Myanmar security forces use tear gas and rubber bullets on anti-coup protesters

Security forces in Myanmar have ratcheted up their pressure against anti-coup protesters, using water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets against demonstrators and striking dock workers in Mandalay.

Repression

At least five people were injured by rubber bullets in the nation’s second-largest city and had to be carried away in ambulances, according to an Associated Press journalist who witnessed the violence. Some 500 police and soldiers descended on the area near Yadanabon dock after dock workers joined the national civil disobedience movement, refusing to work until the military junta that seized power in a 1 February coup reinstates the democratically elected government.

Protesters and residents were forced to flee the neighbourhood amid the violence, as security forces chased after them.

A man is carried after police dispersed protesters in Mandalay, Myanmar
A man is carried after police dispersed protesters in Mandalay (AP)

There were reports of sounds that resembled gunfire, but it was not immediately clear whether it was tear gas canisters being fired or live bullets. A group of journalists was forced to flee after being hit with tear gas and catapult projectiles.

Earlier in the week in Mandalay, security forces cracked down on state railway workers in a similar fashion after they joined the civil disobedience movement. Less than an hour after the 8pm curfew started on 17 February, gunshots were heard as more than two dozen police officers with shields and helmets marched past railway workers’ housing.

Numerous videos posted on social media showed muzzle flashes as shots were heard, and some police shot catapults and threw rocks at the buildings. Marching chants of “left, right, left, right” could be heard along with shouts of “shoot, shoot”.

Red Cross workers carry a man on a stretcher in Mandalay, Myanmar
Red Cross workers carry a man on a stretcher in Mandalay, Myanmar (AP)

Mya Thwet Thwet Khine

On 20 February, anti-coup protesters in Myanmar’s two largest cities paid tribute to a young woman who died a day earlier after being shot by police during a rally against the military takeover. An impromptu memorial created under an elevated roadway in Yangon attracted around 1,000 protesters.

A wreath of bright yellow flowers was hung beneath a photograph of Mya Thwet Thwet Khine, who was shot in the capital Naypyitaw on 9 February, two days before her 20th birthday.

Her death on 19 February, announced by her family, was the first confirmed fatality among thousands of protesters who have faced off against security forces since top military commander Min Aung Hlaing took power in the coup.

Anti-coup protesters hold an image of Mya Thwet Thwet Khine with a sign that reads We Lost Our People during an anti-coup protest rally in Mandalay, Myanmar
Anti-coup protesters hold an image of Mya Thwet Thwet Khine with a sign that reads We Lost Our People during an anti-coup protest rally in Mandalay (AP)

Protesters at the memorial chanted and held up signs that read “End the dictatorship in Myanmar” and “You will be remembered Mya Thwet Thwet Khine.”

The supporters also laid roses and rose petals on images of the woman.

Video from the day she was shot show her sheltering from water cannons and suddenly dropping to the ground after a bullet penetrated the motorcycle helmet she was wearing. She had been on life support in hospital for more than a week with what doctors said was no chance of recovery.

Condolences

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price offered his government’s condolences on 19 February and reiterated calls on the military to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters.

In Mandalay, a protest led by medical university students drew more than 1,000 people, many of whom also carried flowers and images of Mya Thwet Thwet Khine.

Students from the University of Medicine march during an anti-coup protest rally in Mandalay, Myanmar
Students from the University of Medicine march during an anti-coup rally in Mandalay (AP)

Others held signs saying “CDM”, referring to the nationwide civil disobedience movement that has encouraged doctors, engineers, and others to protest against the coup by refusing to work. Across the country, protests showed no signs of slowing down on 20 February despite recent crackdowns by the military government – including a sixth consecutive night in which the internet was cut for many hours.

Demonstrators also gathered elsewhere in Yangon, chanting and holding placards and images of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose democratically elected government was overthrown. In 2019, Suu Kyi was criticised for defending the Myanmar military against allegations of genocide against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Suu Kyi was previously put under house arrest by the military for 15 years.

Aerial images taken on 19 February showed streets in Yangon painted with the words “The military dictatorship must fall” in Burmese, and “We want democracy” and “Free our leaders” in English.

Unwatched, unchecked

Security forces have been relatively restrained so far in confronting protesters in Yangon, but appeared to be toughening their stance in areas where there is less media presence. Police used force for a second day on 19 February to arrest protesters in Myitkyina, the capital of the remote northern state of Kachin.

The Kachin ethnic minority has long been in conflict with the central government, and there has been intermittent armed struggle against the army there for decades. The junta seized power after detaining Suu Kyi and preventing parliament from convening, saying elections in November were tainted by voting irregularities.

Anti-coup protesters hold identical posters with an image of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi as they gather outside the Hledan Centre in Yangon, Myanmar
Anti-coup protesters hold identical posters with an image of deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi outside the Hledan Centre in Yangon (AP)

The election outcome, in which Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide, was affirmed by an election commission that has since been replaced by the military. The junta says it will hold new elections in a year’s time.

Sanctions

The US, British, and Canadian governments have imposed sanctions on the new military leaders, and they and other nations have called for Suu Kyi’s administration to be restored. The coup was a major setback to Myanmar’s transition to democracy after 50 years of army rule.

Suu Kyi came to power after her National League for Democracy party won a 2015 election, but the generals retained substantial power under the constitution, which was adopted under a military regime.

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