Suu Kyi faces new charge under Myanmar’s secrets act; wireless internet suspended

(Reuters) -Myanmar’s deposed leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been charged with breaking a colonial-era official secrets law, her lawyer said on Thursday, the most serious charge against the veteran opponent of military rule.

Myanmar has been rocked by protests since the army overthrew Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1 citing unsubstantiated claims of fraud in a November election that her party swept.

In a new measure to stifle communication about the turmoil, the junta ordered internet service providers to shut down wireless broadband services until further notice, several telecoms sources said.

Suu Kyi and other members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) have been detained since the coup and the junta had earlier accused her of several minor offences including illegally importing six handheld radios and breaching coronavirus protocols.

Her chief lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, told Reuters by telephone that Suu Kyi, three of her deposed cabinet ministers and a detained Australian economic adviser, Sean Turnell, were charged a week ago in a Yangon court under the official secrets law, adding he learned of the new charge two days ago.

A conviction under the law can carry a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

A spokesman for the junta did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

Suu Kyi, who is 75 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar, appeared via video link for a hearing in connection with the earlier charges on Thursday. Another of her lawyers, Min Min Soe, said she appeared to be in good health.

“Amay Su and President U Win Myint are in good health,” the lawyer said, referring to Suu Kyi by an affectionate term for mother. The president, a Suu Kyi ally, was also deposed and detained in the coup. He too faces various charges.

Their lawyers have said the charges against both of them were trumped up.

At least 538 civilians have been killed in protests against the coup, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group.

Protesters were back out in several places on Thursday and two more people were killed, according to media reports, as activists burned copies of a military-framed constitution and called for unity among all those opposed to army rule.

One person was killed and five wounded when the security forces fired in the central town of Monywa, the Monywa Gazette reported.

Security forces also opened fire in the second largest city of Mandalay killing one person, media reported. Shots rang out and black smoke drifted over Myanmar’s ancient royal capital.

Police and a spokesman for the military did not answer calls seeking comment.

The suspension of wireless internet connections is likely to cripple communications about the protests in a country where very people few have access to fixed line connections.

‘NEW DAY’

The coup has also triggered new clashes in Myanmar’s old wars.

At least 20 soldiers were killed and four military trucks destroyed in clashes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Myanmar’s most powerful rebel groups, DVB news reported.

Reuters could not immediately verify the reports and a junta spokesman did not answers calls seeking comment on the clash.

Myanmar military aircraft have started bombing positions of another group, the Karen National Union (KNU), for the first time in more than 20 years and thousands of villagers have fled from their homes, many into Thailand.

The army takeover has led to calls for a united opposition among city-based democracy campaigners and ethnic minority forces battling in frontier regions.

Ousted members of parliament, mostly from Suu Kyi’s party, have vowed to set up a federal democracy in a bid to address a long-standing demand from minority groups for autonomy.

They also announced the scrapping of the 2008 constitution drawn up by the military that enshrines its control over politics. The military has long rejected federalism, seeing itself as the central power holding the fractious country together.

Social media posts showed copies of the constitution, real and symbolic, being burned at rallies and in homes.

“The new day begin here!” Dr Sasa, the international envoy for the ousted parliamentarians said on Twitter, referring to what for now is not a change that proponents can make.

Britain’s Next on Thursday joined a growing list of European clothing retailers suspending new production orders with factories in Myanmar in the wake of the coup.

(Reporting by Reuters StaffWriting by Ed Davies and Robert BirselEditing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Frances Kerry)

Myanmar’s Suu Kyi ‘looks healthy’, lawyer says, as U.S. orders non-essential staff to leave

(Reuters) -Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in good health in a video meeting on Wednesday, one of her lawyers said, as the United States ordered its non-essential embassy staff to leave after “horrifying” violence against opponents of a coup.

The detained Nobel laureate, who has been held in custody since the military seized power on Feb. 1, had wanted to meet lawyers in person and did not agree to a wide discussion by video in the presence of police, lawyer Min Min Soe told Reuters by telephone.

“Amay looks healthy, her complexion is good,” Min Min Soe said, using an affectionate term meaning “mother” to refer to Suu Kyi.

Only the legal cases against her filed since the coup were discussed during the video conference, the lawyer said.

