Myanmar marks 100 days of junta rule with protests, strikes

(Reuters) – Protesters rallied in towns and cities around Myanmar on Tuesday to denounce its military rulers, 100 days after the generals’ overthrow of an elected government pitched the country into its biggest crisis in decades.

Demonstrators took part in marches, motorcycle convoys and flash protests to evade security forces, some making three-finger gestures of defiance as anti-coup groups renewed calls for the toppling of a junta that has been condemned around the world for killing hundreds of civilians.

The junta has struggled to govern Myanmar since seizing power on Feb. 1. Protests, strikes and a civil disobedience campaign have crippled businesses and the bureaucracy in an overwhelming public rejection of the return of military rule.

Protesters in the biggest city Yangon carried a banner saying “Yangon strikes for complete removal of the enemy,” while demonstrators in Hpakant in Kachin State marched chanting “the revolution must prevail”.

Demonstrators in Hpakant, the Saigang region and elsewhere held signs in support of a National Unity Government (NUG), an anti-junta coalition that has declared itself Myanmar’s legitimate authority. Last week the NUG announced the formation of a “People’s Defense Force”.

The NUG’s spokesman Dr. Sasa, said in a tweet he and other ministers of the parallel government would meet with a U.S. assistant secretary of state on Tuesday to discuss how the United States and its allies “can work together to end this reign of terror”. He did not elaborate on the meeting.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of the meeting.

The military arrested elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi hours before the coup. It said its takeover was to protect Myanmar’s fledgling democracy after a November election that it said was marred by fraud. Suu Kyi’s party says its landslide win was legitimate.

INTERNATIONAL CRIMES

In a statement on Tuesday, the NUG said rank-and-file members of the military should recognize that they were responsible for committing international crimes.

“It is time to answer the question clearly whether you will stand on the side of human rights and fairness, or you will continue to violate human rights by committing violence and then face the international court,” it said.

Despite the imposition of limited economic sanctions by the United States, the European Union and others, the junta has shown no sign of compromise. It has the tacit support of neighboring China, a major investor and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Tuesday’s protests took place amid sporadic violence in the country that has included deadly attacks on military-appointed administrators and weeks of small explosions involving homemade bombs, which the junta says is the work of the ousted government.

The NUG has said the military has orchestrated such attacks as a pretext for its crackdown.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV said two members of the security forces were killed and three others wounded on Monday evening in an attack by “terrorists” in the Sagaing region.

A group calling itself the Sagaing People Defense Force, in a statement earlier on Tuesday, claimed responsibility for an attack on security personnel around the same time in the same area, which it said killed three people.

News reporting and information flow inside Myanmar has been severely impacted since the coup, with restrictions on internet access, a ban on foreign broadcasts and some news organizations ordered to close, accused by authorities of inciting rebellion.

Security forces have killed 781 people since the coup, including 52 children, and 3,843 people are in detention, according to the Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group, whose figures are being used by the United Nations.

The U.N. human rights body said on Tuesday the military was showing no let-up in its efforts to consolidate power and its human rights violations went far beyond killings.

“It is clear that there needs to be greater international involvement to prevent the human rights situation in Myanmar from deteriorating further,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; writing by Martin Petty; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Myanmar announces ban on satellite TV as security threat

(Reuters) -Myanmar’s junta-controlled media announced a ban on satellite television receivers on Tuesday, saying outside broadcasts threatened national security and threatening to jail anyone caught violating the measure.

With mobile internet access largely cut off in a bid to quell anti-junta protests since the Feb. 1 coup, Myanmar has increasingly appeared headed back to the state of isolation that preceded a decade of democratic reforms.

“Satellite television is no longer legal. Whoever violates the television and video law, especially people using satellite dishes, shall be punished with one year imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 kyat ($320),” MRTV state television said.

“Illegal media outlets are broadcasting news that undermines national security, the rule of law and public order, and encouraging those who commit treason.”

