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'Myanmar is like a battlefield': UN says at least 18 dead as security forces fire on protesters

A reporter in Yangon and Rebecca Ratcliffe
·6-min read

At least 18 people have been killed, according to the UN, after security forces in Myanmar used lethal violence against anti-coup protesters in the most deadly crackdown since the military seized power at the start of February.

Live bullets, stun grenades and teargas were fired at demonstrators in several towns and cities as police, backed by troops, attempted to stamp out countrywide rallies held in defiance of the junta.

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At least 18 people are believed to have been killed, and 30 injured, according to the UN human rights office, which strongly condemned the escalating violence against peaceful protesters.

The deaths reportedly occurred as a result of live ammunition fired into crowds in Yangon, Dawei, Mandalay, Myeik, Bago and Pakokku, it said.

In Yangon, a woman died after police used stun grenades to break up a teachers’ protest, though the cause of her death was not yet known, Reuters reported. In a separate incident in the city, a 23-year-old man was shot dead.

“The police approached and got their guns ready. We didn’t think that they would actually shoot,” said Ye Swan Htet, the man’s cousin, also 23, told the Guardian. The protest had been peaceful, he said, with crowds singing songs and clapping. “That’s all we did. And then they started shooting.”

Social media footage showed protesters in the city lifting bloodied people to safety. In one image published by Mizzima news, a protester raised his hand in a three-finger salute as he was taken away on a stretcher, a gesture used by demonstrators to signal their opposition to the military.

“Myanmar is like a battlefield,” the Buddhist-majority country’s first Catholic cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, said on Twitter. He shared a photograph of a nun in Kachin state, northern Myanmar, who knelt before a line of police officers, pleading for restraint.

Residents in Yangon rushed to build makeshift road blocks, ripping up pavement slabs and assembling bins to prevent police from charging. On top of a pile of rubble used to seal off a road, protesters had laid a poster of Aung San Suu Kyi, with the words: “She is our only belief.”

Protesters take cover as they clash with riot police in Yangon
Protesters take cover as they clash with riot police in Yangon on Sunday. Photograph: Reuters

Live ammunition was used across the city, including Hledan Junction, a gathering point for protesters, after police attempted to disperse crowds using teargas and stun grenades.

“We were part of an engineers’ march,” said a protester who was among a crowd of 10,000 people, but had fled to take refuge in a resident’s house. “Police started firing [teargas] at us at about 9am. We all ran in different directions. I don’t know what to do now. I will wait here for a while and see. It’s really bad, it was scary.”

Many of those taking to the streets wore gas masks, hats and goggles for protection, following an increasingly violent response by police on Saturday, when teargas and rubber bullets were used to disperse crowds. According to state-run MRTV television, more than 470 people were arrested at Saturday’s protests.

Related: Western powers' empty rhetoric is making things worse for Myanmar's protesters | Gabrielle Aron and Francis Wade

It is not clear how many were detained on Sunday, though dozens of medics are believed to have been taken. Social media footage showed doctors and nurses in white lab coats fleeing as the police threw stun grenades outside a medical school in Yangon.

“They are shooting civilians, they are terrorists. There is real cruelty,” said a paramedic who had transported the injured to Yangon General hospital. Several people were being treated for serious gun shot wounds, he said. “Many of the patients are young, some in their early 20s.” Medics had been striking in protest against the military, but returned to the hospital to treat wounded demonstrators.

A teacher in Yangon said she woke up to texts from her students saying goodbye, in the event that they were killed in the protests. “One messaged me and thanked me for my support over the years, ending with ‘we love you, bye for now’ while taking cover from police fire,” she said.

People in Yangon set up a barricade during a protest against the military coup on Saturday.
People in Yangon set up a barricade during a protest against the military coup on Saturday. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Several countries condemned the use of force against protesters, including Britain which called the violence abhorrent. “We are clear that this violence must stop and democracy must be restored,” a spokesperson for the Foreign Office said.

The US embassy said it was heartbroken by the loss of life, while Canada said it was appalled. The three countries have imposed sanctions.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, condemned the “abhorrent violence”. “We stand firmly with the courageous people of Burma & encourage all countries to speak with one voice in support of their will,” Blinken said on Twitter.

Indonesia, which has led efforts within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to respond to the crisis, expressed deep concern. Across Asia - in Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong – activists held rallies to support Myanmar’s protesters.

The military has faced huge public opposition after it seized power from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi this month, detaining her and other politicians from her party, National League for Democracy. It has accused the NLD, which won last year’s election, of voter fraud, a claim that has not been substantiated.

The military, which previously ruled the country for half a century, has promised to hold elections in one year’s time. Protesters are unconvinced by such pledges and have demanded the release of their elected leaders.

Over the past three weeks, rallies have been held in towns and cities across the country, at times with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets. Meanwhile, a national strike, which has drawn support from doctors, engineers, railway workers and farmers, has brought the country to a standstill, paralysing the military junta.

Related: With VPNs and fancy dress, Myanmar youth fight 'turning back of the clock'

On Friday night, Myanmar’s ambassador to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, gave an emotional address calling for international action to restore democracy and protect the people. By Saturday evening, MRTV, a Myanmar state-run television channel, announced he had been dismissed from his post, stating that he had abused his power.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not been seen in public since the coup, and her lawyer has said he has been unable to meet with her. She is accused of illegally importing walkie-talkies and of violating a natural disaster law by breaching coronavirus restrictions. Her next court hearing is expected to be held on Monday. If convicted of the charges, she may be prevented from running in future elections.