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Trapped Myanmar protesters allowed to leave amid international alarm

Demonstrators set up a barricade during a protest in Yangon, on March 8, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

YANGON, Mar 9, 2021, Reuters/Bloomberg. Hundreds of young Myanmar protesters who had been trapped by security forces in a district of Yangon overnight have been able to get out, activists said on Tuesday (March 9), after calls from Western powers and the United Nations for them to be allowed to leave, The Straits Times reported.

Thousands of people defied a night time curfew to take to the streets of Myanmar’s main city in support of the youngsters in the Sanchaung district, where they had been holding the latest daily protest against the Feb 1 coup.

In Sanchaung, police firing guns and using stun grenades announced they would check houses for anyone from outside the district, and would punish anyone caught hiding them.

Youth activist Shar Ya Mone said by telephone she had been in a building with about 15 to 20 others, but had now been able to go home.

“There were many free car rides and people welcoming the protesters,” she said, pledging to keep demonstrating “until the dictatorship ends”.

Another protester posted on social media that they had been able to leave the area at around 5am after security forces left two hours earlier.

Embassies of the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany and others sent tweets late on Monday warning that security forces had surrounded a group of young people in the Sanchaung neighbourhood of Yangon. People in surrounding areas swarmed the streets as videos of the situation spread on social media.

By midnight, there were no reports of deaths from the stand-off, the Associated Press reported. Security forces chased crowds, fired stun grenades and harassed residents watching from their windows, it said.

Myanmar has regularly shut down the Internet in the early-morning hours, making it difficult to get information.

“The Embassy is very concerned about reports of many young people being trapped in Sanchaung and other parts of Yangon,” the German Embassy in Yangon said. “We urgently appeal to the security forces to abstain from the use of force and detentions against residents and others, and to let all peaceful protesters return to their homes immediately.”

The UN office in Myanmar as well as the US and British embassies have also appealed to security forces to allow protesters to leave without violence or arrest.

The Feb 1 army takeover and arrest of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi has plunged Myanmar into chaos. Security forces have killed over 60 protesters and detained more than 1,800 since then, an advocacy group said.

Myanmar’s military government also moved to shutter five local media outlets reporting on the protests. An order from the junta-appointed information minister revoked the licences of Mizzima, DVB, 7Day News, Myanmar Now and Khit Thit Media, banning them from publishing any content.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing accused media outlets of misleading the international community, saying that security authorities used minimal force against protesters.

He put the death toll at 34, about half of the figures reported by local media outlets, according to a broadcast on state-run MRTV.

The general also said the detention of Mr Sean Turnell, an Australian economic adviser to detained former leader Suu Kyi, had revealed some state economic secrets. “We managed to detain Sean Turnell in time when he’s about to leave the country,” Senior General Min Aung Hlaing was quoted as saying.

Australia, which suspended defence cooperation with Myanmar after the coup, has demanded Mr Turnell’s release.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “calls for maximum restraint and urges for the safe release of all without violence or arrests”, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

On Facebook, residents and the local MTK news service posted that as at the early hours of Tuesday, 20 people had been arrested in Sanchaung after police searched houses.

Elsewhere in Yangon, thousands of people defied an 8pm curfew, chanting “Free the students in Sanchaung”, prompting security forces to fire guns and use stun grenades to try to disperse them.

A junta spokesman did not answer calls requesting comment.

State television MRTV earlier said: “The government’s patience has run out and while trying to minimise casualties in stopping riots, most people seek complete stability (and) are calling for more effective measures against riots.”

Three protesters were killed in demonstrations in northern Myanmar and the Irrawaddy Delta on Monday, according to witnesses and local media.

In the Lanmadaw district of Yangon, residents said security forces broke down doors in overnight arrest raids after youngsters there said they had caught some suspected soldiers transporting weapons in a private car.

“Please help, my door is being broken,” one woman posted on Facebook. Twenty minutes later she said her father and uncle had been taken away. She did not know where.

Demonstrations have been held daily for more than a month to demand the release of Ms Suu Kyi and respect for the election her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won last November.

The army took power citing fraud in the ballot – an accusation rejected by the electoral commission. It has promised another election, but without giving a date.

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

This time, it is also under pressure from a civil disobedience movement that has crippled government business and from strikes at banks, factories and shops that shut much of Yangon on Monday.

In a diplomatic blow to the junta, Myanmar’s ambassador in Britain followed its UN representative in calling on Monday for the release of Ms Suu Kyi – drawing praise from British foreign minister Dominic Raab.

Britain, the US and some other Western countries have imposed limited sanctions on the junta.

The European Union is preparing to widen its sanctions to target army-run businesses, according to diplomats and two internal documents seen by Reuters.

Thailand’s state broadcaster PBS said areas had been set aside along the border with Myanmar to house any refugees fleeing the unrest.

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