In the face of widespread opposition, the junta has struggled to impose order since overthrowing elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ending an unsteady transition to democracy.

Violence has spiraled since the coup and security forces have killed more than 760 civilians, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) advocacy group says. The junta disputes the figure and says 24 police and soldiers have died in the protests.

Myanmar media reported that five people were killed by at least one parcel bomb on Tuesday, including an ousted lawmaker and three police officers who had joined a civil disobedience movement opposing military rule.

Meanwhile, the Chinland Defense Force, a newly formed militia in Chin state bordering India, said on its Facebook page on Tuesday that its forces had killed at least four Myanmar army soldiers and wounded 10 in a clash overnight.

The Myanmar army did not comment on the claim.

Villagers had found the beheaded body of a junta appointed local administrator in the northwestern Sagaing region, independent broadcaster DVB reported, a day after another local official was stabbed to death in the biggest city, Yangon.

Reuters was unable to reach local police for comment.

Pro-democracy supporters held protests on Tuesday in the second-biggest city of Mandalay, including one by education staff calling for a boycott of schools and universities when they reopen in June, Myanmar Now reported.

The junta said it had to seize power because its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Suu Kyi’s party were not addressed by an election commission that deemed the vote fair.

Suu Kyi, 75, has been detained since the coup along with many other members of her party.

(Reporting by Reuters StaffWriting by Ed Davies and Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Angus MacSwan)

Myanmar unity government tells ASEAN no talks until prisoners freed

(Reuters) – Myanmar’s pro-democracy unity government, formed to oppose the military junta that seized power nearly three months ago, on Wednesday ruled out talks on the crisis until all political prisoners are released.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been trying to find a path for Myanmar out of the bloody turmoil that followed the Feb. 1 coup and has called for an end to violence and talks between all sides.

But the junta has already declined to accept proposals to resolve the crisis that emerged from an ASEAN summit last weekend that was attended by Myanmar’s Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, while no-one from the civilian side was invited.

The pro-democracy National Unity Government (NUG), which includes members of parliament ousted by the coup, said Southeast Asia’s regional bloc should be engaging with it as the legitimate representative of the people.

“Before any constructive dialogue can take place, however, there must be an unconditional release of political prisoners including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” the NUG prime minister, Minister Mahn Winn Khaing Thann, said in a statement.

There was no immediate comment from any senior officials in ASEAN.

Win Myint, Suu Kyi and others have been detained since the coup, which the military launched as Suu Kyi’s government was preparing for a second term after sweeping a November election.

The military said it had to seize power because its complaints of fraud in the election were not being addressed by an election commission that deemed the vote fair.

Pro-democracy protests have taken place in cities and towns across the country since the coup. The military has cracked down with lethal force on the protesters, killing more than 750 people, an activist group says. Reuters is unable to confirm the casualties as the junta has clamped down on media freedoms and journalists are among the many people who have been detained.

Protesters marched in support of the NUG in the second city of Mandalay on Wednesday, the Myanmar Now media outlet reported. There was no report of violence.

Alarmed by the turmoil in one of its members, ASEAN held a meeting on Saturday in the Indonesian capital with the leader of the junta in a bid to press him to end the crisis.

ASEAN leaders said after the meeting they had reached a “five-point consensus” on steps to end violence and promote dialogue between the rival Myanmar sides.

MORE AIR STRIKES

The junta later said it would give “careful consideration” to ASEAN’s suggestions, which included appointing an envoy to visit Myanmar, “when the situation returns to stability” and provided that ASEAN’s recommendations facilitated the junta’s own roadmap and served the country’s interests.

Activists had earlier criticized the plan, saying it helped to legitimize the junta and fell far short of their demands.

In particular, it did not call for the release of Suu Kyi, 75, and other political prisoners. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group says more than 3,400 people have been detained for opposing the coup.

The coup has also exacerbated old conflicts between the military and ethnic minority insurgents who have been battling for years for greater autonomy in frontier regions.

