YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – Demonstrators in Myanmar took to the streets again on Tuesday to protest last month’s seizure of power by the military, as foreign ministers from Southeast Asian countries met to discuss the political crisis. Police in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, used tear gas and rubber bullets against the protesters.
The special meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, held by video conference because of the coronavirus pandemic, comes in the wake of worsening violence in Myanmar. Results of the meeting of the 10-member regional grouping were expected to be announced Tuesday evening.
Myanmar‘s new military rulers escalated their use of deadly force and mass arrests over the weekend to try to quash protests against the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The U.N. said it believed at least 18 people in several cities were killed on Sunday when security forces opened fire to disperse demonstrating crowds. Funerals were being held Tuesday for several of the victims.
The authorities also detained more than 1,000 people over the weekend, according to the independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Those detained included at least seven journalists, among them Thein Zaw of The Associated Press. At least two dozen journalists have been detained since the military’s takeover.
The weekend’s crackdown drew international condemnation. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and arbitrary arrests “unacceptable,” said his spokesperson.
The U.S., British and other governments issued similar statements of concern.
However, there was no sign Tuesday that the junta was backing down from the massive use of force to crush the protests. At the same time, it appeared that the protesters, who have employed nonviolent tactics, are beginning to resist more rigorously. In the past few days, more and more have been carrying homemade shields and wearing construction helmets, and videos show a greater number trying to stand their ground and throw objects at the police.
Some fear the junta’s escalating use of force is meant to provoke a violent backlash by the demonstrators in order to discredit them and justify an even harsher crackdown.
U.N. Special Envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener described the situation as “very dangerous” because she believes the army is waiting for the protesters to take up arms to defend themselves.
“I beg the people in Myanmar not to fall in this trap, so to stay peaceful,” she said in a Monday interview with CNN, acknowledging that it was easier for her, safely away from the violence, to urge peaceful protesting. She also accused the authorities of spreading rumors about the conditions of people already under detention to stir up even more anger on the streets.
Despite international condemnation, the security forces on Tuesday continued to crack down hard on protesters, using tear gas, rubber bullets and what appeared to be stun grenades. Reports that they were firing live ammunition could not immediately be confirmed.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in the morning in the Hledan area of Yangon, where a day earlier police had fired repeated rounds of tear gas canisters. The protesters, many of whom wore construction helmets, dragged bamboo poles and debris to form barricades to impede any attempt to rush forward and make arrests, and chanted slogans and sang songs at the police lines. They even threw banana skins onto the road in front of them as an extra hazard to any police rush.
The demonstrators – hundreds of mainly young people – fled in panic as tear gas canisters were fired but soon returned to their barricades. The retreat and regroup tactic was repeated over and over as police kept the pressure on.
Videos posted on social media showed similar chaotic scenes in the Insein neighborhood of northern Yangon.
Protesters also took up their flags and banners to march through the streets of Dawei, a small city in southeastern Myanmar that has seen almost daily large demonstrations against the coup.
Some also carried metal shields. On Sunday, Dawei was the scene of a violent crackdown, with up to five people killed when security forces shot into a large crowd of demonstrators.
Two groups of demonstrators marched in the morning. One group was targeted by the security forces as it entered a narrow street on its way to pay respects at the house of a man killed in Sunday’s crackdown. Another was attacked on the main street in the city’s center.
The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar after five decades of military rule, coming the day a newly elected Parliament was supposed to take office. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party would have been installed for a second five-year term in office, but instead she was detained along with President Win Myint and other senior officials.
The military government has charged Suu Kyi with several criminal offenses that critics say are politically motivated and are meant to keep her locked up. If convicted of any of the charges, she would probably be barred from taking part in the election promised in a year’s time by the military.
Following her detention on the day of the coup, the 75-year-old Suu Kyi was initially held at her residence in the capital, Naypyitaw, but members of her party now say they don’t know where she is.
The protesters and their supporters have appealed for help from abroad but there are few prospects for major intervention.
The U.N.’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, in a Monday statement proposed that countries could institute a global embargo on the sale of arms to Myanmar and “tough, targeted and coordinated sanctions” against those responsible for the coup, the crackdown and other rights abuses.
Any kind of coordinated action at the United Nations, however, would be difficult since two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China and Russia, would almost certainly veto it. ASEAN’s policy of seeking a consensus among its members also makes it unlikely to take strong action.
Some countries have imposed or are considering imposing their own sanctions. In Washington, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan issued a statement saying the U.S. is “alarmed” by the violence and stands in solidarity with Myanmar’s people.
Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.
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