Suu Kyi, 75, was arrested the same day the military seized power and faces charges that include illegally importing six handheld radios and breaching coronavirus protocols.

The military has also accused her of bribery in two recent news conferences. Her lawyers say the charges were trumped up and dismissed the accusation of bribery as a joke.

The next hearing in her case is on Thursday.

The military seized power saying that November elections won by Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent. The election commission said the vote was fair.

The reimposition of military rule after a decade of tentative steps towards democracy has triggered unrelenting opposition.

At least 521 civilians have been killed in protests, 141 of them on Saturday, the bloodiest day of the unrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Fighting has also flared between the army and ethnic minority insurgents in frontier regions. Refugees fleeing the turmoil are seeking safety in neighboring countries.

Thousands of protesters were out again on Wednesday in different parts of the country.

Residents in the main city of Yangon banged pots and pans and honked their car horns in a clamor of defiance as a news crew from CNN was shown around in what its correspondent said was a heavily armed convoy.

Media reported a gun battle between security forces and civilians near the northwestern town of Kale. Voice of Myanmar said one villager was killed and several policemen wounded.

A branch official from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), U Kyaw Kyaw, died at an interrogation center on Tuesday, two weeks after he was detained, a party colleague, Phyo Zewa Thaw, said on Facebook. He was the third NLD member to die in custody since the coup.

Police and a spokesman for the junta did not answer calls seeking comment.

There is growing international concern about prospects for the country with no sign of a path out of the crisis. The junta has not taken up offers from its Southeast Asian neighbors to help find a solution.

The United States on Tuesday ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and family members due to concern over what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the “increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence” against demonstrators.

AIR ATTACKS

City-based opponents of military rule have called for a united front with insurgent groups that have battled the government for decades for greater autonomy in the border regions.

The military sees itself as the only institution capable of holding the country together.

Myanmar’s oldest rebel group, the Karen National Union (KNU), said on Tuesday it was bracing for a major government offensive on its areas of operation along the eastern border with Thailand.

The KNU urged the international community, and Thailand in particular, to help Karen people fleeing the “onslaught” and called for countries to cut ties with the junta.

Military aircraft have been bombing KNU fighters since the weekend and thousands of villagers have fled from their homes, many into Thailand.

Seven people were killed on Tuesday in an air strike on a gold-panning operation in KNU territory, the Irrawaddy reported.

Fighting has also increased in the north between government forces and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) insurgents.

People have also been crossing from northwest Myanmar into India.

Western countries have condemned the coup and called for Suu Kyi’s release. Some have imposed limited sanctions.

But those pressing for change have limited leverage in a country that was largely isolated for decades under strict military rule, and which retains the support of countries like Russia and China.

In Washington, Blinken said foreign countries and companies with significant investments in enterprises that support Myanmar’s military should reconsider those stakes.

India’s Adani Group said it would consult authorities and stakeholders on its port project in Myanmar, after human rights groups reported its subsidiary had agreed to pay millions of dollars in rent to a military-controlled firm.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Thailand denies forcing back Myanmar refugees blocked at border

By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat

MAE SARIANG, Thailand (Reuters) – Thai authorities on Monday denied forcing back more than 2,000 refugees who had fled air strikes in Myanmar, but a local official said it was government policy for the army to block them at the border and deny access to outside aid groups.

Thousands of people fled Myanmar over the weekend after fighter jets attacked villages near the border held by a force from the Karen ethnic group that had attacked a military post in the wake of a Feb. 1 coup by Myanmar’s army.

Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, told Reuters that thousands of people had been forced to return to the Ee Thu Hta displacement camp on the Myanmar side of the border. Another activist group gave the number as 2,009.

Video shot by a Karen villager and published by Reuters showed refugees boarding boats under the watch of Thai soldiers.

“Look, Thai soldiers told villagers to go back. Here, see old people have to go back. Look there, there are lots of Thai soldiers,” a Karen villager is heard saying. Authorities stopped Reuters reporters from accessing the area.

Thichai Jindaluang, governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, told reporters the refugees were not being pushed back. They were in a safe place on the fringes of the border in Mae Sariang and Sop Moei districts, state media reported.

“Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said in a statement, also saying the reports that the Karens had been pushed back were inaccurate.

“BLOCK THOSE THAT FLED”

But Sangkhom Khadchiangsaen, chief of Mae Sariang District, told a local meeting that those fleeing should be blocked.

“All agencies should follow the policy of the National Security Council which is we need to block those that fled and maintain them along the border,” he said, referring to the government’s security coordinating body.

“The military has the main responsibility in managing the situation on the ground and we must not allow officials from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), NGOs or other international organizations to have direct contact and communication. This is absolutely forbidden.”

Tanee told Reuters he had no further comment on what the local official had said.

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Human rights groups and the European Karen Network, a foreign based support group, criticized the Thai government.

“Thailand’s heartless and illegal act must stop now,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said earlier on Monday the government was prepared to accept refugees and rebuffed claims that Thailand was supporting Myanmar’s junta.

Myanmar security forces have killed at least 459 people since seizing power as it seeks to crush mass protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The army, which has waged decades of wars against ethnic armed groups, carried out its coup saying that November elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Poppy McPherson and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Bangkok; Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Thousands take to the streets in Myanmar as five more protesters killed

(Reuters) – Myanmar security forces killed three people in the main city of Yangon on Monday, witnesses and media reported, as activists called on ethnic minority forces in the diverse nation to back their campaign against military rule.

After the bloodiest day since the Feb. 1 military coup with 114 deaths on Saturday, thousands of people took to the streets in towns across the country, determined to show their opposition to the relapse into military rule after a decade of democratic reform.

A man was killed and several were wounded when security forces fired in one Yangon neighborhood, media and a witness said.

“He was shot in the head,” witness Thiha Soe told Reuters.

“They were shooting at everything on the road, even a Red Cross team. It’s still going on as I’m speaking to you.”

Police and a junta spokesman did not answer calls seeking comment. Myanmar’s Red Cross said in a message it was checking the report.

Two people were killed in another Yangon district when security forces moved in to clear protesters’ barricades, a resident said.

“We can confirm two were killed in our ward,” said the resident of the South Dagon neighborhood who asked to be identified as just Win.

“About 15 members of the security forces came and shot all around,” said Win, adding that the security forces were using grenades to clear barricades.

Based on a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group, 462 civilians have been killed since the coup.

But despite the violence, crowds turned out in the central towns of Bago, Minhla, Khin-U, Pinlebu and Taze, Mawlamyine in the south, Demoso in the east and Hsipaw and Mytitkyina in the north, according to media and social media posts.

The General Strike Committee of Nationalities, a main protest group, called in an open letter on Facebook for ethnic minority forces to help those standing up to the “unfair oppression” of the military.

“It is necessary for the ethnic armed organizations to collectively protect the people,” the protest group said.

‘INTERNAL PROBLEM, PLEASE’

Insurgents from different ethnic minority groups have battled the central government for decades over greater autonomy. Though many groups have agreed to ceasefires, fighting has flared in recent days between the army and forces in both the east and north.

Heavy clashes erupted on the weekend near the Thai border between the army and fighters from Myanmar’s oldest ethnic minority force, the Karen National Union (KNU).

About 3,000 villagers fled to Thailand when military jets bombed a KNU area, killing three civilians, after a KNU force overran an army outpost and killed 10 people, an activist group and media said.

Tens of thousands of Karen have lived in camps in Thailand for decades and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he wanted Myanmar’s latest problems to remain there.

“Please, let this be an internal problem. We don’t want to have an exodus, evacuation into our territory but we will observe human rights too,” Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok.

In Myanmar’s north, fighting erupted on Sunday in the jade-mining area of Hpakant when Kachin Independence Army (KIA) fighters attacked a police station, Kachinwaves media reported.

There were no reports of casualties.

Both the KNU and KIA have expressed support for the anti-coup movement and called on the army stop the violence against civilian protesters.

‘MASS MURDER’

Myanmar’s military has for decades justified its grip on power by saying it is the only institution capable of preserving national unity. It seized power saying that November elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

Suu Kyi remains in detention at an undisclosed location and many other figures in her party are also in custody.

At least six children between the ages 10 and 16 were among those killed in the bloodshed on Saturday, according to news reports and witnesses.

