Myanmar coup: military steps up action against protesters

Demonstrators hold up placards supported the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in front of a military vehicle during a protest outside the central bank in Yangon, Monday. (Keystone / EPA / LYNN BO BO)

Myanmar’s military deployed armoured vehicles onto the streets of several cities across the country on Sunday and warned protesters they could face up to 20 years in prison.

Anti-coup protesters calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and an end to military rule continued on Monday while the military stepped up its presence on the streets of Myanmar and threatened demonstrators with long prison sentences and fines.

The military coup and detainment of Suu Kyi, along with over 400 others including government officials, activists, students, since 1 February has sparked mass protests across the country. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets since the coup 10 days ago to denounce the actions of the armed forces - known locally as the Tatmadaw.

Read also: UN Human Rights Council calls for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi

In addition to demonstrations in towns and cities across the country, the Tatmadaw are also facing a growing civil disobedience movement aimed at crippling the military junta, including strikes by government workers, civil servants and employees of the country’s banks.

So far, accounts of violence used against the peaceful protesters have been limited, although there were reports of police using live ammunition against crowds last week when a woman was shot in the head in the capital Naypyitaw.

However, there are concerns that a potential crackdown against anti-coup opposition is looming.

Armoured vehicles were deployed in the city of Yangon and several towns across the county on Sunday, and there has been an increase in soldiers on the streets to aid the police who have been overseeing the protests. These troops were reported include members of the 77th Light Infantry Division force, which is accused of brutality against ethnic minority insurgents and protests in the past.

There were also reports of security forces firing rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators gathered in the cities of Mandalay and Myitkyina on Monday, as crowds continued to protest despite the heightened military presence.

The ruling junta has also announced a series of legal changes including the threat of long prison sentences up to 20 years and fines to anyone found to incite “hatred of contempt” towards the coup leaders, “by words, with spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation. ”The announcement of the new laws came just hours after the internet in the country was restored, following an eight-hour blackout ordered by the military.

“It's as if the generals have declared war on the people,” UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said on Twitter on Sunday.

The junta has also suspended laws requiring court orders for detaining people longer than 24 hours and searching private property as the number of people detained since the start of the coup exceeded 400.

Ousted leader Suu Kyi was expected to face a court in the capital Naypyidaw on Monday charged with illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios, but this has been postponed to Wednesday.

The news came after the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Friday calling for Suu Kyi's immediate release and a return to civilian rule.

In a statement released on Sunday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was "deeply concerned" about reports of the use of excessive force by security personnel and "the reported deployment of additional armored vehicles to major cities". He urged the Myanmar's military leaders to "ensure the right of peaceful assembly is fully respected and demonstrators are not subjected to reprisals".