Fighting has flared between the army and Karen insurgents in the east near the Thai border, and between the army and Kachin insurgents in the north, near the border with China.

Clashes have also broken out in Chin State, which is on the border with India, between anti-coup activists and security forces. Myanmar Now reported 30 government soldiers were killed in four days of clashes there.

A spokesman for the military did not answer calls seeking comment.

Karen insurgents captured Myanmar army posts near the Thai border on Tuesday in some of the most intense clashes since the coup which included air strikes by the military.

The military launched more air strikes in the area on Wednesday with both jets and helicopters, Thai authorities monitoring the fighting said, but there was no immediate word on casualties.

About 100 villagers, mostly children, elderly, and pregnant women, crossed to the Thai side of the border to escape the air strikes, the Free Burma Rangers aid group said.

The Karen and other ethnic minority forces based in frontier regions have supported the largely urban-based pro-democracy opponents of the junta.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel; Editing by Christian Schmollinger & Simon Cameron-Moore)

ASEAN calls summit on Myanmar crisis as EU imposes sanctions

(Reuters) -Southeast Asian countries will discuss the crisis in Myanmar at a summit in Jakarta on Saturday, the ASEAN bloc’s secretariat said on Tuesday, but Thailand’s prime minister said several will be represented only by their foreign ministers.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he would not be attending and that Thailand would be represented by Deputy Prime Minister Don Pramudwinai, who is also foreign minister.

“Some other countries will also send their foreign ministers,” Prayuth, a former army chief who led a coup in Thailand in 2014, told reporters after a weekly cabinet meeting.

A Thai government official said on Saturday that Myanmar junta chief Min Aung Hlaing would go to Jakarta, although the Myanmar government has not commented. However, this is seen as unlikely – in previous stints of military rule, Myanmar has usually been represented at regional meetings by a prime minister or foreign minister.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been trying to find a way to guide fellow member Myanmar out of the bloody turmoil that it descended into after the military overthrew an elected government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, on Feb. 1.

But there have been divergent views among ASEAN members over how to respond to the army’s use of lethal force against civilians and the group’s policies of consensus and non-interference in each others’ affairs have limited its ability to act.

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have sought to ramp up pressure on the junta. Thailand, Myanmar’s neighbor, has said it is “gravely concerned” about escalating bloodshed, but close military ties and fears of a flood of refugees mean it is unlikely to go further.

Brunei, the current chair of the bloc, said after a meeting of the group’s foreign ministers in March that ASEAN expressed concern about the situation in Myanmar and called on “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence”.

LITTLE WILLINGNESS

Romeo Jr. Abad Arca, assistant director of the community relations division of the ASEAN Secretariat, said Saturday’s summit would take place at its Jakarta headquarters under strict health and security protocols due to the pandemic, confirming an earlier advisory.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group, 738 people have been killed by Myanmar security forces since the coup.

Myanmar’s military has shown little willingness to engage with its neighbors and no sign of wanting to talk to members of the government it ousted, accusing some of them of treason, which is punishable by death.

Pro-democracy politicians including ousted members of parliament from Suu Kyi’s party announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) on Friday.

It includes Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the coup, as well as leaders of the pro-democracy protests and ethnic minorities.

The NUG says it is the legitimate authority and has called for international recognition and an invitation to the ASEAN meeting in place of the junta leader.

Former U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged his successor to engage directly with Myanmar’s military to prevent rising violence and said Southeast Asian countries should not dismiss the turmoil as an internal issue for Myanmar.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, has communicated with the military since the coup, but the junta has not allowed her to visit.

In its firmest response yet, the European Union said on Monday nine members of the junta’s State Administration Council, formed the day after the coup, had been targeted with travel bans and asset freezes. Information Minister U Chit Naing was sanctioned also.

The decision follows similar measures by the United States. Min Aung Hlaing and Myint Swe, who has been acting president since the coup, were blacklisted by the EU last month.