U.N. Special Rapporteur for Myanmar Tom Andrews said the army was carrying out “mass murder” and called on the world to isolate the junta and block its access to weapons.

But foreign criticism and sanctions imposed by some Western countries have failed to sway the generals.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta leader, said during a parade to mark Armed Forces Day on Saturday that the military would protect the people and strive for democracy.

Countries including the United States, Britain, Germany and the European Union again condemned the violence.

“It’s terrible, it’s absolutely outrageous,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters in Delaware.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, called on the generals to stand down from what he called a “senseless path” of violence against their own people.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates, Gerry Doyle and Nick Macfie)

‘No noises, only birds’: silent strike shuts Myanmar as prisoners freed

(Reuters) – Myanmar’s junta freed hundreds of demonstrators on Wednesday arrested during its months-long crackdown on protests, while businesses in Yangon were shut and streets deserted in response to a call by anti-coup activists for a silent strike.

Several buses full of prisoners drove out of Yangon’s Insein jail in the morning, said witnesses, who included lawyers for some inmates. There was no immediate word from authorities on how many prisoners were freed. A spokesman for the military did not answer calls.

“All the released are the ones arrested due to the protests, as well as night arrests or those who were out to buy something,” said a member of a legal advisory group who said he saw around 15 buses leaving.

In the biggest city Yangon, a call by pro-democracy activists for a silent strike turned the streets eerily quiet.

“No going out, no shops, no working. All shut down. Just for one day,” Nobel Aung, an illustrator and activist, told Reuters.

“The usual meat and vegetables vendors on the street didn’t show up,” said a resident of the city’s Mayangone district. “No car noises, only birds.”

A teacher in the Kyauktada district said the roads were deserted: “There aren’t many people in the streets, only water delivery men.”

Activists have called for a “big protest” on Thursday.

“The strongest storm comes after the silence,” Ei Thinzar Maung, one of the protest leaders, said in a post on Facebook.

AP JOURNALIST FREED

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group says at least 2,000 people have been arrested in the military crackdown on the protests against the Feb. 1 coup.

Among those freed on Wednesday, was Thein Zaw, a journalist for The Associated Press who was arrested last month, AP reported, quoting him as saying the judge had dropped the charges because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest.

Wednesday’s strike came a day after staff at a funeral service in Mandalay told Reuters that a seven-year-old girl had died of bullet wounds in the city – the youngest of about 275 people killed in the bloody crackdown, according to the AAPP.

Soldiers shot at her father but hit the girl who was sitting on his lap inside their home, her sister told the Myanmar Now media outlet. Two men were also killed in the district, it said.

The military had no immediate comment on the incident.

The Myanmar office of the United Nations children’s agency said “the continuing use of force against children, including the use of live ammunition, by security forces is taking a devastating toll on children in Myanmar.”

Since the crisis started at least 23 children have been killed and at least 11 others seriously injured, UNICEF said.

The junta has faced international condemnation for staging the coup that halted Myanmar’s slow transition to democracy and for its lethal suppression of the protests that followed.

Opponents of military rule have regularly called for strikes and parts of the economy have been paralyzed by a civil disobedience campaign, including among civil servants.

Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her campaign to bring democratic civilian rule to Myanmar, has been in detention since the coup and faces charges that her lawyer says have been cooked up to discredit her.

The ousted leader was due to appear for another court hearing via video conferencing on Wednesday, but the head of her legal team Khin Maung Zaw said it had been postponed until April 1, marking the second successive delay due to internet issues.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Fire destroys thousands of homes in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh

By Ruma Paul

DHAKA (Reuters) – A huge fire swept through Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh on Monday, destroying thousands of homes, officials and witnesses said.

Video shot by a resident showed a blaze ripping through the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, with people scrambling to recover their possessions amid burning shanties and tents.

“Fire services, rescue and response teams and volunteers are at the scene to try to control the fire and prevent it spreading further,” said Louise Donovan, spokesperson for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar, where refugees live in ramshackle huts.

Rohingya refugees in the camps said many homes were burned down and several people had died, but neither the authorities nor UNHCR confirmed there were any deaths.

