and says the actual toll is likely much higher. It says 2,574 people have been detained, a total that includes the deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party was reelected in the November elections by a landslide. At Thailand’s Mae Sam Laep village along the Salween River, which forms the border with Myanmar, paramilitary Thai Rangers on Tuesday twice waved off a boat that had come from the other side carrying seven people, including one lying flat and another with a bandage on his head. But ambulances soon arrived on the Thai side and it landed anyway. Thai villagers helped medical staff carry the injured people on stretchers to a small clinic at a nearby checkpoint. One man had large bruises on his back with open wounds, an injury one medical staffer said could have been caused by an explosion. An elderly woman in the group had small cuts and scabs all over her face. Thai nurses in protective gear to guard against COVID-19 attended to her, testing her and others for the coronavirus. Another villager from the boat, 48-year-old Aye Ja Bi, said he had been wounded by a bomb dropped by a plane. His legs were hit by shrapnel and his ears were ringing, he said, but he was unable to travel to get help until Tuesday. The airstrikes appeared to be retaliation for an attack by guerrillas under the command of the KNU on a government military outpost in which they claimed to have killed 10 soldiers and captured eight. Tuesday’s KNU statement charged that the strikes had been planned before that. About 2,500-3,000 refugees crossed into Thailand on Sunday, according to several humanitarian aid agencies who have long worked with the Karen. They said on Monday, however, that Thai soldiers had begun to force people to return to Myanmar. “They told them it was safe to go back even though it is not safe. They were afraid to go back but they had no choice,” said a spokesperson for the Karen Peace Support Network, a group of Karen civil society organizations in Myanmar. The army has restricted journalists’ access to the area where the villagers crossed the border. Myanmar’s government has battled Karen guerrillas on and off for years — along with other ethnic minorities seeking more autonomy — but the airstrikes marked a major escalation of violence. Political organizations representing the Karen and Kachin in northern Myanmar have warned in recent weeks that junta forces have been shooting protesters in their regions and threatening a response. They were joined Tuesday by the Three Brothers Alliance, which represent the guerrilla armies of the Rakhine, Kokang and Ta-ang — also known as Palaung. The alliance said if the killing of protesters did not stop immediately, they would abandon a self-declared cease-fire and join with other groups to protect the people. The statements from the various ethnic minority groups seemed to suggest their own militaries would respond within their home regions, not in the cities of central Myanmar where the protests and the junta’s repression have been the strongest. Supporters of the protest movement are hoping that the ethnic armed groups could help pressure the junta. Protest leaders in hiding say they have held talks, but there have been no commitments.
A Polish journalist who was deported from Myanmar after spending two weeks under arrest is urging international pressure against the military junta that seized power in the country and has authorized airstrikes and the killing of civilians. Robert Bociaga, a freelance photojournalist, says the situation in the Southeast Asian country could turn into an even bigger tragedy if Myanmar is not helped back toward democracy. “If the international community will not react in a more decisive way, this situation will only aggravate into a regional crisis,” Bociaga, 29, told The Associated Press in a remote video interview. Myanmar's military overthrew the elected government on Feb. 1, jailed Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders, and has killed and imprisoned protesters as well as bystanders, including children. Bociaga said that before he was arrested on March 11, he witnessed no violence and considered himself safe. He was on his second, yearlong visit to Myanmar. While visiting Taunggyi, a city nestled in the hills of Shan State in the country’s east with a population of about 400,000, he covered a protest forming in the street and the military dispersing it. He was surrounded and beaten by soldiers, taken into police custody and brought before a judge, Bociaga said. He thinks the soldiers did not realize he was a foreigner right away because he was wearing a face mask for protection against the coronavirus. Since then, a number of local journalists and publishers have been arrested. The charges against Bociaga included overstaying his visa and working for foreign media. As a freelancer, he had been unable to secure media credentials. Also read: Myanmar junta deepens violence with new air attacks He denied being a journalist and told the judge he had been unable to extend his visa, which expired in September, due to restrictions on movement during the pandemic. The judge seemed truly concerned that a foreigner had been beaten up and arrested, but she told him she had no power to go against the instructions of immigration authorities and release him without allowing for an official investigation, Bociaga recalled. His friends in Myanmar, whom he was allowed to call, alerted a local lawyer and the German Embassy, which also represents Poland's interests in the country. Bociaga said he was given fruit and treated well while in detention. He was able to give his testimony sitting on a chair, while local inmates had to kneel down with their hands clasped behind their heads during interrogations by the police. Eventually, the charge of working for foreign media “vanished from the documents,” he was fined an equivalent of $100 for overstaying the visa and then released on March 22. Bociaga says he thinks there was never an investigation of whether he really was a journalist, which saved him from having to serve a potentially long prison term. "Myanmar remains a very old-fashioned country, and they barely use the internet for anything else than Facebook. So they don’t even check it in Google, and actually that saved my life,” he said with a smile of relief. Also read: Thailand denies forcing fleeing villagers back to Myanmar Bociaga assumes the German Embassy's diplomatic efforts influenced how he was treated. The once-stern immigration officer offered to pay the fine from his own pocket and have Bociaga repay him when he was given his wallet and other personal belongings back. He eventually was able to take a flight out of Myanmar on Thursday, His experience was “not traumatic” but a “waste of time because I should be working in the field, I should be interviewing people and documenting everything,” he said. He stressed that despite the arrest, he keeps "good memories from Myanmar. Since the coup, Myanmar's confused people have relied on social media and international news outlets for reliable information about the events in their country, which is also known as Burma, the Polish journalist said. With the economy grinding down and schools, hospitals, post offices closing in massive acts of civil disobedience, Bociaga predicted that military leaders will have to change tactics and “sooner or later, they will start talking to the protesters.” The United States on Monday suspended a trade deal with Myanmar until a democratic government is brought back to the country. The U.S. and other Western nations have already targeted the junta with other sanctions, but Russia and China — political allies as well as major weapons suppliers to Myanmar’s military — would almost certainly veto any concerted action by the United Nations, such as an arms embargo.