Myanmar ramps up violent crackdown on anti-coup protesters

Security forces have deployed harsher methods against anti-coup protesters than previously used in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, ahead of plans for another big demonstration on Sunday.

Protests against the military’s seizure of power in a coup on February 1 have entered their fourth week. The Southeast Asian country arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and much of her party leadership, alleging fraud in a November election her party had won by a landslide.

Police and soldiers deployed rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades, and beat protesters at major protest sites in Yangon on Saturday, including near Sule Pagoda downtown, Myaynigone in Sanchaung township, and Hledan in Kamayut township.

Police deployed stun grenades that detonated near a group of civilians and made one arrest. Security forces brandished batons at journalists who attempted to approach and document the arrest.

About half an hour later, a few blocks away, police again charged at protesters, making at least two more arrests. One arrested man was bleeding from his face, apparently having been beaten.

Crackdowns in other parts of the city were even more severe, with reports of rubber bullets and tear gas along with stun grenades and beatings.

Journalists have also been increasingly targeted.

Local outlet Myanmar Now confirmed that a multimedia reporter was arrested while live-streaming the crackdown in Myaynigone, where police also arrested at least 20 protesters.

A Japanese journalist was detained and then released in Yangon during a similar crackdown on Friday.

A students union activist told Al Jazeera he believes the crackdowns were meant to intimidate people from turning out for the larger protests planned for Sunday but does not think they will be effective.

Instead, he thinks the tactics will simply make the situation more unstable.

“Before the crackdown, people believed in ‘non-violence’ but now we understand it is not enough. So people are preparing for self-defence,” he said in a message.

The activist said other people in Yangon had moved to protect protesters during the crackdowns.

“This morning, there was a student protest in North Okkalapa. People from North Okkalapa protected students. It is great solidarity. People are more united than before,” he said.

‘I could have saved him’

In Mandalay, where police have used live rounds, a protester died on Wednesday after being shot in the leg during a crackdown on February 21, which killed two others.

The victim was treated at a military hospital, where officials claimed he died of COVID-19.

But a doctor who attempted to treat his wound at the scene said he was bleeding profusely and police refused to let her give adequate medical treatment.

“I believe I could have saved him,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I was sure I could have stopped his wound from bleeding. I asked the police to watch his wound and if needed, they must apply pressure.”

Meanwhile, in Sagaing region, local media outlets reported a woman was killed during protests on Saturday.

On Thursday, police cracked down on protesters who refused to accept a military government-appointed local administrator in Tamwe township, leading to the first violent dispersal in the city.

“Authorities are using excessive force against peaceful protesters. It’s an oppressive crackdown,” said John Quinley, a researcher with Fortify Rights. “The junta is trying to silence everyone calling for democracy and human rights in Myanmar.”

“The junta is not legitimate and should release its hold on power,” Quinley said.

‘Milk Tea Alliance’

Protests are also planned in Thailand and Taiwan for Sunday, both part of Southeast Asia’s growing “Milk Tea Alliance”, demanding greater democracy in the region.

A protester in Bangkok told Al Jazeera people will march from Victory Monument to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s house, demanding limits to the king’s political power, the removal of the military from politics and greater social welfare programmes to curb poverty. The prime minister came to power in 2014, also by staging a coup.

“Right now we have to protest every day,” the protester said, adding she has seen increasing solidarity in Bangkok for the protests in Myanmar. “We get news about Myanmar every day. As much as about Thailand.”

Myanmar’s military government, which has struggled for international recognition and has faced widespread condemnation, visited Bangkok on Wednesday as its first trip abroad since the coup.

Myanmar’s military-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, met Prayuth and Indonesia’s foreign affairs minister Retno Marsudi, but the trip does not appear to have bolstered the military government’s legitimacy.

Indonesia released a statement that pointedly did not acknowledge Wunna Maung Lwin as a foreign minister and even Prayuth distanced himself, saying he was not “endorsing” the Myanmar regime.

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