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Myanmar Crisis

Armoured vehicles deployed to major Myanmar cities after mass protests

Several journalists detained, soldiers surrounding Yangon airport Sunday night

An armoured vehicle rides on a street during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 14.   © Reuters

Security forces in Myanmar opened fire to disperse protesters at a power plant on Sunday and armoured vehicles rolled into major cities as the new army rulers faced a ninth day of anti-coup demonstrations that saw hundreds of thousands on the streets.

As well as mass protests around the country, the military rulers were facing a strike by government workers, part of a civil disobedience movement against the Feb. 1 coup that deposed the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Soldiers were deployed to power plants in the northern state of Kachin, leading to a confrontation with demonstrators, some of whom said they believed the army intended to cut off the electricity.

The security forces fired to disperse protesters outside one plant in Kachin's state capital Myitkyina, footage broadcast live on Facebook showed, although it was not clear if they were using rubber bullets or live fire.

Two journalists from The 74 Media, which was broadcasting live from the site of the confrontation, were arrested along with three other journalists, the news outlet said in a Facebook post.

As evening fell, armoured vehicles appeared in the commercial capital of Yangon, Myitkyina and Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, live footage broadcast online by local media showed, the first large-scale rollout of such vehicles across the country since the coup.

The government and army could not be reached for comment.

Western embassies - from the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and 11 other nations - issued a statement late on Sunday calling on security forces to "refrain from violence against demonstrators and civilians, who are protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government".

The U.S embassy in Myanmar earlier urged American citizens to "shelter in place", citing reports of the military movements in Yangon. It also warned there was a possibility of a telecoms interruptions overnight between 1:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.

In the latest sign of disruption by workers, the Department of Civil Aviation said in a statement many staff had stopped coming to work since Feb. 8, causing delays to international flights. It added that on Thursday four air traffic controllers had been detained, and had not been heard from since.

A pilot, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said hundreds of staff from the department were striking. Soldiers were surrounding the international airport in Yangon late on Sunday night, he said.

Trains in parts of the country also stopped running after staff refused to go to work, local media reported, while the military deployed soldiers to power plants where they were confronted by angry crowds.

The junta has ordered civil servants to go back to work, threatening action. The army has been carrying out nightly mass arrests and on Saturday gave itself sweeping powers to detain people and search private property.

But hundreds of railway workers joined demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday, even as police went to their housing compound on the outskirts of the city to order them back to work. The police were forced to leave after angry crowds gathered, according to a live broadcast by Myanmar Now.

Richard Horsey, a Myanmar-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the work of many government departments had effectively ground to a halt.

"This has the potential to also affect vital functions – the military can replace engineers and doctors, but not power grid controllers and central bankers," he said.

Hundreds of thousands of people protested across the nation on Sunday.

Engineering students marched through downtown Yangon, the biggest city, wearing white and carrying placards demanding the release of ousted leader Suu Kyi, who has been in detention since the coup and charged with importing walkie-talkies.

A fleet of highway buses rolled slowly through the city with horns blaring, part of the biggest street protests in more than a decade.

A convoy of motorbikes and cars drove through the capital Naypyitaw. In the southeastern coastal town of Dawei, a band played drums as crowds marched under the hot sun. In Waimaw, in Kachin state, crowds carried flags and sang revolutionary songs.

Suu Kyi's detention is due to expire on Monday. Her lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, could not be reached for comment on what was set to happen.

More than 384 people have been detained since the coup, the monitoring group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said, in a wave of mostly nightly arrests.

Late on Saturday, the army reinstated a law requiring people to report overnight visitors to their homes, allowed security forces to detain suspects and search private property without court approval, and ordered the arrest of well-known backers of mass protests.

Fearing arrest raids as well as common crime, residents banded together late on Saturday to patrol streets in Yangon and the country's second-largest city Mandalay.

Worries about crime rose after the junta announced on Friday it would free 23,000 prisoners, saying the move was consistent with "establishing a new democratic state with peace, development and discipline".

 (Reuters)

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