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Myanmar: Protesters Targeted in March Massacre

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Human Rights Watch has responded to an attack on civilians in Myanmar, involving helicopter gunships in the Sagaing region

Thousands of civilians have fled their homes due to attacks by helicopter gunships in Myanmar’s Sagaing region, a hotbed of resistance to the country’s military rule, according to local media.

Human Rights Watch says Myanmar security forces deliberately encircled and used lethal force during the March 14, 2021, anti-junta protests in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar township.

Soldiers and police armed with military assault rifles fired on trapped protesters and on those trying to assist the wounded, killing at least 65 protesters and bystanders.

Myanmar / Image: File

Following the February 1 military coup against Myanmar’s democratically elected government, numerous demonstrations have broken out in Yangon and other cities

Local media reports state the police and military forces repeatedly used lethal force against largely peaceful protesters in violation of international human rights law. HRS stated that the deadly shootings in Hlaing Tharyar stand out because of the large number of people killed and the security forces’ apparent premeditated use of lethal force.

“The Myanmar security forces’ massacre of several dozen people outside Yangon in mid-March was not a case of riot control gone astray,”

said Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The Hlaing Tharyar killings have the hallmarks of a planned attack on protesters for which those responsible, regardless of rank, should be held to account.”

Human Rights Watch remotely interviewed six witnesses to the Hlaing Tharyar violence

Human Rights Watch also verified 13 videos of the protests recorded on March 14, and 31 photographs uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Anti-coup demonstrations began around early March in Hlaing Tharyar, a largely industrial zone across the Hlaing River, west of Yangon, according to the agency’s statement.

Because many trade union members live and work in the area, the protests were particularly large and well-organised.

Before dawn on March 14, protesters set up cement-block barricades and sandbags as barriers at major bus stops along the Hlaing River Road, the area’s main thoroughfare, ahead of sit-in strikes starting at 5 a.m.

Around 10 a.m., about 200 soldiers and police began moving into Hlaing Tharyar, bypassing the barriers and causing protesters to retreat or disperse. Witnesses said that, by 11 a.m., the security forces had trapped many protesters from the east and west, a tactic known in some countries as “kettling.”

HRW says just one witness at Mie Kwat Zay said that security forces gave verbal warning before the military and police began firing at protesters, but at all other locations, witnesses heard no warnings.

People stand on a barricade during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar March 27, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

The witness accounts and videos indicate that security forces deliberately fired upon protesters to kill or maim without there being any threat to the security forces’ lives. One video shows police and military gathered at 1 p.m. on the Aung Zeya Bridge, which separates Hlaing Tharyar from Yangon. The forces look at the protesters on the streets below and can be heard discussing when and whom to shoot. An unidentified person off camera says, “Just shoot them in the head,” while two police officers point assault rifles toward the protesters. Gunshots are heard and the same unidentified person yells, “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!”

All six witnesses said that the security forces also fired on people who were trying to reach the wounded. “[W]e weren’t able to help those who were injured because they would shoot at us if we tried,” one witness said. “We couldn’t get to them, and they died. Some people who tried to help went forward anyway and they were shot in the head and died.”

Witnesses said that some protesters used weapons, such as rocks, slings, and Molotov cocktails, in response to the security forces firing on them, but no security force casualties were reported.

On March 15, the day after the killings, the junta accused “rioters” of burning down garment factories and blocking firefighters, and imposed martial law in Hlaing Tharyar and nearby Shwe Pyi Thar township.

“Rioters created havoc on roads, and over 2,000 rioters also blocked the roads to prevent fire engines from leaving their stations and fighting the fire,” a junta statement said.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that security forces should “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and use the minimum necessary force at all times.

Firearms may only be used when other less harmful means are not practicable but must still be used to the minimum extent necessary. Intentionally lethal use of firearms is only permitted when strictly unavoidable to protect life. The Basic Principles further provide that in “cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities.”

Since the coup, throughout the country, Myanmar security forces have killed more than 1,200 protesters and bystanders, committing killings, torture, and other crimes that amount to crimes against humanity. The crime against humanity of murder has been defined by international tribunals as death that “results from an act or omission by the accused, committed with the intent either to kill or to cause serious bodily harm with the reasonable knowledge that it would likely lead to death.”

The State Administration Council, Myanmar’s junta, is not known to have taken any action against security force officers or personnel, for their involvement in criminal offenses at Hlaing Tharyar or as a matter of command responsibility. The military commander with responsibility for the Yangon Region, including Hlaing Tharyar, was Brig. Gen. Nyunt Win Swe. The Yangon Region police chief was Brig. Gen. Myo Min Htike. Former Myanmar military officers told Human Rights Watch that regional military commanders control police forces during joint operations.

The UN, regional bodies, and governments, including the European Union, United States and United Kingdom, should respond to ongoing human rights violations and crimes against humanity in Myanmar by supplementing, strengthening, and coordinating international sanctions against the junta leadership and military under Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Actions should include targeted sanctions on specified military and police commanders, including Brig. Gen. Nyunt Win Swe and Brig. Gen. Myo Min Htike; a global arms embargo; and financial restrictions that would reduce the junta’s revenues from extractive industries.

“Hlaing Tharyar was a bloodbath for which all those responsible should be brought to justice,” Maung said. “Such atrocities will continue unless the UN Security Council and concerned governments take concerted action to hold Myanmar’s junta leaders to account.”

Anthony Lucas is reporter, presenter and social media producer with ticker News. Anthony holds a Bachelor of Professional Communication, with a major in Journalism from RMIT University as well as a Diploma of Arts and Entertainment journalism from Collarts. He’s previously worked for 9 News, ONE FM Radio and Southern Cross Austerio’s Hit Radio Network. 

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According to reports, at least 57 who were injured had been taken to local hospitals.

More than 500 buildings have been destroyed.

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