Dozens killed in deadliest day since Myanmar military takeover

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Dozens of people have reportedly been killed across Myanmar as soldiers and the police suppressed protests against last month’s military coup.

Protest

The deaths were reported as Myanmar’s military celebrated the annual Armed Forces Day holiday with a parade in the country’s capital, Naypyitaw.

A count issued by an independent researcher in Yangon, who has been compiling near real-time death tolls, put the total as darkness fell at 93, spread over more than two dozen cities and towns. The online news site Myanmar Now reported the death toll had reached 91.

Both numbers are greater than all estimates for the previous high on 14 March, which ranged in counts from 74 to 90 deaths.

Myanmar protester with a smoke bomb
Hundreds of demonstrators have been killed during protests against the coup (AP)

Figures collected by the researcher have generally tallied with the counts issued at the end of each day by the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, which documents deaths and arrests and is widely seen as a definitive source.

Read on...

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The killings quickly drew international condemnation, with multiple diplomatic missions to Myanmar releasing statements that mentioned the killing of civilians on 27 March, including children.

The European Union’s delegation to Myanmar said on Twitter:

This 76th Myanmar armed forces day will stay engraved as a day of terror and dishonour. The killing of unarmed civilians, including children, are indefensible acts

Democracy

The death toll in Myanmar has been steadily rising. Authorities are growing more forceful with their suppression of opposition to the 1 February coup.

The coup ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s also said to have reversed years of progress towards democracy after five decades of military rule.

Up through to 26 March, the Association of Political Prisoners had verified 328 people killed in the post-coup crackdown.

Junta chief senior general Min Aung Hlaing did not directly refer to the protest movement when he gave his nationally televised Armed Forces Day speech before thousands of soldiers in Naypyitaw. He referred only to “terrorism which can be harmful to state tranquility and social security”, and called it unacceptable.

This year’s event was seen as a flashpoint for violence. Demonstrators threatened to double down on their public opposition to the coup with more and bigger demonstrations.

The protesters refer to the holiday by its original name, Resistance Day. It marks the beginning of a revolt against Japanese occupation in the Second World War.

Police take part in a military parade
Police personnel participate in a parade during the national Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw (AP)

Shot in the back

State television MRTV, on the evening of 26 March, showed an announcement. It urged young people to learn a lesson from those killed during demonstrations about the danger of being shot in the head or back. Young people have been at the forefront of the protests and prominent among the casualties.

The warning was widely taken as a threat. Because a great number of the fatalities among protesters have come from being shot in the head, suggesting they’ve been targeted for death. The announcement suggested that some young people were taking part in protesting as if it was a game. And it urged their parents and friends to talk them out of participating.

In recent days the junta has portrayed the demonstrators as the ones perpetrating violence for their sporadic use of Molotov cocktails. On 27 March, some protesters in Yangon were seen carrying bows and arrows. In contrast, security forces have used live ammunition for weeks. That’s against what have still been overwhelmingly unarmed and peaceful crowds.

Myanmar protests
Anti-coup protesters extinguish fires during a protest in Thaketa township in Yangon (AP)

The military government does not issue regular casualty counts, and when it has released figures, the totals have been a fraction of what independent parties such as the UN have reported. It’s said its use of force has been justified to stop what it called rioting.

The coup

In his speech on 27 March, Min Aung Hlaing used the occasion to try to justify the overthrow of Suu Kyi’s government. Hlaing accused Suu Kyi’s government of failing to investigate irregularities in November’s general election. And he repeated that his government would hold “a free and fair election” and hand over power afterwards.

The military has claimed there were irregularities in the voting rolls for the last election. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won this election in a landslide.

Myanmar's military commander
Myanmar’s Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing (AP)

The junta detained Suu Kyi on the day it took power. And it continues to hold her on minor criminal charges while investigating allegations of corruption against her. Her supporters dismiss the allegations as politically motivated.

Phil Robertson is deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. He said the events on 27 March showed that the military, known in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw, should be prosecuted in international courts of law. He added:

This is a day of suffering and mourning for the Burmese people, who have paid for the Tatmadaw’s arrogance and greed with their lives, time and time again

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