Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
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.
Myanmar forces kill 82 in single day in city
At least 82 people were killed in one day in a crackdown by Myanmar security forces on pro-democracy protesters, according to reports Saturday from independent local media and an organization that keeps track of casualties since the February coup. Friday’s death toll in Bago was the biggest one-day total for a single city since March 14, when just over 100 people were killed in Yangon, the country’s biggest city. Bago is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Yangon. The Associated Press is unable to independently verify the number of deaths. The death toll of 82 was a preliminary one compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which issues daily counts of casualties and arrests from the crackdown in the aftermath of the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Their tallies are widely accepted as highly credible because cases are not added until they have been confirmed, with the details published on their website. In its Saturday report, the group said that it expected the number of dead in Bago to rise as more cases were verified. The online news site Myanmar Now also reported that 82 people had been killed, citing an unnamed source involved with charity rescue work. Myanmar Now and other local media said the bodies had been collected by the military and dumped on the grounds of a Buddhist pagoda. Also read:Will Myanmar learn its lessons? At least 701 protesters and bystanders have been killed by security forces since the army’s takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The attack on Bago was the third in the past week involving the massive use of force to try to crush the persistent opposition to the ruling junta. Attacks were launched Wednesday on hardcore opponents of military rule who had set up strongholds 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. The security forces were accused of using heavy weapons in their attacks, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, though such allegations could not be independently confirmed by The Associated Press. Photos posted on social media from Bago appeared to show fragments of mortar shells. Most protests in cities and town around the country are carried out by nonviolent demonstrators who consider themselves part of a civil disobedience movement. Also read:Myanmar cuts wireless internet service amid coup protests But as the police and military escalated the use of lethal force, a hardcore faction of protesters armed themselves with homemade weapons such as firebombs in the name of self-defense. In Kalay, activists dubbed themselves a “civil army” and some equipped themselves with rudimentary hunting rifles that are traditional in the remote area. A report by Myanmar Now said residents of Tamu, a town in the same region as Kalay, used hunting rifles Saturday to ambush a military convoy, and claimed to kill three soldiers. The junta has taken other measures as well to discourage resistance. It recently published a wanted list of 140 people active in the arts and journalism charged with spreading information that undermines the stability of the country and the rule of law. The penalty for the offense is up to three years’ imprisonment. Arrests of those on the list have been highly publicized in state media. State television channel MRTV reported Friday night that a military court had sentenced to death 19 people -- 17 in absentia -- for allegedly killing an army officer in Yangon on March 27. The attack took place in an area of the city that is under martial law, and the court action appeared to be the first time the death sentence has been imposed under the junta’s rule. The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, arrived Friday in the Thai capital Bangkok on a regional mission to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. She intends to sound out several Southeast Asian governments for their ideas but has been denied permission to visit Myanmar.
Myanmar death toll mounts amid protests, military crackdown
Security forces in central Myanmar opened fire on anti-coup protesters on Saturday, killing at least two people according to local media. A human rights group said mounting violence since the Feb. 1 military takeover has killed at least 550 civilians. Of those, 46 were children, according to Myanmar's Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Some 2,751 people have been detained or sentenced, the group said. Also Read: Myanmar crackdown: UN chief demands firm, unified and resolute international response Threats of lethal violence and arrests of protesters have failed to suppress daily demonstrations across Myanmar demanding the military step down and reinstate the democratically elected government. The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in the Southeast Asian country. The Myanmar Now news service reported government forces fired at demonstrators in Monywa city, killing at least two people. One video posted on social media showed a group of protesters carrying away a young man with what appeared to be a serious head wound, as gunfire sounded. His condition wasn’t immediately known. Also Read: Myanmar crackdown on protests, widely filmed, sparks outrage At least seven people were injured in the shooting, two of whom sustained severe wounds and were taken into custody by soldiers, Myanmar Now said, citing a member of a local rescue team. Late Friday, armed plainclothes police took five people into custody after they spoke with a CNN reporter in a market in Yangon, the country’s largest city, local media reported citing witnesses. The arrests occurred in three separate incidents. Two women reportedly shouted for help as they were being arrested, Myanmar Now reported. One police officer, who was carrying a gun, asked if “anyone dared to help them," a witness told the news service. “They pointed their pistols at everyone — at passersby and at people in the store,” a witness said of two police officers, who forcibly took away two other women in the market. Meanwhile, the Karen National Union representing the ethnic minority rebel group that has been fighting the government for decades condemned “non-stop bombings and airstrikes” against villages and "unarmed civilians” in their homeland along the border with Thailand. “The attacks have caused the death of many people including children and students, and the destruction of schools, residential homes, and villages. These terrorist acts are clearly a flagrant violation of local and international laws,” the group said in a statement. In areas controlled by the Karen, more than a dozen civilians have been killed and over 20,000 displaced since March 27, according to the Free Burma Rangers, a relief agency operating in the region. About 3,000 Karen fled to Thailand, but many have returned under unclear circumstances. Thai authorities said they went back voluntarily, but aid groups say they are not safe and many are hiding in the jungle and in caves on the Myanmar side of the border. More than a dozen minority groups have sought greater autonomy from the central government for decades, sometimes through armed struggle. 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. After weeks of overnight cutoffs of internet access, Myanmar’s military on Friday shut all links apart from those using fiberoptic cable, which was working at drastically reduced speeds. Access to mobile networks and all wireless — the less costly options used by most people in the developing country — remained blocked on Saturday. Myanmar languished for five decades under strict military rule, which led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip, culminating in 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.