More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 from a military-led crackdown that U.N investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent,” charges Myanmar denies.

“The fire spread so quickly that before we understood what happened, it caught our house. People were screaming and running here and there. Children were also running … crying for their family,” said Tayeba Begum, a Save the Children volunteer who witnessed the fire.

A Rohingya leader in Cox’s Bazar, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh, said he saw several dead bodies.

“Thousand of huts were totally burned down,” Mohammed Nowkhim told Reuters.

Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said: “We are trying to control the blaze.”

Another large blaze tore through the camp in January, destroying homes but causing no casualties.

The risk of fire in the densely populated camps is high, and Monday’s blaze was the largest yet, said Onno Van Manen, Country Director of Save the Children in Bangladesh.

“It is another devastating blow to the Rohingya refugees who live here. Just a couple of days ago we lost one of our health facilities in another fire,” he said.

The UNHCR said humanitarian partners had mobilized hundreds of volunteers from nearby camps for the support operation, as well as fire safety vehicles and equipment.

“So far the fire has affected shelters, health centers, distribution points and other facilities,” spokeswoman Donovan said.

(Reporting by Ruma Paul; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Mike Collett-White)

Myanmar security forces kill nine as Indonesia, envoys call for end to violence

(Reuters) – Security forces killed at least nine opponents of Myanmar’s Feb. 1 coup on Friday, a funeral service and media said, as Indonesia urged an end to violence and Western ambassadors condemned what they called the military’s immoral, indefensible actions.

Police and soldiers have used increasingly violent tactics to suppress demonstrations by supporters of detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but that has not deterred the protesters and crowds turned out again on Friday.

Security forces opened fire in a confrontation in the central town of Aungban as they tried to clear a protesters’ barricade, media and a witness reported.

“Security forces came to remove barriers but the people resisted and they fired,” the witness, who declined to be identified, said by telephone.

An official with Aungban’s funerary service, who declined to be identified, told Reuters eight people were killed, seven on the spot and one wounded person who died after being taken to hospital in the nearby town of Kalaw.

The spokesman for the junta was not immediately available for comment but has previously said security forces have used force only when necessary. Critics have derided that.

One protester was killed in the northeastern town of Loikaw, the Myanmar Now news portal said. One person was shot and killed in the main city of Yangon, social media posts showed. Reuters could not confirm that death.

Police ordered people in some Yangon neighborhoods to dismantle barricades and have been hunting for protest leaders, residents said. Video on social media showed police forcing a man to crawl down on a street on all fours.

Demonstrators were also out in the second city of Mandalay, the central towns of Myingyan and Katha, and Myawaddy in the east, witnesses and media reported.

Ambassadors of Western countries condemned the violence as “immoral and indefensible”, in particular in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar industrial district, where dozens were killed over several days after Chinese-owned garment factories were torched last weekend.

“Internet blackouts and suppression of the media will not hide the military’s abhorrent actions,” they said in a statement.

The total number of people killed in weeks of unrest has risen to at least 234, based on a tally by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners activist group.

‘NO MORE VICTIMS’

Myanmar’s Asian neighbors, led by Indonesia, have offered to help find a solution but failed to make headway.

The 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long held to the principle of not commenting on each other’s internal affairs, but there are growing signs that the Myanmar crisis is forcing a reassessment of that.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo made some of the strongest comments yet from a regional leader on the crackdown.

“Indonesia urges that the use of violence in Myanmar be stopped immediately so that there are no more victims,” Jokowi, as he is known, said in a virtual address.

“The safety and welfare of the people must be the top priority. Indonesia also urges dialogue, that reconciliation is carried out immediately to restore democracy.”

Myanmar’s coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, took part in a video conference with regional defense chiefs on Thursday, his first international engagement since seizing power, state television showed.

At the meeting, the head of Indonesia’s armed forces, Hadi Tjahjanto, expressed concern over the Myanmar situation, the Indonesian military said on its website.

Singapore’s military chief, Lieutenant-General Melvyn Ong, also expressed “grave concern” and urged Myanmar to avoid lethal force, the Singapore defense ministry said.

INTERNET RESTRICTIONS

Authorities have tightened restricted on internet services, making information increasingly difficult to verify, and also clamped down on private media.

