Myanmar’s security forces shot and killed at least 16 protesters on Saturday, news reports and witnesses said, as the leader of the ruling junta said the military will protect the people and strive for democracy.
Protesters against the Feb. 1 military coup came out on the streets of Yangon, Mandalay and other towns, defying a warning that they could be shot “in the head and back” as the country’s generals celebrated Armed Forces Day.
“Today is a day of shame for the armed forces,” Dr. Sasa, a spokesman for CRPH, an anti-junta group set up by deposed lawmakers, told an online forum.
“The military generals are celebrating Armed Forces Day after they just killed more than 300 innocent civilians,” he said, giving an estimate of the toll since protests first erupted weeks ago.
At least four people were killed when security forces opened fire at a crowd protesting outside a police station in Yangon’s Dala suburb in the early hours of Saturday, Myanmar Now reported. At least 10 people were wounded, the news portal said.
Three people, including a young man who plays in a local under-21 football team, were shot and killed in a protest in the Insein district of the city, a neighbour told Reuters. Four people were killed in Lashio town in the east, and four in separate incidents in the Bago region, near Yangon, according to media outlets. One person was killed in Hopin town in the northeast.
After presiding over a military parade in the capital Naypyitaw to mark Armed Forces Day, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing reiterated a promise to hold elections, without giving any time-frame.
“The army seeks to join hands with the entire nation to safeguard democracy,” the general said in a live broadcast on state television, adding that authorities also sought to protect the people and restore peace across the country.
“Violent acts that affect stability and security in order to make demands are inappropriate.”
The latest deaths will add to a toll of 328 people killed in the crackdown that has followed the coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, according to a tally kept by an activist group.
In an ominous warning on Friday evening, state television said: “You should learn from the tragedy of earlier ugly deaths that you can be in danger of getting shot to the head and back”.
The warning did not specifically say that security forces had been given shoot-to-kill orders. The junta has previously tried to suggest that some fatal shootings have come from within the crowds.
But it showed the military’s determination to prevent any disruptions around Armed Forces Day, which commemorates the start of the resistance to Japanese occupation in 1945 that was orchestrated by Suu Kyi’s father, the founder of the military.
Aung San, considered the father of the nation, was assassinated in 1947.
Min Aung Hlaing said the army had to seize power because of “unlawful acts” by Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, adding that some party leaders had been found guilty of corruption and legal action was being taken against them.
Russia a 'True Friend'
Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most popular civilian politician, remains in detention at an undisclosed location. Many other figures in her party are also being held in custody.
In a week that saw international pressure on the junta ramped up with new U.S. and European sanctions, Russia’s deputy defence minister Alexander Fomin attended the parade in Naypyitaw, having meet senior junta leaders a day earlier.
“Russia is a true friend,” Min Aung Hlaing said. There were no signs of other diplomats at an event that is usually attended by scores of officials from foreign nations.
Protesters have taken to the streets almost daily since the coup that derailed Myanmar’s slow transition to democracy.
Until Friday evening, activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) counted at least 328 protesters who have been killed in the weeks of unrest. Its data shows that around a quarter of them died from shots to the head, raising suspicions they were targeted for killing.
Reuters could not independently verify the numbers killed.
A military spokesman did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The United Nations’ special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said the military had turned against its own citizens.
“Women, youth and children have been among those killed,” she said in a statement.
Defence ties between Russia and Myanmar have grown in recent years with Moscow providing training to thousands of soldiers as well as selling arms to the military.
Support from Russia and China, which has also refrained from criticism, is important for the junta as they are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and can block potential U.N. actions.
Fomin’s visit took place after the United States, Britain and the European Union imposed new sanctions on groups and individuals linked to the coup.