A ‘war zone’: Witnesses describe violence at Myanmar protests

Rescue workers carry an injured man after protests in Mandalay against the military coup [Reuters]

Yangon, Myanmar – Saturday was the worst day of bloodshed yet during mass protests in Myanmar against the February 1 military coup, which overthrew the elected government headed by Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.  Police opened fire on peaceful protesters in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-biggest city, killing two – including a 16-year-old who was shot in the head – and injuring more than 20.

The country’s biggest city, Yangon, has seen the biggest protests with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets, but so far there has been no violent crackdown on demonstrations there. It has been a different story in Mandalay and other parts of Myanmar, where police and soldiers are using increasingly violent methods to snuff out protests.

A doctor who was on the front lines of Saturday’s protests in Mandalay spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, describing scenes reminiscent of a “war zone”.

She and her team witnessed police deploying water cannon, beating protesters, and firing on them with live rounds, rubber bullets, and slingshots. The first incident occurred near the Mandalay port, where sailors had occupied a ship and removed equipment so it could not set off, as part of a growing civil disobedience movement aimed at crippling the military government.

She said a group of protesters had also gathered near the port, creating a crowd that police could not pass through. After negotiations with the ship’s chief officer, the sailors told the protesters to allow the police through.

“The crowd listened and made way for the police and water cannon truck. While the crowd was making way for those cars, the water cannon truck stopped and blocked the way. Then another water cannon truck came from 35th Street and, without warning, it started to attack the protesters,” she said. Soon after, police “started beating people”.

“I saw with my own eyes that there was an old lady who was just watching the protest from her house and the police attacked her. She had a terrible head injury,” she said.

Her team was called over by police to treat two injured protesters who were being held in a police van.

“One had a split head and needed stitches. The other had two bullet wounds in the side of the thigh. From what I saw, it didn’t look like a rubber bullet. The patient was bleeding too much,” she said.

The doctor requested the police release the two injured people so she could give them emergency medical care, but the police refused. “I was only able to give them antiseptic and put bandages on the open wounds,” she said.

From there, the doctor and her team went to 40th Street, where the situation was “far worse” with multiple protesters “terribly injured”, including one with a bullet wound to the stomach who was being treated by another doctor.

“I was inside the monastery helping the injured who were taken inside by other civilians. Even as I was tending to the wounded, they kept shooting at the monastery. We could see the ground burst” as it was sprayed with bullets, she recalled.

A student activist in Mandalay, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons, told Al Jazeera that during the day, protesters risk “getting captured, beaten or shot”. At night, they fear “arbitrary arrests and all kinds of military-orchestrated terrorism”.

There have been recurring reports of nighttime attacks by security forces on protesters in Mandalay. On Wednesday evening, soldiers and police attacked a housing complex for the staff of the government-run Myanma Railways, many of whom are on strike, refusing to work for the military government.

The student activist said civil servants participating in the nationwide strike have been threatened and some detained. Activists and protest organisers have also been targeted by the security forces.

“They have broken into Students’ Union offices … there were spies among the protest crowds and they tail us and raid our houses at night,” the activist said, describing the atmosphere in Mandalay as “truly hellish”.

In another incident that drew widespread outrage, a 21-year-old with cerebral palsy was brutally beaten by police in Mandalay while working as a volunteer to clean up rubbish after protests.

Demonstrations have also been violently dispersed in Mon State, Kachin State, and the isolated capital of Naypyidaw, where a 19-year-old woman who was shot in the head by police during protests on February 9 died on Friday.

“The shooting of peaceful protesters in Myanmar is beyond the pale,” the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary Dominic Raab tweeted on Saturday. “We will consider further action, with our international partners, against those crushing democracy and choking dissent.”

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said “the time for talk is over”.

“Governments and the UN need to front-load sanctions against Myanmar’s military-controlled companies now to show [Senior General] Min Aung Hlaing and the State Administrative Council junta how bleak their future will be if they continue down this path,” he told Al Jazeera in an email.

Robertson said the military has been “wantonly killing civilians for its entire existence”, including during its brutal campaigns against ethnic minorities.

“When it is conducting operations in the field, the Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s military] operates on a scorched earth basis, killing civilians who flee, torturing and murdering men they capture and raping women and girls,” he said, adding the military routinely turns to looting and arson.

Robertson said Yangon on the other hand, is likely to be “the last place where the junta cracks down”.

“Yangon has the embassies, the UN offices, the international journalists, and the heart of the business community centred there,” he said.

But the student activist said the harsh crackdown in Mandalay is only creating fiercer resistance, with protests growing on Sunday.

“We are all the more resentful towards their horrible acts and more motivated to win this revolution,” he said. “I couldn’t live my life in shackles and fear.”