The U.N. human rights office said this week about 37 journalists had been arrested so far. Two more were detained in the capital, Naypyitaw, on Friday while covering a hearing for an arrested member of Suu Kyi’s party, said the Mizzima news portal, the former employer of one of them, Than Htike Aung.

The other detained reporter was Aung Thura of the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC). The BBC said they were taken away by unidentified men and it called on authorities to help find its accredited journalist and confirm he was safe.

Suu Kyi, 75, faces accusations of bribery and other crimes that could see her banned from politics and jailed if convicted. Her lawyer says the charges are trumped up.

The army has defended its takeover, saying its accusations of fraud in a Nov. 8 election swept by Suu Kyi’s party were ignored by the electoral commission. It has promised a new election but not set a date.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates, Clarence Fernandez and Frances Kerry)

Britain urges citizens to leave Myanmar as violence against protesters mounts

(Reuters) – Britain urged its citizens to leave Myanmar on Friday as security forces cracked down on more protests against the junta, forcing patients out of a hospital in the west of the country and arresting a Polish journalist.

After 12 people were killed on Thursday in one of the bloodiest days since the Feb. 1 coup, the British foreign office warned that “political tension and unrest are widespread since the military takeover and levels of violence are rising”.

Friday’s protests came as South Korea said it would suspend defense exchanges and reconsider development aid to Myanmar because of the violence.

More than 70 protesters have now been killed in the Southeast Asian nation since the military seized power, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) advocacy group said.

Memorials were held for some of them on Friday, including one man whose family said his body had been taken by the security forces and not returned.

A spokesman for the junta did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.

“Despite repeated demands of the international community, including South Korea, there are an increasing number of victims in Myanmar due to violent acts of the military and police authorities,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

It said Seoul would suspend defense exchanges, ban arms exports, limit exports of other strategic items, reconsider development aid and grant humanitarian exemptions allowing Myanmar nationals to stay in South Korea until the situation improved.

Protests were held in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, and several other towns on Friday, photographs posted on social media by witnesses and news organizations showed. Many were dispersed by security forces.

Poland’s foreign ministry said a Polish journalist was arrested, the second foreign reporter to be detained. A Japanese journalist was briefly held while covering a protest.

Riot police and armed soldiers entered the general hospital in Hakha, in the western Chin state, forcing all 30 patients to leave and evicting staff from on-site housing, said local activist Salai Lian.

Soldiers have been occupying hospitals and universities across Myanmar as they try to quash a civil disobedience movement that started with government employees like doctors and teachers but has expanded into a general strike that has paralyzed many sectors of the economy.

The country has been in crisis since the army ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government last month, detained her and officials of her National League for Democracy party, and set up a ruling junta of generals.

Junta spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said on Thursday Suu Kyi had accepted gold and illegal payments worth $600,000 while in government. He said Phyo Min Thein, a former chief minister of Yangon, who is also in jail, had admitted making the payments.

Adding corruption charges to the accusations facing Suu Kyi, 75, could bring her a harsher penalty. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently faces four comparatively minor charges, such as illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and flouting coronavirus curbs.

“This accusation is the most hilarious joke,” Suu Kyi’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said on social media on Friday. “She might have other weaknesses but she doesn’t have weakness in moral principle.”

‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY’

Thursday’s dead included eight people killed when security forces fired on a protest in the central town of Myaing, the AAPP said.

Chit Min Thu was killed in the North Dagon district of Yangon. His wife, Aye Myat Thu, told Reuters he had insisted on joining the protests despite her appeals that he stay at home for the sake of their son.

“He said it’s worth dying for,” she said through her tears. “He is worried about people not joining the protest. If so, democracy will not return.”

The bloodshed came hours after the U.N. Security Council had called for restraint from the army.

U.N. human rights investigator Thomas Andrews on Friday dismissed as “absurd” comments by a senior Myanmar official that authorities were exercising “utmost restraint”. Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, he called for a united approach to “strip away the junta’s sense of impunity.”

The army did not respond to requests for comment on the latest deaths, but junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said on Thursday the security forces were disciplined and used force only when necessary.

