Myanmar security forces killed at least seven people on Saturday after firing live ammunition at protesters protesting the country’s military coup in February.
The victims of the protests – which experts say are unlikely to be adequately reported – suggest that the country’s military government is not stepping down, despite harsh condemnations from the international community, of using lethal force against pro-democracy protesters.
Activists have been calling for a military move in favor of a civilian government for weeks, commemorating the 1988 murder of a student on Saturday whose death sparked a rebellion against a previous incarnation of the military government. This uprising resulted in the deaths of around 3,000 demonstrators.
In recent protests, security forces killed at least 70 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
That figure includes the four deaths reported in the major city of Mandalay, where police opened fire on Saturday’s sit-in protest, as well as two protesters killed in Pyay, where a witness told Reuters that security forces had deliberately entered Mandalay slowed an ambulance. Another protester was killed in the suburbs outside Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. In addition to these deaths, several injuries have also been reported.
According to the Associated Press, the death toll is likely to be higher as police seize bodies and security guards occupying hospitals are often “boycotted by medical staff and evaded by protesters.” Despite police violence, rallies and vigils were held in Yangon, Mandalay and elsewhere after dark.
Mass demonstrations have gripped the country since the February 1 coup, and resistance to the military has taken many forms, from massive demonstrations to civil disobedience to work stoppages and alleged sabotage of rail infrastructure.
While the deaths of protesters in 1988 contributed to the demise of the protests, some activists said the current killings only strengthened their resolve. Following a recent spate of violence, a protester asking to be identified as Yan told the Washington Post that the shootings made the protesters “angrier”.
And the protesters were also encouraged by the incumbent leader of the ousted civilian government, Mahn Win Khaing Than, who told supporters from hiding on Saturday: “This is the nation’s darkest moment and the moment dawn is near.”
Mahn Win Khaing Than continued: “In order to create a federal democracy that all ethnic brothers who have suffered from various kinds of oppression from the dictatorship for decades really want, this revolution is the chance for us to join our efforts. ”
It is unclear in which direction the protests will go in the future. For the moment, however, the demonstrations have drawn more international attention to the country’s excessive use of force and the subversion of even nominal democratic norms.
Why Myanmar is in crisis
On February 1, Myanmar’s military ended “the country’s decade-long alliance with democracy,” as Vox’s Alex Ward put it, claiming that the country’s recent elections were marred by fraud. Military leaders then used this claim as an excuse to launch a coup against the nation’s most popular political party and its leader and end a system of government in which the military shared power with civilian leaders.
While neither the country’s electoral commission nor international observers found evidence of irregularities that would have altered the outcome of the elections – which Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, had overwhelmingly won – the military said it would Retain power for a year before allowing elections in a year.
As Ward explained for Vox, the military appears to be trying to reverse or slow down modest democracy-friendly reforms to ensure they don’t lose too much power to civilian government:
The military ruled the country for decades until it implemented very modest democracy-friendly reforms in 2011. And it only gave up some control after years of political and economic pressure from the United States and other nations.
But this quasi-democratic system no longer worked for the generals, who feared that their ultimate authority would be curtailed. Instead of allowing Myanmar’s burgeoning democracy to grow, the armed forces decided to suppress it.
The Myanmar military has since been condemned by international human rights enforcers and countries around the world.
The US has put pressure on the country’s military, which has ties to China, to project power and strengthen allies in the region.
India, Japan, Australia and the US released a joint statement on Friday calling on the country to end the coup. “As longtime supporters of Myanmar and its people, we emphasize the urgent need to restore democracy and the priority of building democratic resilience,” the statement said. And the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which Myanmar belongs, recently called on “all parties not to incite further violence and to exercise extreme restraint and flexibility on all sides”.
Violence against demonstrators appears to have motivated some punitive measures taken by other countries in the region. South Korea, for example, has announced that it will ban arms exports and rethink development aid to Myanmar as the country uses violence against demonstrators.