(Reporting by Reuters StaffWriting by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Opponents of Myanmar coup form unity government, aim for ‘federal democracy’

(Reuters) -Opponents of Myanmar’s junta announced a National Unity Government on Friday including ousted members of parliament and leaders of anti-coup protests and ethnic minorities, saying their aim was to end military rule and restore democracy.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the Feb. 1 coup that ousted a civilian government led by democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi which had held power for five years and was starting its second term after a landslide election victory in November.

People have taken to the streets day after day to demand the restoration of democracy, defying crackdowns by the security forces in which more than 700 people have been killed, according to a monitoring group.

At the same time, political leaders, including ousted members of parliament from Suu Kyi’s party, have been trying to organize to show the country and the outside world that they and not the generals are the legitimate political authority.

“Please welcome the people’s government,” veteran democracy activist Min Ko Naing said in a 10-minute video address announcing the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG).

While setting out few positions, Min Ko Naing said the will of the people was the unity government’s priority, while acknowledging the scale of the task at hand.

“We’re trying to get this out from the roots so we have to sacrifice a lot,” he said, referring to the junta.

A spokesman for the junta could not be reached for comment.

The generals justified their takeover with accusations of fraud in the November election won by Suu Kyi’s party, though the election commission dismissed the objections.

One of the unity government’s primary objectives will be to win international support and recognition.

“We are the democratically elected leaders of Myanmar,” said the unity government’s minister of international cooperation, Dr Sasa, who goes by one name.

“So if the free and democratic world rejects us that means they reject democracy.”

International pressure has been building on the Myanmar military, particularly from Western governments that have imposed limited sanctions, though the generals have a long record of dismissing what they see as outside interference.

The unity government released a list of office holders including members of ethnic minorities and protest leaders, underlining the unity of purpose between the pro-democracy movement and autonomy-seeking minority communities, some of whom have battled the central government for decades.

CLAPPING IN THE DARK

Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the coup, was listed as state counsellor, the post she held in government.

The only known communication she has had with the outside world since the coup has been monitored video calls with her lawyers.

A spokesman for the democratic politicians said while they could not inform her about their new government, he was sure she was aware of what was happening.

Sasa told Reuters the objective was to end violence, restore democracy and build a “federal democratic union”. The military, while playing lip service to the idea of federalism, has long seen itself as the core power holding the country together.

Unity government leaders said they intended to form a federal army and were in talks with ethnic minority forces.

The Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, a group of international experts including former United Nations officials, hailed the creation of the NUG as historic and said it was the legitimate government.

After darkness fell over Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon, people clapped at their windows and chanted “our government,” video posted by activists on Twitter showed. Some community groups reported the sound of explosions and gunfire shortly afterwards.

While the politicians were announcing the unity government, other opponents of military rule observed a “silent strike” staying home to mourn those killed or wearing black in small marches in half a dozen cities and towns, media reported.

Yangon’s streets were largely deserted, residents said.

There were no immediate reports of violence at Friday’s rallies.

The military has also been rounding up critics and state media announced arrest warrants for 20 doctors on charges of encouraging dissent in the armed forces. The junta is seeking more than 200 people, including several internet celebrities, actors and singers, on the same change.

The turmoil has alarmed Myanmar’s neighbors in Southeast Asia who have been trying to encourage talks between the rival sides.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Myanmar, will meet in Indonesia on April 24 to discuss the situation, Thai and Indonesian media reported.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was due to attend, a Thai broadcaster said, but the Jakarta Post said it had not been confirmed whether the summit would include representatives of the junta or the former government.

Sasa said ASEAN should not invite “murderer-in-chief” Min Aung Hlaing.

(Reporting by Reuters staff, writing by Robert Birsel; editing by Jane Wardell, Simon Cameron-Moore and Angus MacSwan)

Suu Kyi faces new charge under Myanmar’s secrets act; wireless internet suspended

(Reuters) -Myanmar’s deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been charged with breaking a colonial-era official secrets law, her lawyer said on Thursday, the most serious charge against the veteran opponent of military rule.

