Images showed bodies lying in pools of blood on the streets, the injured frantically carried away with bullet wounds peppering their limbs, and protesters huddled behind makeshift shields and barricades, as Myanmar’s security forces Sunday launched their most violent and deadly crackdown on peaceful demonstrators since the February 1 coup.
At least 18 people died and more than 30 were injured, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office, as police attempted to extinguish a month-long nationwide protest movement against the military coup which ousted the democratically elected government of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Activist groups have put the death toll and number of injured as higher.
In one image that was shared widely on social media, a nun in northern Kachin state – her hands raised – knelt on the ground and pleaded with a line of riot police to stop arresting protesters.
“Myanmar is like a battlefield,” Charles Maung Bo, the archbishop of Yangon and Myanmar’s first Catholic cardinal, said on Twitter.
Before Sunday, protests had seen sporadic violence in some areas but there appeared to be a coordinated change of tack from security forces across the country, who opened fire on protesters, used tear gas, flash bangs and stun grenades in towns and cities.
Even before midday, reports of police using lethal force against peaceful demonstrators started to trickle in as thousands of people took to the streets once again, calling for the military to hand back power.
The UN Human Rights Office said that “deaths reportedly occurred as a result of live ammunition fired into crowds” in multiple locations, including the largest city Yangon, in southeastern Dawei, Mandalay, southern Myeik, central Bago and Pokokku, according to a statement from spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani.
The statement condemned the “escalating violence” and urged the military to “immediately halt the use of force against peaceful protesters,” saying that “the people of Myanmar have the right to assemble peacefully and demand the restoration of democracy.”
In a tweet, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned violence in the country. “We condemn the Burmese security forces’ abhorrent violence against the people of Burma & will continue to promote accountability for those responsible. We stand firmly with the courageous people of Burma & encourage all countries to speak with one voice in support of their will,” he said, referring to Myanmar as Burma, its former name.
In Yangon, Nyi Nyi Aung Htet Naing, an internet network engineer, was among the first causalities, according to Reuters. The day before he was killed he had posted on Facebook about the increasingly violent military crackdown, asking “#How_Many_Dead_Bodies_UN_Need_To_Take_Action,” in reference to the United Nations.
Video from an apartment above recorded the sound of gunshots as Nyi Nyi lay slumped outside the gate of the Kamaryut township high school – wearing a construction worker hardhat, his phone in his hand. Several protesters could be seen sprinting past the body before five gain courage to carry him away, crouching as they run, according to video from Myanmar Now and Reuters.
Echoing Nyi Nyi’s words calling for more action from the international community, UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said on Twitter: “Words of condemnation are welcome but insufficient. We must act.”
“As the junta ratchets up its brutal attacks against peaceful protesters in Myanmar, the world must ratchet up its response,” he said.
Arrests, beatings, shots
Activist group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), said that as of Sunday, it had documented 1,132 people who have been arrested, charged or sentenced since the February 1 coup. The group noted, however, that around 1,000 people were arrested across Myanmar on Sunday.
Among those detained during the demonstrations were at least 85 medical professionals and students, along with seven journalists, according to the UN Human Rights Office.
In Yangon, a protester was fatally shot when police opened fire on demonstrators, according to Reuters, citing a hospital doctor. The doctor, who asked not to be identified, said the protester was brought into hospital with a bullet wound in the chest. Local media outlet Mizzima also reported the death in Yangon’s Thingangyun township.
Also in Yangon, a woman died of a suspected heart attack after police broke up a teachers’ protest with stun grenades, according to Reuters who cited the woman’s daughter and a colleague.
In the south of the country, three people were killed and more than a dozen were wounded when police opened fire on protesters in the town of Dawei, according to media outlet the Dawei Watch. Local politician Kyaw Min Htike confirmed police had shot protesters in Dawei.
Local media outlet Myanmar Now reported two people had been killed in a protest in the second-largest city of Mandalay, according to Reuters.
Police and the spokesman for the ruling military council did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Videos posted to social media captured the escalating confrontations between protesters and security forces.
In footage from the Hledan district of Yangon, shots could be heard. Local media reported that at least five people were injured in those clashes. Shots could also be heard in a live stream posted on social media by local media from Yangon’s Tamwe township, in which crowds of protesters could be seen fleeing from police. At least five students were arrested at protests elsewhere in downtown Yangon on Sunday.
Sunday marked the second day of the military’s intensified crackdown on anti-coup protesters. In towns and cities across Myanmar on Saturday, security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and shot their guns into the air to disperse protesters.
UN ambassador defies military
The latest clashes came a day after the ruling military junta fired the country’s United Nations ambassador for making an impassioned plea at the UN General Assembly for international action to help overturn the coup.
On Saturday, state television MRTV announced UN ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun’s removal, saying he had “abused the power and responsibilities of a permanent ambassador” and that he “betrays the country.”
Speaking to Reuters following his firing, Kyaw Moe Tun said that he “decided to fight back as long as I can.”
Addressing the assembly in New York on Friday, Kyaw Moe Tun defied the military rulers now in control of the country and urged the UN Security Council and the world to use “any means necessary” to rescue the people of Myanmar and hold the military to account.
“We need further strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup, to stop oppressing the innocent people, to return the state power to the people and to restore the democracy,” he said.
Kyaw Moe Tun said he was delivering the speech on behalf of Suu Kyi’s government, which won a landslide in the November 8 elections. Suu Kyi has now been detained alongside other government leaders including President Win Myint.
In a show of defiance, the ambassador also flashed the three fingered “Hunger Games” salute used by protestors on the streets of Myanmar and adopted from recent protests in neighboring Thailand.
The diplomat received a rare round of applause from his UN colleagues at the end of the speech. The new US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, praised the envoy’s “courageous” remarks.
“The United States continues to strongly condemn the military coup in Myanmar,” she said Friday, addressing the assembly. “And we condemn the security forces’ brutal killing of unarmed people.”
Thomas-Greenfield added that the US “will continue to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance, including to Rohingya and other vulnerable populations in Chin, Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan states.”
CNN’s Richard Roth, Hamdi Alkhshali, Kristina Sgueglia and Zamira Rahim contributed.