Security forces in Myanmar used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse protesters in the commercial hub of Yangon on Saturday, just hours after a United Nations envoy called for the Security Council to hear the nation’s “desperate pleas” and take immediate action to restore democracy.
The Southeast Asian country has been in turmoil since a February 1 coup removed the democratically-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, triggering mass protests in cities across the country calling for the civilian administration’s restoration.
Demonstrators have been met with an increasingly brutal crackdown with the death toll standing at more than 50 since the coup, according to the UN.
Protesters have called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and respect for November’s election, which her party won in a landslide, but which the army rejected.
“Our revolution must win,” chanted protesters in Loikaw on Saturday, who included civil servants such as teachers in their green and white uniforms.
The country’s vital sectors have been crippled by a continuing “civil disobedience movement” – a campaign urging civil servants to boycott working under a military government.
The impact has been felt at every level of the national infrastructure, with shuttered hospitals, empty ministry offices and banks unable to operate.
On Saturday, state-run media announced that if civil servants continued to boycott work, “they will be fired” with immediate effect from March 8.
But protesters in Myanmar’s commercial hub of Yangon continued to defy authorities, gathering especially in San Chaung – a once-buzzing township with cafes, restaurants and bars that has emerged as a hotspot for unrest.
Security forces fired tear gas and stun grenades in the morning, scattering protesters, and removed their makeshift barricades with bulldozers.
Activist Maung Saungkha said the movement would persist – even as security forces continued to step up their enforcement tactics – as many remember the repression under the previous military government.
“In our past revolutions, we never won … this time we must fight to win,” he told AFP news agency.
“We must fight together with the younger generation to get victory.”
The army says it has been restrained in stopping the protests, but has said it will not allow them to threaten stability.
Separately on Saturday, several hundred people gathered in Sydney, Australia, to protest against the coup, singing and holding up three fingers, a salute that has come to symbolise solidarity and resistance across Myanmar.
“We would like to urge the Australian government to work closely with the US, UK and EU governments and take strong action against these Myanmar military dictators,” said protest organiser Thein Moe Win.
Authorities in Myanmar have asked India to return eight policemen who sought refuge across the border to avoid taking orders from the military, an official in northeast India said on Saturday.
India’s foreign ministry responded to a request for comment from Reuters news agency by referring to a statement given at a media briefing on Friday which said the ministry was still “ascertaining the facts”.
‘Repression must stop’
The United Nations Security Council on Friday heard from UN special envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener, who warned against any moves to grant legitimacy to the military government.
“The hope they have placed in the United Nations and its membership is waning and I have heard directly the desperate pleas – from mothers, students and the elderly,” she said.
“Your unity is needed more than ever on Myanmar … The repression must stop.”
But diplomats said the Security Council was unlikely to approve any international measures against the military government, and the session ended without any statement.
Condemnation against Myanmar’s military has largely been unanimous, but veto-wielding China is still regarded as a key obstacle in getting consensus.
China’s UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, said his country did not want to see instability in Myanmar.
But “the messages and measures of the international community should be conducive for the parties in Myanmar to bridge differences and resolve problems”, he told reporters.
The United States and some other Western countries have imposed limited sanctions on the military government and the independent UN human rights investigator on Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, has called for a global arms embargo and targeted economic sanctions.
The army took power over allegations of fraud in last year’s election which had been dismissed by the electoral commission. It has promised to hold a new election at an unspecified date.
That plan is rejected by protesters and by a group representing lawmakers elected at the last election that has begun to issue statements in the name of a rival civilian administration.
On Friday, it listed four demands – the end of the military government, the release of the detainees, democracy and the abolition of the 2008 constitution which left significant political representation and control in the hands of the military.
Armed ethnic groups
Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok in neighbouring Thailand, said some armed ethnic groups in Myanmar have come out in support of protesters, and could pose a threat to the army’s attempt to take power.
“One place where security forces have not used force to crack down on protesters was in the northern Shan state in the town of Lashio where a very large crowd came out at about 9am.
“Yesterday the TNLA, which is an insurgent group largely representing an ethnic minority in that area, came out close to the city and made it very clear that they were supporting the protesters.”
“We’ve seen this in other places where soldiers from the Karenni ethnic group have come out in support of the protesters,” Cheng said.
Maung Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist based in London, told Al Jazeera the involvement of these groups reflects a popular desire to have some kind of protection from the military.
“With respect to these ethnic organisations, there is a radical reversal on the majority of the Burmese public that have been brainwashed over decades to view these as insurgents,” he said.
“So now the reversal is that the public views the national armed forces … as simply terrorists and insurgents, and want to have a federated army of different armed ethnic organisations.”