Myanmar has been rocked by protests since the army overthrew Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1 citing unsubstantiated claims of fraud in a November election that her party swept.

In a new measure to stifle communication about the turmoil, the junta ordered internet service providers to shut down wireless broadband services until further notice, several telecoms sources said.

Suu Kyi and other members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) have been detained since the coup and the junta had earlier accused her of several minor offences including illegally importing six handheld radios and breaching coronavirus protocols.

Her chief lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, told Reuters by telephone that Suu Kyi, three of her deposed cabinet ministers and a detained Australian economic adviser, Sean Turnell, were charged a week ago in a Yangon court under the official secrets law, adding he learned of the new charge two days ago.

A conviction under the law can carry a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

A spokesman for the junta did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

Suu Kyi, who is 75 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, appeared via video link for a hearing in connection with the earlier charges on Thursday. Another of her lawyers, Min Min Soe, said she appeared to be in good health.

“Amay Su and President U Win Myint are in good health,” the lawyer said, referring to Suu Kyi by an affectionate term for mother. The president, a Suu Kyi ally, was also deposed and detained in the coup. He too faces various charges.

Their lawyers have said the charges against both of them were trumped up.

At least 538 civilians have been killed in protests against the coup, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group.

Protesters were back out in several places on Thursday and two more people were killed, according to media reports, as activists burned copies of a military-framed constitution and called for unity among all those opposed to army rule.

One person was killed and five wounded when the security forces fired in the central town of Monywa, the Monywa Gazette reported.

Security forces also opened fire in the second largest city of Mandalay killing one person, media reported. Shots rang out and black smoke drifted over Myanmar’s ancient royal capital.

Police and a spokesman for the military did not answer calls seeking comment.

The suspension of wireless internet connections is likely to cripple communications about the protests in a country where very people few have access to fixed line connections.

‘NEW DAY’

The coup has also triggered new clashes in Myanmar’s old wars.

At least 20 soldiers were killed and four military trucks destroyed in clashes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Myanmar’s most powerful rebel groups, DVB news reported.

Reuters could not immediately verify the reports and a junta spokesman did not answers calls seeking comment on the clash.

Myanmar military aircraft have started bombing positions of another group, the Karen National Union (KNU), for the first time in more than 20 years and thousands of villagers have fled from their homes, many into Thailand.

The army takeover has led to calls for a united opposition among city-based democracy campaigners and ethnic minority forces battling in frontier regions.

Ousted members of parliament, mostly from Suu Kyi’s party, have vowed to set up a federal democracy in a bid to address a long-standing demand from minority groups for autonomy.

They also announced the scrapping of the 2008 constitution drawn up by the military that enshrines its control over politics. The military has long rejected federalism, seeing itself as the central power holding the fractious country together.

Social media posts showed copies of the constitution, real and symbolic, being burned at rallies and in homes.

“The new day begin here!” Dr Sasa, the international envoy for the ousted parliamentarians said on Twitter, referring to what for now is not a change that proponents can make.

Britain’s Next on Thursday joined a growing list of European clothing retailers suspending new production orders with factories in Myanmar in the wake of the coup.

(Reporting by Reuters StaffWriting by Ed Davies and Robert BirselEditing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry)

Myanmar’s Suu Kyi ‘looks healthy’, lawyer says, as U.S. orders non-essential staff to leave

(Reuters) -Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in good health in a video meeting on Wednesday, one of her lawyers said, as the United States ordered its non-essential embassy staff to leave after “horrifying” violence against opponents of a coup.

The detained Nobel laureate, who has been held in custody since the military seized power on Feb. 1, had wanted to meet lawyers in person and did not agree to a wide discussion by video in the presence of police, lawyer Min Min Soe told Reuters by telephone.

“Amay looks healthy, her complexion is good,” Min Min Soe said, using an affectionate term meaning “mother” to refer to Suu Kyi.