Rights group Amnesty International accused the army of using lethal force against protesters and said many killings it had documented amounted to extra-judicial executions.

Suu Kyi fought for decades to overturn military rule under previous juntas before tentative democratic reforms began in 2011. She had spent a total of about 15 years under house arrest.

The army has justified taking power by saying that a November election, overwhelmingly won by Suu Kyi’s party, was marred by fraud – an assertion rejected by the electoral commission.

The junta has said a state of emergency will last for a year, but has not set a date for the election.

(Reporting by Reuters staff; Writing by Ed Davies and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Clarence Fernandez and Catherine Evans)

Protests surge in Yangon as Myanmar forces trap youth protesters

(Reuters) – Thousands of people took to the streets of Myanmar’s biggest city in defiance of a night curfew on Monday, chanting in anger after security forces besieged hundreds of young anti-coup protesters in one neighborhood.

Western embassies appealed to the ruling military junta to allow the protesters to leave Sanchaung, where they were cornered at the end of another day of bloodshed in Myanmar in which at least three protesters were killed elsewhere in the country.

“Free the students in Sanchaung,” people chanted in the streets in districts across the former capital, where daily protests have taken place for more than a month against the Feb. 1 coup which overthrew elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In some areas, police used stun grenades and fired shots to try to disperse protesters, witnesses said.

Live video from Sanchaung on social media showed protesters running between the houses as stun grenades detonated.

“Almost 200 young protesters are still blocked by the police and soldiers there. Local and international community needs to help them now! Please,” one protest leader, Maung Saungkha, said on Twitter.

The U.S. Embassy said in a statement: “We call on those security forces to withdraw and allow people to go home safely.” The United Nations office in Myanmar and the British Embassy made a similar appeal.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office voiced deep concern about the fate of the protesters trapped in Sanchaung. Rights chief Michelle Bachelet said they should be allowed to leave safely and without reprisals.

A spokesman for the junta did not answer calls requesting comment.

Police said they would scrutinize family registration lists in the area to check for outsiders – threatening action against anyone caught concealing them.

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

According to the United Nations, more than 50 people have been killed by security forces in the junta’s attempts to end the protests demanding the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees and respect for the election she won last year.

AT LEAST THREE DEAD

Two protesters died of gunshot wounds to the head in the northern town of Myitkyina on Monday, witnesses said. At least one person was killed at a protest in the town of Phyar Pon in the Irrawaddy Delta, a political activist and local media said.

Earlier, protesters in some places had waved flags fashioned from htamain (women’s sarongs) or hung them up on lines across the street to mark International Women’s Day. Walking beneath women’s sarongs is traditionally considered bad luck for men.

MRTV said such a display was severely insulting to religion in largely Buddhist Myanmar.

The army took power citing fraud in the ballot last November that was won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – 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 and appears to be digging in to weather the crisis, as it has in past periods of army rule.

In a clampdown on independent media that has been covering the protests, state television announced the licenses of five outlets had been withdrawn.

Shops, businesses and factories closed across Yangon on Monday after at least nine unions covering sectors including construction, agriculture and manufacturing called on all Myanmar people to stop work to reverse the coup.

“The time to take action in defense of our democracy is now,” they said in a statement.

Security forces had moved in to occupy hospitals on Sunday night.

The United States and some other Western countries have imposed limited sanctions on the junta and Australia on Sunday cut defense ties.

The European Union is preparing to widen its sanctions on the army to target businesses they run and the measures could be agreed by EU foreign ministers on March 22, according to diplomats and two internal documents seen by Reuters.

In Sweden, H&M, the world’s second-biggest fashion retailer, said it had paused placing orders with direct suppliers in Myanmar – saying it was shocked at the use of deadly forces against protesters, but also worried about instability.

Among those the military has detained is Suu Kyi’s Australian former financial advisor. State television quoted junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing as saying the detention led to the discovery of secret financial information from the former government.

Reuters was unable to contact Sean Turnell for comment. The army has not announced charges against him.

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

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Martin Petty, Poppy McPherson and Raju Gopalakrishnan; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Angus MacSwan)

Nearly 40 killed in violent day of protests against Myanmar coup, U.N. envoy says

(Reuters) – Thirty-eight people were killed in Myanmar as the military quelled protests in several towns and cities on Wednesday, the United Nations said, the most violent day since demonstrations against last month’s military coup first broke out.

