BANGKOK/YANGON -- Violence by Myanmar's military against civilian protesters in towns and cities across the country escalated on Sunday as security forces used live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas against mostly peaceful civilians protesting the Feb. 1 military takeover.
By mid-afternoon, at least 18 protesters had been fatally shot, according to the United Nations human rights office, and scores injured by military or police forces in several towns and cities, including the southern town of Dawei, Bago near Yangon, and Mandalay, in the west, where one death was reported.
In Mandalay, several thousand people took to the streets on Sunday morning, and violent clashes were reported between police and crowds. Violence between security forces and protesters was also reported in ethnic-dominated areas including Hpa-an and Myawaddy in Kayin state, Lashio and Taunggyi in Shan state, Myitkyina in Kachin state and Mawlamyine in Mon state.
The escalation of violence appears to be part of a strategy by the military regime to both intensify and broaden the crackdown against the protest movement, which has steadily gained momentum since the coup. Nearly 500 people were arrested over the weekend, according to state-run MRTV television. More than 800 people have been detained since Feb. 1, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Together with the weekend arrests, the number exceeds 1,300 people, whose whereabouts are mostly unknown.
Human Rights Watch said the military's use of lethal force against unarmed civilians is "outrageous and unacceptable, and must be immediately halted."
"Live ammunition should not be used to control or disperse protests," the group said. "Any deaths and serious injuries should be promptly and impartially investigated. Those found responsible for any unlawful acts should be held accountable."
The U.S. Embassy in Myanmar expressed concern, describing the targeting of civilians as "abhorrent."
Security forces also reportedly detained at least four journalists who were covering the protests, noted Human Rights Watch, which called for their immediate and unconditional release. Emergency medical assistants treating wounded demonstrators at protest sites were also targeted for arrest, "in blatant attempts to intimidate [those] attempting to assist pro-democracy protesters," the statement said.
The escalating violence followed a display of defiance by Myanmar's ambassador to the United Nations, Kyaw Moe Tun, who denounced the coup in an address to the U.N. General Assembly on Friday. It also comes ahead of the second hearing on Monday in the trial of Myanmar's state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the ousted National League for Democracy. She was detained on Feb. 1 and later charged with minor offenses including illegal possession of walkie-talkies and violating the country's disaster management law.
Her whereabouts are unknown, and she has been unable to meet her lawyer, although she made an appearance by video link at the first hearing held on Feb. 17.
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Kyaw Moe Tun appealed for help to end the military coup and for recognition of the Committee to Represent the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (parliament), a small group of NLD politicians who were elected in the Nov. 8 poll and are now establishing a "parallel parliament" to liaise with the international community.
The military has alleged "grave fraud" in the polls. The junta-controlled foreign ministry said over the weekend that the formation of groups such as the CRPH was illegal and warned foreign embassies, U.N. agencies and other international organizations not to talk to "illegal entities" such as the NLD.
MRTV announced on Saturday that ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had been dismissed from his post because he "betrayed the country" and "abused the power and responsibilities of an ambassador." However, the United Nations has not officially recognized the junta as Myanmar's new government.
Analysts on Sunday said that the country's military was engaging in a widening pattern of arrests. "The junta's broad nationwide restrictions against public protests, and banning of any assembly of more than five persons, blatantly violates basic rights to peaceful, public assembly and must be urgently rescinded," Human Rights Watch added.
In the latest sign that foreign investors are becoming anxious about the escalating violence and growing backlash, Australian energy giant Woodside said it was cutting its presence in Myanmar over concerns about rights violations and violence. Woodside's move followed CEO Peter Coleman saying in a Reuters interview that he saw the coup as "a transitionary issue" that does not affect the company's gas exploration plans in the Southeast Asian nation.
Singapore's stock exchange also issued a list of queries to developer Emerging Towns & Cities over its real estate project in Yangon after rights group Justice for Myanmar accused the developer of doing business with Myanmar's military. Multinationals to withdraw from or suspend ventures in the country include Japan's Kirin Holdings, which withdrew from a beer joint venture with the military-owned MEHL shortly after the coup.
Major investors in Myanmar -- including Woodside, Total of France, Unilever, Danish brewer Carlsberg and shipping giant Maersk -- issued a joint statement expressing their "growing and deep concern" and saying they "hope to see a swift resolution" that is "in accordance with the will and interests of the people of Myanmar." The statement was facilitated by the independent Myanmar Center for Responsible Business and also signed by major local conglomerates such as KBZ Bank and companies led by Sino-Myanmar tycoon Serge Pun.