Only the legal cases against her filed since the coup were discussed during the video conference, the lawyer said.

Suu Kyi, 75, was arrested the same day the military seized power and faces charges that include illegally importing six handheld radios and breaching coronavirus protocols.

The military has also accused her of bribery in two recent news conferences. Her lawyers say the charges were trumped up and dismissed the accusation of bribery as a joke.

The next hearing in her case is on Thursday.

The military seized power saying that November elections won by Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent. The election commission said the vote was fair.

The reimposition of military rule after a decade of tentative steps towards democracy has triggered unrelenting opposition.

At least 521 civilians have been killed in protests, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Fighting has also flared between the army and ethnic minority insurgents in frontier regions. Refugees fleeing the turmoil are seeking safety in neighboring countries.

Thousands of protesters were out again on Wednesday in different parts of the country.

Residents in the main city of Yangon banged pots and pans and honked their car horns in a clamor of defiance as a news crew from CNN was shown around in what its correspondent said was a heavily armed convoy.

Media reported a gun battle between security forces and civilians near the northwestern town of Kale. Voice of Myanmar said one villager was killed and several policemen wounded.

A branch official from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), U Kyaw Kyaw, died at an interrogation center on Tuesday, two weeks after he was detained, a party colleague, Phyo Zewa Thaw, said on Facebook. He was the third NLD member to die in custody since the coup.

Police and a spokesman for the junta did not answer calls seeking comment.

There is growing international concern about prospects for the country with no sign of a path out of the crisis. The junta has not taken up offers from its Southeast Asian neighbors to help find a solution.

The United States on Tuesday ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and family members due to concern over what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the “increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence” against demonstrators.

AIR ATTACKS

City-based opponents of military rule have called for a united front with insurgent groups that have battled the government for decades for greater autonomy in the border regions.

The military sees itself as the only institution capable of holding the country together.

Myanmar’s oldest rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU), said on Tuesday it was bracing for a major government offensive on its areas of operation along the eastern border with Thailand.

The KNU urged the international community, and Thailand in particular, to help Karen people fleeing the “onslaught” and called for countries to cut ties with the junta.

Military aircraft have been bombing KNU fighters since the weekend and thousands of villagers have fled from their homes, many into Thailand.

Seven people were killed on Tuesday in an air strike on a gold-panning operation in KNU territory, the Irrawaddy reported.

Fighting has also increased in the north between government forces and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) insurgents.

People have also been crossing from northwest Myanmar into India.

Western countries have condemned the coup and called for Suu Kyi’s release. Some have imposed limited sanctions.

But those pressing for change have limited leverage in a country that was largely isolated for decades under strict military rule, and which retains the support of countries like Russia and China.

In Washington, Blinken said foreign countries and companies with significant investments in enterprises that support Myanmar’s military should reconsider those stakes.

India’s Adani Group said it would consult authorities and stakeholders on its port project in Myanmar, after human rights groups reported its subsidiary had agreed to pay millions of dollars in rent to a military-controlled firm.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Thailand denies forcing back Myanmar refugees blocked at border

By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat

MAE SARIANG, Thailand (Reuters) – Thai authorities on Monday denied forcing back more than 2,000 refugees who had fled air strikes in Myanmar, but a local official said it was government policy for the army to block them at the border and deny access to outside aid groups.

Thousands of people fled Myanmar over the weekend after fighter jets attacked villages near the border held by a force from the Karen ethnic group that had attacked a military post in the wake of a Feb. 1 coup by Myanmar’s army.

Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, told Reuters that thousands of people had been forced to return to the Ee Thu Hta displacement camp on the Myanmar side of the border. Another activist group gave the number as 2,009.

Video shot by a Karen villager and published by Reuters showed refugees boarding boats under the watch of Thai soldiers.

“Look, Thai soldiers told villagers to go back. Here, see old people have to go back. Look there, there are lots of Thai soldiers,” a Karen villager is heard saying. Authorities stopped Reuters reporters from accessing the area.

