YANGON – Supporters of Myanmar’s junta attacked people protesting the military government that took power in a coup, using slingshots, iron rods and knives Thursday to injure several of the demonstrators.
The violence complicates an already intractable standoff between the military and a protest movement that has been staging large rallies daily to demand that Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government be restored to power. She and other politicians were ousted and arrested on Feb. 1 in a takeover that shocked the international community and reversed years of slow progress toward democracy.
In response, several Western countries have imposed or threatened sanctions against the military. On Thursday, Britain announced further measures against members of the ruling junta for “overseeing human rights violations since the coup.”
Amid the international outrage, Facebook also announced it would ban all accounts linked to the military as well as ads from military-controlled companies.
On Thursday, tensions escalated on the streets between anti-coup protesters and supporters of the military. Photos and videos posted on social media showed groups attacking people in downtown Yangon as police stood by without intervening.
The number of injured people and their condition was not immediately clear.
According to accounts and photos posted on social media, hundreds of people marched Thursday in support of the coup. They carried banners in English with the slogans “We Stand With Our Defence Services” and “We Stand With State Administration Council,” which is the official name of the junta.
When the marchers were jeered at by onlookers near the city’s Central Railway station, they responded by firing slingshots and throwing stones at their critics. Some marchers broke away to chase down a man and then stabbed and kicked him.
Supporters of the military have gathered in the streets before, especially in the days immediately before and after the coup, but had not used violence so openly.
Critics of the military charge its pays people to engage in violence, allegations that are hard to verify. They have been raised during earlier spells of unrest, including a failed anti-military uprising in 1988 and an ambush of Suu Kyi’s motorcade in a remote rural area in 2003, when she was seeking to rally her supporters against the military regime then in power.
Such confrontations could make it harder to resolve Myanmar’s crisis.
Later Thursday, police turned out in force in Yangon’s Tarmwe neighborhood where they tried to clear the streets of residents protesting the military's appointment of a new administrator for one ward. Several arrests were made as people scattered in front of lines of riot police, who used flash bang grenades to disperse the crowd.
So far, according to the independent Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, eight people have been killed in connection with the junta’s crackdown and 728 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced since the coup.
As part of its efforts to quell the opposition, the ruling junta has sought to limit access to the internet, including trying to block Facebook — the gateway to the web for many people in Myanmar. Those efforts have proven largely ineffective.
But on Thursday, Facebook announced a ban of its own: on all military-linked accounts. The social media platform already had deleted several military-linked accounts since the coup, including army-controlled Myawaddy TV and state television broadcaster MRTV. The bans also apply to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
The company said in a statement that it considered the situation in Myanmar an “emergency,” explaining that the ban was triggered by events since the coup, including “deadly violence.”
Facebook and other social media platforms came under enormous criticism in 2017 when right groups said they failed to do enough to stop hate speech against Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
The army launched a brutal counterinsurgency operation that year that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya to seek safety in neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain in refugee camps. Myanmar security forces burned down villages, killed civilians and engaged in mass rape, and the International Court of Justice is considering whether these actions constitute genocide.
The military says it took power because last November’s election was marked by widespread voting irregularities, an assertion that was refuted by the state election commission, whose members have since been replaced.
The junta has said it will rule for a year and then hold fresh elections.