Myanmar security forces killed at least 11 protesters on Saturday, witnesses said, in a violent crackdown on demonstrations across the country as the military regime staged a major show of force for its annual Armed Forces parade.
The nation has been in turmoil since the generals ousted and detained civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February, triggering a major uprising demanding a return to democracy.
Violent morning crackdowns by security forces thwarted some plans for fresh protests that had been called in various cities to coincide with the parade in the capital Naypyidaw.
As troops carried torches and flags while marching alongside army vehicles, junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing again defended the coup and pledged to yield power after new elections.
But he also issued another threat to the anti-coup movement that has gripped the country since he took charge, warning that acts of “terrorism which can be harmful to state tranquillity and security” were unacceptable.
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“The democracy we desire would be an undisciplined one if they pay no respect to and violate the law,” he said.
Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the start of local resistance to the Japanese occupation during World War II, usually accompanies a military parade attended by foreign officers and diplomats.
But the junta has struggled to achieve international recognition since taking control of Myanmar and said eight international delegations attended Saturday’s event, including China and Russia.
– Death and mayhem –
By noon, violence had erupted around the country as protesters attempted to return to the streets to call for democracy.
A doctor in central Mandalay region’s Wundwin town confirmed the death of two protesters, while in northeast Shan state, police and troops opened fire on a rally by university students, witnesses told AFP.
A rescue worker confirmed at least three had died — corroborating local media reports — but his team was not able to remove the bodies.
“Our rescue members tried to drag them out when they were shot, but there was so much shooting,” he said.
Across commercial hub, Yangon, plumes of smoke rose above the former capital which has emerged as a hotspot for unrest in recent weeks.
An overnight gathering in front of a police station in the city’s south — where demonstrators called for the release of their friends — became violent around midnight, and the shooting only stopped around 4:00 am, said a resident.
At least five died, one of them a 20-year-old boy in her neighbourhood.
“We are going to his funeral today,” she told AFP. “The conditions on the ground are very scary at the moment.”
Further north near the notorious Insein prison, a pre-dawn rally — which had protesters wearing bicycle helmets and shielded by sandbag barricades — devolved into chaos when soldiers started shooting.
At least one was killed — a 21-year-old police officer, Chit Lin Thu, who had joined the anti-coup movement.
“He was shot in the head and died at home,” his father Joseph told AFP.
“I am extremely sad for him, but at the same time, I am proud of my son”.
– ‘Enemy of democracy’ –
As the military commemorated Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) — a group of ousted parliamentarians working underground against the junta — condemned the show of might after a bloody seven weeks.
“We should not allow these military generals to celebrate after they killed our brothers and sisters,” said its UN special envoy, who goes by the moniker Dr Sasa.
Speaking during a Facebook live stream of a “Global Virtual Protest” — which brought together the Myanmar diaspora around the world — his speech got 20,000 reactions.
“They are the enemy of democracy,” said Sasa. “We will never surrender until democracy is achieved until federal democracy is built, and until freedom comes to our people.”
Security forces have increasingly cracked down with lethal force on demonstrations against the coup in recent weeks, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and live rounds to break up rallies.
A message broadcast on state television warned young people not to participate in what it called a “violent movement” against the military regime.
“Learn the lesson from those who have brutally died… do not die for nothing,” it said.
Nearly 330 people have died in demonstrations against the coup — including a large number killed by direct headshots from security forces — and more than 3,000 others have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.
The protest movement has also included widespread strikes by civil servants, which have brought many basic government functions to a halt.
Coming on top of a Covid pandemic that hit Myanmar hard, the events since the coup have also struck the economy. The World Bank has warned the country faces a huge 10 percent slump in GDP in 2021.