UN envoy warns Myanmar facing violence escalation as protesters hit streets

Much of the country has been in open revolt since troops deposed Aung San Suu Kyi's government at the start of the month and took the civilian leader into custody, charging her under an obscure import law.

Protesters march during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on 7 February 2021. Picture: AFP

YANGON – The UN special envoy on Myanmar warned of the potential for an escalation of violence from security forces on Wednesday, as anti-coup protesters are expected to face off once again with the military.

Much of the country has been in open revolt since troops deposed Aung San Suu Kyi's government at the start of the month and took the civilian leader into custody, charging her under an obscure import law.

Security forces have stepped up measures to quell huge nationwide street protests and a disobedience campaign encouraging civil servants to strike, with troops fanning out around the country in recent days.

As the junta lifted a third straight overnight internet blackout, crowds were returning to the streets of Yangon on Wednesday morning.

UN special rapporteur Tom Andrews said he feared the situation was spiralling out of control, with reports of soldiers being brought into the commercial capital from outlying regions.

"I fear that Wednesday has the potential for violence on a greater scale in Myanmar than we have seen since the illegal takeover of the government on February 1," Andrews said in a statement.

"We could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar."

Rubber bullets, tear gas and even slingshots have been used against protesters, causing several injuries, with one young woman in critical condition in the capital Naypyidaw after being shot in the head last week.

The military said a police officer had died in Mandalay after a confrontation with protesters on Sunday.

"Those who committed lawless action on the police officer will be dealt with as necessary," an army statement said.

As the internet shutdown was lifted on Wednesday, a livestream broadcast on Facebook by local media showed a crowd gathered in Yangon's outskirts in front of a statue of Aung San -- the country's independence hero and Suu Kyi's father.

Demonstrations have been noticeably smaller since troops deployed at the weekend, but social media platforms had been flooded with calls for a show of force by anti-coup protesters before the blackout went into effect.

NEW CHARGE FOR SUU KYI

The military justified its power seizure by alleging widespread voter fraud in November elections won by Suu Kyi's party in a landslide.

After her detention in a dawn raid at the start of the month, Suu Kyi was charged under an obscure import and export law for unregistered walkie-talkies found in her home.

The Nobel laureate's lawyer told AFP on Tuesday she had been hit with a second charge, of violating the country's disaster management law.

Further details of the new charge have not been made public. The law has also been used against deposed president Win Myint for an election campaign event that the junta claims broke coronavirus restrictions.

Khin Maung Zaw added that Suu Kyi and Win Myint, both of whom he has yet to have any contact with, were expected to appear via video conference during a 1 March trial.

But Andrews said he had "word that a secretive trial" of Suu Kyi and deposed president Win Myint had begun this week, without offering more details.

'STAYING AT THEIR HOUSES'

Military spokesperson Zaw Min Tun said Tuesday that both Suu Kyi and Win Myint were in a "safer place" and "in good health".

"It's not like they were arrested -- they are staying at their houses," the general told a press conference.

More than 450 people have been arrested since the coup, according to a list of confirmed detentions from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.

There are numerous unconfirmed reports of other arrests.

The United States and Britain were not alone in their condemnation of the leaders of Myanmar's new military administration, which insists it took power lawfully.

Beijing's ambassador to Myanmar said Tuesday that the current situation in the country was "absolutely not what China wants to see".

So far, only Washington has announced targeted sanctions against the generals, calling on them to relinquish power.

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