Funerals become scenes of Myanmar resistance, more violence
Myanmar security forces opened fire Sunday on a crowd attending the funeral of student who was killed on the bloodiest day yet of a crackdown on protests against last month’s coup, local media reported. The escalating violence — which took the lives of at least 114 people Saturday, including several children — has prompted a U.N. human rights expert to accuse the junta of committing “mass murder” and to criticize the international community for not doing enough to stop it. The Security Council is likely to hold closed consultations on the escalating situation in Myanmar, U.N. diplomats said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of an official announcement. The council has condemned the violence and called for a restoration of democracy, but has not yet considered possible sanctions against the military, which would require support or an abstention by Myanmar’s neighbor and friend China. The mounting death tolls have not stopped the demonstrations against the Feb. 1 takeover — or the violent response of the military and police to them. Myanmar Now reported that the junta’s troops shot at mourners at the funeral in the city of Bago for Thae Maung Maung, a 20-year-old killed on Saturday. He was reportedly a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Union, which has a long history of supporting pro-democracy movements in the country. Also read: Myanmar crackdown: UN chief demands firm, unified and resolute international response According to the report, several people attending the funeral were arrested. It did not say if anyone was hurt or killed. But at least nine people were killed elsewhere Sunday as the crackdown continued, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which has been documenting deaths during demonstrations against the coup. Some of the funerals held Sunday became themselves opportunities to demonstrate resistance to the junta. At one in Bhamo in the northern state of Kachin, a large crowd chanted democracy slogans and raised the three-finger salute that has come to symbolize defiance of the takeover. Family and friends were paying their respects to Shwe Myint, a 36-year-old who was shot dead by security forces on Saturday. The military had initially seized her body and refused to return it until her family signed a statement that her death was not caused by them, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma, a broadcast and online news service. In Yangon, the country’s largest city, meanwhile, mourners flashed the three-finger salute as they wheeled the coffin of a 13-year-old boy. Sai Wai Yan was shot dead by security forces as he played outside his home. The Feb. 1 coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government reversed years of progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule. It has again made Myanmar the focus of international scrutiny as security forces have repeatedly fired into crowds of protesters. At least 459 people have been killed since the takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. The crackdown extends beyond the demonstrations: Humanitarian workers reported that the military had carried out airstrikes Sunday against guerilla fighters in the eastern part of the country. Henrietta Fore, head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, said in Saturday’s bloodiest day since the coup “an 11-year-old boy, an 11-year-old girl, two 13-year-old boys, a 13-year-old girl, three 16-year-old boys and two 17-year-old boys, (were) all reportedly shot and killed.” She said “a 1-year-old baby girl gravely injured after being struck in the eye with a rubber bullet.” “In less than two months, at least 35 children have allegedly been killed, countless others seriously injured and almost 1,000 children and young people reported arbitrarily detained by security forces across the country” she said, condemning the indiscriminate killings and demanding that those responsible be held accountable. The junta has accused some of the demonstrators of perpetrating the violence because of their sporadic use of Molotov cocktails and has said its use of force has been justified to stop what it has called rioting. While protesters have occasionally hurled firecrackers at troops and on Saturday carried bows and arrows, they remain vastly outgunned and have shown commitment to methods of nonviolent civil disobedience. Saturday’s death toll far exceeded the previous single-day high that ranged from 74 to 90 on March 14. The killings happened throughout the country as Myanmar’s military celebrated the annual Armed Forces Day holiday with a parade in the country’s capital, Naypyitaw. “Today the junta of Myanmar has made Armed Forces Day a day of infamy with the massacre of men, women and very young children throughout country,” said Tom Andrews, the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights for Myanmar. “Words of condemnation or concern are frankly ringing hollow to the people of Myanmar while the military junta commits mass murder against them. ... It is past time for robust, coordinated action.” Also read: Myanmar protests continue a day after more than 100 killed Those calls were echoed by others. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was shocked by the killings of civilians, including children, and a group of defense chiefs from 12 countries also condemned the violence. U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu, and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said: “The shameful, cowardly, brutal actions of the military and police – who have been filmed shooting at protesters as they flee, and who have not even spared young children – must be halted immediately.” President Joe Biden told reporters: “It’s terrible. It’s absolutely outrageous. Based on the reporting I’ve gotten, an awful lot of people have been killed. Totally unnecessary.” Biden said his administration is working on a response but offered no details. It’s still not clear what action is possible — or how quick it could be. The U.N. Security Council has not advocated concerted action against the junta, such as a ban on selling it arms. China and Russia are both major arms suppliers to Myanmar’s military as well as politically sympathetic. If the Security Council isn’t able to do anything, Andrews called for an emergency international summit. Human rights group Amnesty International also criticized the hesitancy to do more. “U.N. Security Council member states’ continued refusal to meaningfully act against this never-ending horror is contemptible,” said Ming Yu Hah, the organization’s deputy regional director for campaigns. In the meantime, protesters have continued to rally in Myanmar’s streets. In one demonstration in Yangon on Sunday, a small group made its way through a residential area that the day before had seen chaos with police shooting at demonstrators and the protesters responding with fireworks and Molotov cocktails. The march finished without incident. In addition to unleashing violence against demonstrators, the military is also continuing to battle ethnic Karen fighters in the country’s east. About 3,000 villagers from territory controlled by the Karen fled across the border to Thailand on Sunday after Myanmar military aircraft dropped bombs on a Karen guerrilla position, said workers for two humanitarian relief agencies. The Karen National Union is one of more than a dozen ethnic organizations that have been fighting for decades to gain more autonomy from Myanmar’s central government. The tension at the border comes as the leaders of the resistance to the coup are seeking to have the Karen and other ethnic groups join them as allies. So far the ethnic armed groups have only committed to providing protection to protesters in areas they control.