Thichai Jindaluang, governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, told reporters the refugees were not being pushed back. They were in a safe place on the fringes of the border in Mae Sariang and Sop Moei districts, state media reported.

“Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said in a statement, also saying the reports that the Karens had been pushed back were inaccurate.

“BLOCK THOSE THAT FLED”

But Sangkhom Khadchiangsaen, chief of Mae Sariang District, told a local meeting that those fleeing should be blocked.

“All agencies should follow the policy of the National Security Council which is we need to block those that fled and maintain them along the border,” he said, referring to the government’s security coordinating body.

“The military has the main responsibility in managing the situation on the ground and we must not allow officials from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), NGOs or other international organizations to have direct contact and communication. This is absolutely forbidden.”

Tanee told Reuters he had no further comment on what the local official had said.

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Human rights groups and the European Karen Network, a foreign based support group, criticized the Thai government.

“Thailand’s heartless and illegal act must stop now,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said earlier on Monday the government was prepared to accept refugees and rebuffed claims that Thailand was supporting Myanmar’s junta.

Myanmar security forces have killed at least 459 people since seizing power as it seeks to crush mass protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The army, which has waged decades of wars against ethnic armed groups, carried out its coup saying that November elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Poppy McPherson and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Bangkok; Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Thousands take to the streets in Myanmar as five more protesters killed

(Reuters) – Myanmar security forces killed three people in the main city of Yangon on Monday, witnesses and media reported, as activists called on ethnic minority forces in the diverse nation to back their campaign against military rule.

After the bloodiest day since the Feb. 1 military coup with 114 deaths on Saturday, thousands of people took to the streets in towns across the country, determined to show their opposition to the relapse into military rule after a decade of democratic reform.

A man was killed and several were wounded when security forces fired in one Yangon neighborhood, media and a witness said.

“He was shot in the head,” witness Thiha Soe told Reuters.

“They were shooting at everything on the road, even a Red Cross team. It’s still going on as I’m speaking to you.”

Police and a junta spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment. Myanmar’s Red Cross said in a message it was checking the report.

Two people were killed in another Yangon district when security forces moved in to clear protesters’ barricades, a resident said.

“We can confirm two were killed in our ward,” said the resident of the South Dagon neighborhood who asked to be identified as just Win.

“About 15 members of the security forces came and shot all around,” said Win, adding that the security forces were using grenades to clear barricades.

Based on a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group, 462 civilians have been killed since the coup.

But despite the violence, crowds turned out in the central towns of Bago, Minhla, Khin-U, Pinlebu and Taze, Mawlamyine in the south, Demoso in the east and Hsipaw and Mytitkyina in the north, according to media and social media posts.

The General Strike Committee of Nationalities, a main protest group, called in an open letter on Facebook for ethnic minority forces to help those standing up to the “unfair oppression” of the military.

“It is necessary for the ethnic armed organizations to collectively protect the people,” the protest group said.

‘INTERNAL PROBLEM, PLEASE’

Insurgents from different ethnic minority groups have battled the central government for decades over greater autonomy. Though many groups have agreed to ceasefires, fighting has flared in recent days between the army and forces in both the east and north.

Heavy clashes erupted on the weekend near the Thai border between the army and fighters from Myanmar’s oldest ethnic minority force, the Karen National Union (KNU).

About 3,000 villagers fled to Thailand when military jets bombed a KNU area, killing three civilians, after a KNU force overran an army outpost and killed 10 people, an activist group and media said.

Tens of thousands of Karen have lived in camps in Thailand for decades and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he wanted Myanmar’s latest problems to remain there.

“Please, let this be an internal problem. We don’t want to have an exodus, evacuation into our territory but we will observe human rights too,” Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok.

In Myanmar’s north, fighting erupted on Sunday in the jade-mining area of Hpakant when Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fighters attacked a police station, Kachinwaves media reported.

There were no reports of casualties.

