Myanmar Security Forces Surround, Arrest Protesters; U.S. Calls for Withdrawal

(Reuters) —

Myanmar security forces fired tear gas and surrounded hundreds of anti-junta protesters at two places in Yangon on Wednesday, witnesses said, prompting the U.S. Embassy to call for their withdrawal.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council failed to agree on a statement that would have condemned the coup in Myanmar, called for restraint by the military and threatened to consider “further measures.”

Talks on the statement would likely continue, diplomats said, after China, Russia, India and Vietnam all suggested amendments late on Tuesday to a British draft, including removal of the reference to a coup and the threat to consider further action.

More than 60 protesters have been killed and 1,900 people have been arrested in the turmoil in Myanmar since the Feb. 1 coup, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group, has said.

The military has brushed off condemnation of its actions, as it has in past periods of army rule when outbreaks of protest were forcibly repressed.

On Wednesday, police stormed a compound in Yangon housing railway staff and surrounded hundreds of protesters in North Okkalapa district, in another part of the city. More than 100 people were arrested at the two sites, witnesses said.

Many of the railway staff are part of a civil disobedience movement that has crippled government business and included strikes at banks, factories and shops since the army ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.

“We are seeing reports of innocent students and civilians surrounded by security forces in North Okkalapa, as well as arrests,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

“We call on those security forces to withdraw from the area, release those detained, and allow people to depart safely.”

Police and army officials did not respond to requests for comment.

On Tuesday, Zaw Myat Linn, an official from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), died in custody after he was arrested, the second party figure to die in detention in two days.

“He’s been participating continuously in the protests,” said Ba Myo Thein, a member of the dissolved upper house of parliament. The cause of death was not clear. In a live broadcast before he was detained, Zaw Myat Linn urged people to continue fighting the army, “even if it costs our lives.”

Police on Tuesday also cracked down on independent media, raiding the offices of two news outlets and detaining two journalists.

At least 35 journalists have been arrested since the Feb. 1 coup, Myanmar Now reported, of which 19 have been released.

“It is grim, it is horrifying, and it is heartbreaking,” Thin Lei Win, the co-founder of the independent Myanmar Now said in an interview. “Protesters as well as journalists are going out every single day wondering whether this is the last day that they are going to be doing their job. And I really fear that things will get worse before they get better.”

Meanwhile, after being banned from Facebook and YouTube, Myanmar state network MRTV, which is now controlled by the military, has moved to publishing videos on an online platform.

Since the account was created this month, the MRTV Vimeo channel has posted 141 news bulletins, including many announcements by the military leadership.

Some police have refused orders to fire on unarmed protesters and have fled to neighboring India, according to an interview with one officer and classified Indian police documents.

“As the civil disobedience movement is gaining momentum and protest[s] held by anti-coup protesters at different places we are instructed to shoot at the protesters,” four officers said in a joint statement to police in the Indian city of Mizoram.

“In such a scenario, we don’t have the guts to shoot at our own people who are peaceful demonstrators,” they said.

The United States is “repulsed” by the Myanmar army’s continued use of lethal force against its people and is continuing to urge the military to exercise “maximum restraint,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday.

The army has justified the coup by saying that a November election won by the NLD was marred by fraud – an assertion rejected by the electoral commission. It has promised a new election, but has not said when that might be held.

The junta has hired an Israeli-Canadian lobbyist for $2 million to “assist in explaining the real situation” of the army’s coup to the United States and other countries, documents filed with the U.S. Justice Department show.

Ari Ben-Menashe and his firm, Dickens & Madson Canada, will represent Myanmar’s military government in Washington, as well as lobby Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Russia, and international bodies such as the United Nations, according to a consultancy agreement.

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