Police and soldiers opened fire with live rounds with little warning, witnesses said.

The bloodshed occurred one day after neighboring countries had called for restraint in the aftermath of the military’s overthrow of the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“It’s horrific, it’s a massacre. No words can describe the situation and our feelings,” youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi told Reuters via a messaging app.

The dead included four children, an aid agency said. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, local media reported.

“Today it was the bloodiest day since the coup happened on the 1st of February. We had today — only today — 38 people died. We have now more than over 50 people died since the coup started, and many are wounded,” United Nations special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said in New York.

A spokesman for the ruling military council did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

Schraner Burgener said that in conversations with Myanmar’s deputy military chief Soe Win, she had warned him that the military was likely to face strong measures from some countries and isolation in retaliation for the coup.

“The answer was: ‘We are used to sanctions, and we survived’,” she told reporters in New York. “When I also warned they will go (into) isolation, the answer was: ‘We have to learn to walk with only few friends’.”

The U.N. Security Council is due to discuss the situation on Friday in a closed meeting, diplomats said.

SUSTAINED SHOOTING

Ko Bo Kyi, joint secretary of Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners rights group, had said earlier the military killed at least 18. But the toll rose by the end of the day.

In the main city Yangon, witnesses said at least eight people were killed, seven of them when security forces opened sustained fire in a neighborhood in the north of the city in the early evening.

“I heard so much continuous firing. I lay down on the ground, they shot a lot,” protester Kaung Pyae Sone Tun, 23, told Reuters.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States was “appalled” by the increase in violence. The administration of President Joe Biden was evaluating “appropriate” measures to respond and any actions would be targeted at Myanmar’s military, he added.

The United States has conveyed to China that it is looking for Beijing to play a constructive role in Myanmar, the spokesman said.

The European Union said the shootings of unarmed civilians and medical workers were clear breaches of international law. It also said the military was stepping up repression of the media, with a growing number of journalists arrested and charged.

In the central town of Monywa, six people were killed, the Monywa Gazette reported. Others were killed in the second-biggest city Mandalay, the northern town of Hpakant and the central town of Myingyan.

Save the Children said in a statement four children were among the dead, including a 14-year-old boy who Radio Free Asia reported was shot dead by a soldier on a passing convoy of military trucks. The soldiers loaded his body onto a truck and left the scene, according to the report.

‘WE SHALL OVERCOME’

Security forces breaking up protests in Yangon detained about 300 protesters, the Myanmar Now news agency reported.

Video posted on social media showed lines of young men, hands on heads, filing into army trucks as police and soldiers stood guard. Reuters was unable to verify the footage.

Images of a 19-year-old woman, one of two shot dead in Mandalay, showed her wearing a T-shirt that read “Everything will be OK”.

Police in Yangon ordered three medics out of an ambulance, shot up the windscreen and then kicked and beat the workers with gun butts and batons, video broadcast by U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia showed. Reuters was unable to verify the video independently.

Democracy activist Esther Ze Naw told Reuters that the sacrifices of those who died would not be in vain.

“We shall overcome this and win,” she said.

On Tuesday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to make a breakthrough in a virtual foreign ministers’ meeting on Myanmar.

While united in a call for restraint, only four members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore – called for the release of Suu Kyi and other detainees.

“We expressed ASEAN’s readiness to assist Myanmar in a positive, peaceful and constructive manner,” the ASEAN chair, Brunei, said in a statement.

Myanmar’s state media said the military-appointed foreign minister, Wunna Maung Lwin, attended and “apprised the meeting of voting irregularities” in the November election.

The military justified the coup by saying its complaints of voter fraud in the Nov. 8 vote were ignored. Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide, earning a second term.

The election commission said the vote was fair.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold new elections but given no time frame. U.N. envoy Schraner Burgener said his deputy Soe Win told her that “after a year they want to have another election.”

Suu Kyi, 75, has been held incommunicado since the coup but appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing this week and looked in good health, a lawyer said.

(Reporting and writing by Reuters Staff; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Grant McCool and Rosalba O’Brien)