Both the KNU and KIA have expressed support for the anti-coup movement and called on the army stop the violence against civilian protesters.

‘MASS MURDER’

Myanmar’s military has for decades justified its grip on power by saying it is the only institution capable of preserving national unity. It seized power saying that November elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

Suu Kyi remains in detention at an undisclosed location and many other figures in her party are also in custody.

At least six children between the ages 10 and 16 were among those killed in the bloodshed on Saturday, according to news reports and witnesses.

U.N. Special Rapporteur for Myanmar Tom Andrews said the army was carrying out “mass murder” and called on the world to isolate the junta and block its access to weapons.

But foreign criticism and sanctions imposed by some Western countries have failed to sway the generals.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader, said during a parade to mark Armed Forces Day on Saturday that the military would protect the people and strive for democracy.

Countries including the United States, Britain, Germany and the European Union again condemned the violence.

“It’s terrible, it’s absolutely outrageous,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters in Delaware.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, called on the generals to stand down from what he called a “senseless path” of violence against their own people.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates, Gerry Doyle and Nick Macfie)

‘No noises, only birds’: silent strike shuts Myanmar as prisoners freed

(Reuters) – Myanmar’s junta freed hundreds of demonstrators on Wednesday arrested during its months-long crackdown on protests, while businesses in Yangon were shut and streets deserted in response to a call by anti-coup activists for a silent strike.

Several buses full of prisoners drove out of Yangon’s Insein jail in the morning, said witnesses, who included lawyers for some inmates. There was no immediate word from authorities on how many prisoners were freed. A spokesman for the military did not answer calls.

“All the released are the ones arrested due to the protests, as well as night arrests or those who were out to buy something,” said a member of a legal advisory group who said he saw around 15 buses leaving.

In the biggest city Yangon, a call by pro-democracy activists for a silent strike turned the streets eerily quiet.

“No going out, no shops, no working. All shut down. Just for one day,” Nobel Aung, an illustrator and activist, told Reuters.

“The usual meat and vegetables vendors on the street didn’t show up,” said a resident of the city’s Mayangone district. “No car noises, only birds.”

A teacher in the Kyauktada district said the roads were deserted: “There aren’t many people in the streets, only water delivery men.”

Activists have called for a “big protest” on Thursday.

“The strongest storm comes after the silence,” Ei Thinzar Maung, one of the protest leaders, said in a post on Facebook.

AP JOURNALIST FREED

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group says at least 2,000 people have been arrested in the military crackdown on the protests against the Feb. 1 coup.

Among those freed on Wednesday, was Thein Zaw, a journalist for The Associated Press who was arrested last month, AP reported, quoting him as saying the judge had dropped the charges because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest.

Wednesday’s strike came a day after staff at a funeral service in Mandalay told Reuters that a seven-year-old girl had died of bullet wounds in the city – the youngest of about 275 people killed in the bloody crackdown, according to the AAPP.

Soldiers shot at her father but hit the girl who was sitting on his lap inside their home, her sister told the Myanmar Now media outlet. Two men were also killed in the district, it said.

The military had no immediate comment on the incident.

The Myanmar office of the United Nations children’s agency said “the continuing use of force against children, including the use of live ammunition, by security forces is taking a devastating toll on children in Myanmar.”

Since the crisis started at least 23 children have been killed and at least 11 others seriously injured, UNICEF said.

The junta has faced international condemnation for staging the coup that halted Myanmar’s slow transition to democracy and for its lethal suppression of the protests that followed.

Opponents of military rule have regularly called for strikes and parts of the economy have been paralyzed by a civil disobedience campaign, including among civil servants.

Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her campaign to bring democratic civilian rule to Myanmar, has been in detention since the coup and faces charges that her lawyer says have been cooked up to discredit her.

The ousted leader was due to appear for another court hearing via video conferencing on Wednesday, but the head of her legal team Khin Maung Zaw said it had been postponed until April 1, marking the second successive delay due to internet issues.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-Moore)