'The police just shot': the terror inflicted on Myanmar's protesters
A reporter in Yangon
and Rebecca Ratcliffe* – The Guardian
Witnesses shaken by
brutality of security forces but remain resolute in fighting military coup
Fri 5 Mar 2021 – Early on Wednesday morning, the protests
building in North Okkalapa, in Yangon, Myanmar, seemed peaceful.
“I saw around three or four police officers along the road, but it was calm,”
said Khin, who like all demonstrators the Guardian spoke to asked not to give
her real name. Onlookers cheered as the crowds passed.
About 1,000 people, she estimated, had joined the march.
Many had turned out in the hope that they would put pressure on police
resources, and in forcing them to spread more thinly would protect
demonstrators elsewhere in the city. After weeks of defiant mass protests opposing
the military coup, the security forces were using increasing violence,
including live ammunition, to break up rallies.
By evening, it was clear that the police and military
response that day was the most deadly since the army seized power. In total, 38
people were killed by security forces, according to the UN special envoy for
Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener.
The violence has prompted international outrage. UN human
rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said the military “must stop murdering and
jailing protesters” and the US state department said it was “appalled”. The UN
security council is due to meet on Friday to discuss the crisis, though it is
unlikely that China and Russia will agree to coordinated action.
The response in North Okkalapa by security forces escalated
around mid-morning, said Khin, as protesters arrived at a main roundabout.
Police began firing teargas and detaining protesters. Soldiers seemed to have
arrived around the same time, she said.
Khin fled to safety in a nearby house. “The police were
going around arresting people, and I could hear them from where I hid. It was
too dangerous for me to go out,” she said. Eventually she left through an alley
to another neighbouring house, where she again waited. Two hours later, the
police were still arresting people. Inside the home where Khin sought refuge,
the owner, a complete stranger, closed all the doors and told her not to leave.
“I heard gunshots in the streets but I’m not sure if they actually injured
anyone,” she added.
Video apparently taken by residents in the township appears
to show security officials shooting a man just metres away as they patrol the
area. In the footage, security forces pull a civilian from a building. He is
surrounded by officers and does not resist. A shot rings out, and he falls to
the floor. Two members of the security forces then drag him away by the arms.
Separately, distressing CCTV footage published by Radio Free
Asia showed police stopping an ambulance and detaining three medics. The police
assaulted them, kicking and beating them with gun butts.
Dozens of people were rounded up in North Okkalapa,
witnesses said, and held by police outside a nearby toy shop, before they were
loaded into vans. It is not possible to confirm how many were detained in the
area. Since the coup, more than 1,700 people have been arrested across Myanmar,
including 29 journalists.
By mid-afternoon, demonstrators pleaded for detainees to be
released, and blocked the roads so that the vans could not drive them away.
“The men stood in the front, and we girls stood in the back,” said Hnin,
another protester, who left her house around 3pm. “Many people were from
schools, and from nearby neighbourhoods, so we knew each other. We were
persuading each other to keep calm and civil,” she said.
More people from the township seemed to have joined, she
said. “We said that we were planning to disperse by 5pm and that we wanted them
to release the detainees before then.”
At first, police responded with teargas. Then she heard a
series of loud noises, which she believes were machine guns and
sound bombs. There was continuous shooting, she said. “A lot of people in
front were hit. Some people were hit in the head. We were in shock and had to
run,” she said.
“Most people felt completely lost and confused around this
time. The police just shot, they didn’t advance – there were too many people
“I could see people helping carry the wounded – mostly the
men were carrying them. I didn’t dare to look around in case I got shot in the
head,” she said. She ran until she reached an alley near to her home.
Zaw, another protester, had been sheltering in a nearby
house until mid-afternoon. He had been hit by a smoke bomb in the morning, he
said, and was struggling to open his eyes. He also described hearing continuous
firing. When he tried to return to the crowd he could see shooting ahead. The
air was thick with teargas, but he could see detainees were being taken away.
“We have many lost persons but we cannot confirm who is
arrested, who is injured,” said Aung, also a protester. He saw four people who
had been shot.
Aung sat out on the road in his neighbourhood until 4am,
ready to alert others if the military returned to raid their homes at night – a
now common occurrence.
On Thursday, crowds gathered again, and blocked off the
roads with makeshift barricades. The protests were peaceful, said Hnin. “That
has eased my anxiety,” she said: “But it’s been a pattern of having high death
tolls one day and calmness for the next two. So now I’m really afraid.”
Despite this, she said, she will continue to protest: “I
believe that we will win. I believe that we deserve democracy.”
*Rebecca Ratcliffe is the Guardian’s south-east Asia correspondent