First Myanmar Protester Death Galvanizes Anti-Coup Demonstrators

2021-02-19
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First Myanmar Protester Death Galvanizes Anti-Coup Demonstrators Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing's Facebook page

The death of a young woman fatally shot in the head by police last week during a peaceful demonstration against Myanmar’s junta — the first death in two weeks of protests — provided a fresh focal point Friday for coup opponents who braved arrests, beatings and slingshots from police to rally across the country.

Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, 20, was confirmed dead Friday after doctors at her hospital in Naypyidaw terminated her life support. She is the first protester to die at the hands of the military regime that deposed the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, arresting scores of politicians.

Makeshift memorials and posters with portraits of the martyred grocery store worker have appeared at street protests.

“She passed away a little after 11 a.m.,” said her sister Mya Thadoe Nwai. “The funeral will take place on Sunday.”

The young woman was shot in the head from a distance on Feb. 9 as security forces sprayed gunfire at protesters in Naypyidaw. A medical analysis of the wound indicated that a metal bullet pierced her motorbike helmet and skull, though the junta claimed that only rubber bullets were fired at demonstrators.

Naypyidaw’s military hospital earlier pressured the civilian hospital to transfer Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing and another protester who had been shot in the chest, but doctors declined.

The woman’s family agreed last week that she should be taken off life support, though a doctor at the hospital told RFA in an earlier report that superiors instructed physicians to keep her on the machine.

“She didn’t die because the respirators were taken off,” said Mya Thadoe Nwai. “Her condition got worse day by day, and she just succumbed to the injury.”

During a news conference on Tuesday, military regime spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun did not confirm or deny that security forces used live ammunition during the Naypyidaw crackdown on Feb. 9, but he accused Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing of being among a group of protesters who had attacked police with bricks.

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Anti-junta protesters rush critically injured Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing away from the shooting scene in Naypyidaw, Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: Citizen journalist video screenshot

‘Blood on their hands’

A video of the shooting recorded by someone at the scene shows Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing turning away from the police line with her hands empty and looking towards her sister who was standing next to her. A shot is heard, and the young woman collapses to the ground.

“All six doctors who provided treatment to her said she died because of this bullet wound,” said Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing’s uncle, Kyin Than.

Family members asked to see the bullet that killed the young woman, but doctors said it was locked away inside the hospital with Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing’s medical records, he told RFA.

“I asked them what kind of bullet it was, and they said it was a metal bullet,” he said. “I asked them again whether it could be a rubber bullet, but they said no.”

Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing’s body will remain at the hospital until the funeral on Sunday, Kyin Than said.

“We asked for permission to spend the night at the hospital because we are worried something untoward might happen, and they have agreed to let us stay,” he said.

Commenting on the protester's death, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said, “The police in Naypyidaw have blood on their hands and must be held accountable for the death of Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing.”

“This police killing is outrageous and unacceptable, there are no other words for it,” he said in a statement Friday. “The officer who pulled the trigger must be investigated, arrested, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. That’s the only suitable way to honor the memory of this brave young woman.”

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a group formed by parliamentarians who won seats in November 2020 elections to counter junta rule, issued a statement declaring Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing a martyr of the protests that have drawn hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

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An anti-junta demonstrator shows a bullet hole in the motorbike helmet worn by protester Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, who was critically shot by police in Naypyidaw, Feb. 9, 2021. Credit: RFA

Teachers, reporters beaten

In reaction to nationwide protests Friday, police and soldiers beat up and detained protesting students and teachers in Myitkyina, capital of northern Myanmar’s Kachin state. Security forces also fired marbles from slingshots at reporters and demonstrators, some journalists at the scene said.

Security forces violently dispersed about 20 schoolteachers and health care workers in the morning as they prepared for an anti-military protest.

“As far as I know, there might be two or three teachers who got beaten up,” said one educator. “I do not know the exact numbers yet. The police just beat them up with bamboo batons without any prior warning. There were a lot of them trying to make sure we couldn’t continue our protests.”

Another teacher said the group was hurrying to leave the place when a motorbike carrying two female educators fell over. As they got up and ran, the police caught them.

“They were not far from me, and I saw the police strike the teacher in a pink blouse really hard,” she said. “Do they need to hit a woman so badly? They could have just taken her away easily without hitting her.”

The teacher said she heard that security forces also took away three other educators.

Reporters from RFA, Mizzima, and Eleven Media came under slingshot fire from a soldier in a military truck when they were outside the Myitkyina Education College to cover the arrests of two teachers who had been preparing to stage a protest.

When the soldier opened fire, the Mizzima reporter shouted, “We are reporters!” but the soldier continued firing, using marbles as ammunition. The RFA reporter was hit in the head, but was wearing a motorbike helmet for protection and escaped injury.

Earlier this week, junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun defended the use of slingshots by police against protesters.

“Depending on the locality, policemen might be using slingshots” to defend themselves instead of using their guns, he told a news conference.

Police and soldiers also dispersed a crowd of about 50 protesters by a city market near the New Light Hotel but arrested about 10 of them.

Authorities later released all teachers and protesters detained earlier in the day following mediation by the Kachin Peace-talk Creation Group, an assemblage of ethnic Kachin negotiators who usually assist with peace talks between an ethnic army and the Myanmar military.

The violent police action prevented demonstrators from holding large protest rallies in Myitkyina on Friday.

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Police face off against anti-junta protesters in Magway, capital of central Myanmar's Magway region, Feb. 19, 2021. Credit: RFA

‘Fighting for their rights'

Protesters in other large cities and towns across Myanmar continued their rallies against the military regime on Friday.

In Magway, the capital of Magway region on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, about 50 armed security personnel stopped a column of roughly 100,000 protesters preparing to march through the city. The group later dispersed, and the event ended peacefully.

In Pathein, the capital of Ayeyarwady region, a protesting university student was arrested in the evening after being detained by three plainclothes police, his family said, adding that they did not know where or why he was being held. RFA was unable to reach local police for comment.

In Yangon, police and soldiers occupied the main rallying points in the city center since as of early morning. Unable to hold a mammoth rally as they did on Thursday, demonstrators marched to the Hledan and Myae Ni Gone junctions and to some foreign embassies. No incidents were reported.

Huge rallies also were held in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, despite heavy police presence, though no serious incidents were reported.

“More and more young people are joining the protests, and they seem to be fighting for their rights,” said one demonstrator who did not give his name.

Nighttime arrests and internet shutdowns continued in all major cities.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a watchdog group, said that as of Friday, 546 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced in relation to the military coup, with 500 still being held.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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