Myanmar faces growing isolation as military tightens grip

Yangon, MyanmarUpdated: Mar 18, 2021, 06:24 PM IST


Story highlights

Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi was overthrown and detained in a February 1 military coup, triggering mass protests across the country that security forces have struggled to suppress with increasingly violent methods

Myanmar faced growing isolation on Thursday with increasingly limited internet services and its last private newspaper ceasing publication as the military built a case against ousted elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Nobel peace laureate Suu Kyi was overthrown and detained in a February 1 military coup, triggering mass protests across the country that security forces have struggled to suppress with increasingly violent methods.

The documented total of those killed in the unrest stood at 217, but the actual toll was probably much higher, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group said.

Western countries have condemned the coup and called for an end to the violence and for the release of Suu Kyi and others. Asian neighbours have offered to help find a solution, but the military has a long record of shunning outside pressure.

Large parts of an economy already reeling from the novel coronavirus have been paralysed by the protests and a parallel civil disobedience campaign of strikes against military rule, while many foreign investors are reassessing plans.

The U.N. food agency warned this week that rising prices of food and fuel could undermine the ability of poor families to feed themselves.

"Whatever happens in Myanmar over coming months, the economy will collapse, leaving tens of millions in dire straits and needing urgent protection," historian and author Thant Myint-U said on Twitter.

While the security forces have focused on stamping out dissent in Yangon and other cities, small demonstrations have erupted elsewhere day after day.

Several thousand people marched in the town of Natmauk on Thursday, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported. The central town is the birthplace of Aung San, the leader of Myanmar's drive for independence from colonial power Britain, and Suu Kyi's father.

About 1,000 protesters on motorbikes drove around the central town of Taungoo and hundreds marched in the northern jade-mining town of Hpakant, the Irrawaddy news service reported.

There were no reports of violence.

Protesters also gathered in the central town of Monywa after a 24-year-old campaigner against military rule died, three days after security forces detained and beat him, the Irrawaddy and Myanmar Now news portal reported.

The U.N. human rights office in Geneva said this week "deeply distressing" reports of torture in custody had emerged in Myanmar.

A junta spokesman did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

Opponents of the coup gathered in some Yangon neighbourhoods. In one district, security forces opened fire and torched protesters' barricades, detaining 20 people, the Irrawaddy reported. There was no word on casualties.

Yangon residents said soldiers also ordered people to dismantle barricades and remove posters on some streets.

Alleged payments
Authorities have restricted the internet services protesters use to organise, with access to Wi-Fi in public areas largely shut off by Thursday. Residents of some towns, including Dawei in the south, reported no internet at all.

The private Tachilek News Agency in the northeast published photographs of workers cutting cables it said were the fibre links with neighbouring Thailand.

Reuters could not verify the report.

Information within Myanmar is becoming increasingly difficult to verify.

Some 37 journalists have been arrested, including 19 who remain in detention, the U.N. human rights office said.

While authorities have ordered some newspapers shut, others have apparently been forced to close for reasons of logistics. The last private newspaper stopped publishing on Wednesday.

State-run media have not been affected.

State television said on Wednesday that Suu Kyi was being investigated for bribery in connection with accepting four payments worth $550,000 from a prominent businessman.

Property developer Maung Weik, in comments broadcast in a state television news bulletin, said he had given Suu Kyi four payments, ranging from $50,000 to $250,000 from 2018 to 2020, when she headed the first civilian-led government in decades.

"The anti-corruption commission is investigating," it added.

A spokesman for the junta said last week authorities were investigating Suu Kyi for receiving illegal payments.

Her lawyer dismissed that accusation as a joke. He was not immediately available for comment on Thursday.

Suu Kyi, 75, is hugely popular for her campaign against military rule since 1988, over which she has spent years in detention.

The army defended its coup, saying its accusations of fraud in a Nov. 8 election swept by Suu Kyi's party were rejected by the electoral commission.

It has promised a new election but not set a date.

Suu Kyi already faces various charges including illegally importing walkie-talkie radios and infringing coronavirus protocols. If convicted, she could be barred from politics.