BANGKOK -- Myanmar has already experienced more deaths than in the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2007 that were largely led by monks.
According to the United Nations, 38 people were killed on Wednesday, the bloodiest day since the Feb. 1 coup, as Myanmar's military and police continue with a hardline stance, oblivious to calls for restraint from other countries.
More than 50 people have been killed since the coup, according to Christine Schraner Burgener, the U.N. special envoy of the secretary-general on Myanmar. The U.N. reported that 31 people had died in the 2007 crackdown, confirming that the latest uprising is more deadly.
Burgener said automatic weapons were being used this time, and condemned the military's overreaction to peaceful protests.
The Global New Light of Myanmar, an English-language state newspaper, published the official line on Thursday that "protesters are using a variety of methods to provoke riots."
"Only weapons to control the crowd are used in order to minimize injuries," it said.
On Tuesday, the state mouthpiece reported on a meeting the previous day of the junta, the State Administration Council, chaired by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. "We are controlling the situation with the minimum equipment," he was quoted saying. "We are more flexible than measures taken by other countries."
The situation so far has not escalated to the same level as 1988 when over 3,000 people were killed across Burma, as Myanmar was then known.
Political leader Aung Gyi, a former key lieutenant to Gen. Ne Win, Burma's dictator from 1962 to 1988, believed the mortality figure was much higher.
The main bloodshed occurred between the official start of protests on Aug. 8 and a coup staged on Sept. 18 by Senior General Saw Maung, Min Aung Hlaing's predecessor but one.
The 1988 coup was carried out by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and left another 500 people dead on the streets -- a figure confirmed by Saw Maung himself in January 1989 to journalists.
"There were over 500 other deaths that occurred during the lootings and the destruction of factories and workshops," Saw Maung told the journalists.
As the disorder deepened, more deadly weapons were employed. "In martial law, we have military administration -- the only thing left is to shoot with the arms that you have," Saw Maung said.
Myanmar's military, or Tatmadaw, has a long history of disproportionate violence against minorities and dissenters. In 2017, a brutal military counterinsurgency sweep sent over 740,000 Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority, over the border into Bangladesh for sanctuary.
There have been smaller Rohingya exoduses over the years. A military crackdown in 1977 sent a reported 200,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.
Apart from the student-led uprising in 1988, two earlier protests in Yangon were brutally suppressed. In July 1962, the military rounded up thousands of students protesting against the Revolutionary Council of Gen. Ne Win at Rangoon University.
As many as 150 students are thought to have been shot or bayoneted by soldiers storming the campus. Official figures conceded only a tenth of that number. The military then blew up the historic Student Union building, which had been a hotbed of anti-British sentiment in the 1930s. Aung Gyi and Ne Win each blamed the other for the demolition, and later fell out.
In December 1974, there were was another student-led protest that involved the returned corpse of U Thant, the third U.N. secretary-general. Students who felt he was being insufficiently honored by the Ne Win regime absconded with the body to provide an alternative ceremony. There were nearly 3,000 arrests, but estimates for the number of deaths range from under 13 to over 100.
The military this time is attempting to suppress steadfast demands for the results of the general election held in November to be honored. That produced an even bigger landslide win for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi than in the 2015 general election. Many of today's protesters carry placards supporting the Committee of Representatives to the Union Parliament (CRPH).
The CRPH includes recently elected NLD lawmakers who continue to maintain their right to take their seats in parliament. The junta has already abolished Suu Kyi's state counsellor position which was created to circumvent a constitutional bar on her becoming president by virtue of being the widow of a foreigner. Suu Kyi is now facing prosecution on a number of charges.
The CRPH has appointed nine acting ministers from its ranks, including a foreign minister -- a position previously occupied by Suu Kyi. The body aims to serve as a "provisional government" until Suu Kyi and others are released.
Some cracks have already appeared in the facade of the junta-controlled administration. On Feb, 26, Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar's permanent representative to the U.N. in New York since before the coup, read a CRPH statement to the U.N. General Assembly condemning the military.
The junta immediately dismissed Kyaw Moe Tun, but he responded with a letter to the U.N. stating that he intended to continue his duties. The letter was accepted by U.N. officials. Meanwhile, Kyaw Moe Tun's deputy in New York was appointed as his replacement by the foreign ministry but resigned on Wednesday.
On Feb. 28, the foreign ministry in Naypyitaw, the capital, initiated a major reshuffle, recalling over 100 diplomats from 19 missions including in Japan, the U.S. and a number of European countries. Over 50 replacements have already been named.
The U.S. and Europe are stepping up pressure after the 38 deaths on Wednesday. U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Wednesday, "We call on all countries to speak with one voice to condemn brutal violence by the Burmese military against its own people."
The debate on sanctions against Myanmar is likely to resume in the West. Western sanctions were lifted after the NLD government entered office in 2016 despite concern that this was one of the few levers Suu Kyi might be able to retain over the military.
The ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which Myanmar joined in 1997, held an online meeting of foreign ministers on Tuesday. In a statement constrained by the ASEAN principle of non-interference, the ministers called for restraint on the part of the military -- a request that was immediately ignored.
Among ASEAN members, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have so far issued the most serious bilateral statements of concern to Naypyitaw. One of Thailand's deputy prime ministers shrugged off the coup early on as a domestic affair.