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Yangon residents flee martial law area as Myanmar death toll grows

  • Published at 03:00 pm March 16th, 2021
Myanmar Protest
Demonstrators take cover behind a barricade during an anti-coup protest in Mandalay, Myanmar on March 15, 2021 Reuters

The UN said at least 138 people have been killed protesting against a military coup in Myanmar

Residents of a protest flashpoint district in Myanmar's biggest city fled on flatbed trucks and tuk-tuks Tuesday after security forces escalated the use of lethal force against anti-coup protesters, despite international appeals for restraint.

Much of the country has been in uproar since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi last month, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to demand a return to democracy. 

Police and soldiers have used tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds to subdue crowds in near-daily crackdowns, along with blanket nightly internet shutdowns to stop protesters from mobilizing.

On Monday saw fresh violence by security forces in several cities, leaving at least 20 dead, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a local monitoring group that has been tracking arrests and fatalities. 

It followed the deadliest day so far in the six weeks since the army deposed Suu Kyi's government, with the AAPP reporting 74 killed on Sunday after the violent suppression of anti-coup unrest across Myanmar.

The UN, the US, China and Britain all condemned the violence, which the UN said has claimed the lives of at least 138 "peaceful protesters" -- including women and children.


Also Read: UN: At least 138 peaceful protesters killed in Myanmar since coup


Many of those deaths came from the impoverished Hlaing Tharyar township in Yangon, a garment-producing area in the commercial hub with mostly Chinese-owned factories -- several of which were razed on Sunday. 

The junta reacted by imposing martial law over the area and five other townships that are home to around two million people -- more than a quarter of the sprawling city's population. 

Anyone arrested there faces trial by military tribunal, with sentences ranging from three years' hard labour to execution.

The AAPP said in a statement that even civilians who were not participating in anti-coup protests had died in crossfire on Monday.

By Tuesday morning, local media outlet The Irrawaddy published photos of residents fleeing the township, crowding onto flatbed trucks stuck in columns of snaking traffic. 

Some carried their pets on the back of motorbikes, while others crammed their belongings in vinyl bags on tuk-tuks.

A resident confirmed the mass exodus to AFP, saying that people wanted to leave at dawn and protesters removed makeshift barricades -- erected to slow security forces down -- to let them out. 

Food price rises since coup

On Tuesday, the World Food Program (WFP) said rising food and fuel prices in Myanmar since military coup risk undermining the ability of poor families to feed themselves.

The WFP said food prices were rising with palm oil 20% higher in some places around the main city of Yangon since the beginning of February and rice prices up 4% in the Yangon and Mandalay areas since the end of February.

A protester holds onto the shirt of a fallen comrade, during a crackdown by security forces on demonstrations against the military coup, in Yangon on March 14, 2021/AFP

In some parts of Kachin State in the north, the price of rice was up as much as 35%, while prices of cooking oil and pulses were sharply higher in parts of Rakhine State in the west, the WFP said in a statement.

The cost of fuel had risen by 15% nationwide since February 1, raising concern about further food price increases, it said.


Also Read: Funerals to be held for slain Myanmar activists as violence escalates


"These rising food and fuel prices are compounded by the near paralysis of the banking sector, slowdowns in remittances, and widespread limits on cash availability," the WFP said.

The agency's country director, Stephen Anderson, said the signs were troubling: "Coming on top of the Covid-19 pandemic, if these price trends continue, they will severely undermine the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table."

The WFP is helping to support more than 360,000 people in Myanmar, most of them displaced by conflict over the past decade.

'Ashamed'

Dressed in his army uniform, Shing Ling flashes a three-finger salute for defiant social media posts after deserting Myanmar’s military to join the democracy movement.

The 30-year-old soldier posted the image on Facebook last week as security forces were staging increasingly lethal crackdowns against protesters. 

It racked up more than one thousand shares as commenters praised his bravery, before his profile went private.

"I have felt so guilty and ashamed since February 1," Shing Ling told AFP from a hideout in Yangon. 

Despite feeling "shocked" about Suu Kyi's detention, it was the violence in Yangon's North Okkalapa township in early March that became the catalyst for him to join a nationwide civil disobedience movement. 


Also Read: Policemen, firemen among over 400 Myanmar nationals seeking shelter in India


"I was stationed really close to North Okkalapa, so it would be my gun that shoots unarmed people," he said. "I couldn't let that happen. That's why I decided to join."

On his public Instagram account, the ethnic Chin soldier has posted photos of himself wearing his military uniform since October 2018. 

In his most recent post, he shared the image of him flashing the three-fingered salute after joining a nationwide boycott by civil servants who refuse to work under a junta regime. 

But while there have been isolated reports of police and soldiers' defection, it remains rare for them to publicly announce a change of allegiance while still in Myanmar, for fear of retaliation. 

For soldiers, the punishment for desertion is the death penalty, under military law. 

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