Myanmar Crackdown Drives Urban Exodus to Countryside as Junta Blames Protesters For Violence

Myanmar Crackdown Drives Urban Exodus to Countryside as Junta Blames Protesters For Violence Myanmar anti-coup protesters take cover and watch from far as riot policemen and soldiers crack down on a demonstration and detain protesters in Mandalay, March 23, 2021.
Associated Press

Myanmar’s junta warned journalists Tuesday against reporting on a shadow government made up of elected lawmakers deposed in last month’s coup, while army gunfire claimed its youngest victim, and fear and fatigue after seven weeks of escalating military violence drove an exodus of migrant workers from major cities.

The military regime that ousted the elected government of leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in its third news conference since the Feb. 1 coup, repeated unsubstantiated claims that election fraud prompted the military takeover, and — also without proof — blamed protesters for violence that has killed hundreds of civilians.

“The State Administrative Council [SAC] took over the responsibilities of the state [because of] nationwide election fraud and vote-stealing activities in the 2020 elections,” said deputy information minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun.

“After the SAC took power, there were protests, but since Feb. 9, they became violent and tuned into anarchic situations with attacks with weapons,” he said.

Zaw Min Tun also warned journalists not to contact members of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CPRH), a shadow government of legislators elected in November 2020, which has been declared an illegal organization. Reporters who defied the order would be charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, he said. The regime has detained 45 journalists since Feb. 1, though 28 have been released with two out on bail.

The spokesman also used the news conference to present new corruption accusations against Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest and has been charged with alleged incitement, violation of telecommunication laws, possession of “illegally” imported walkie-talkie radios, and violation of the Natural Disaster Management Law for breaching COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

In Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, seven-year-old Khin Myo Chit became the youngest person to die in the military crackdown on anti-coup protests. The youngest of eight children, she was shot in the abdomen and died in her father’s arms, the man told RFA.

Khin Myo Chit was among at least five people killed when security forces fired into crowds at Aung Pin Lae, a working-class quarter of the city, where 15 deaths have been reported in the past two days, witnesses said.

Tuesday’s suppression of the protests brought the death toll up to 240, according to an RFA tally.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a watchdog group, said that as of Tuesday, 2,812 people had been arrested, charged, or sentenced in relation to the military coup, with 2,418 still being held or with outstanding warrants. The AAPP put the number of people killed at 275.

The death toll of children in Myanmar has risen to over 20 since Feb. 1, with at least 17 children still held in arbitrary detention, according to a statement issued Tuesday by the NGO Save the Children. At least 488 students are currently being held in detention, according to the latest estimates.

“The safety of children must be protected under all circumstances, and we once again call on security forces to end these deadly attacks against protesters immediately,” the statement said. “Time and time again we see that children are inevitably the innocent victims of any crisis. The only way to protect children in Myanmar is to stop violence against all people in Myanmar altogether.”

Myanmar junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun speaks during a news conference held by the military government in Naypyidaw, in a screen grab taken from a broadcast by Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV), March 23, 2021, Credit: Handout/various sources/AFP

Exodus of workers

The unending violence and life-threatening, indiscriminate shooting by security forces in crowded urban areas have sparked an exodus of tens of thousands from Mandalay, Yangon, and Naypyidaw, witnesses said.

Residents in the three largest cities say they have had enough with police and soldiers shooting up neighborhoods, breaking into houses and shops, and destroying property.

Most of those leaving Yangon are from Hlaingthaya, Shwepyitha, North Dagon, South Dagon, North Okkalapa and Dagon Seikkan townships, where millions of migrant workers work in factories. Authorities placed the six townships under martial law after a series of fires and a bloody crackdown on March 14-15.

Civil servants who walked off their jobs to join a nationwide civil disobedience movement also are fleeing to the countryside to avoid possible arrest.

With protests and violence forcing factories to shut down, many migrant workers, also hit by plant closures amid the coronavirus pandemic, said they now face even more hardship and live each day in fear.

“All these factories in Hlaingthaya operate with migrant labor, and the migrant workers who are unemployed have no reason to stay because they have no money for food or rent,” a worker from Ayeyarwady region told RFA.

A human resources employee from Labutta in Ayeyarwady region said that workers still in Yangon fear for their safety.

“As the number of fatalities rises, our parents back home are very worried,” he said. “It may not be safe even in our hometowns because there are troubles everywhere, but I think it would be safer there than in Yangon.”

Myanmar anti-junta protesters hold signs supporting the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CPRH), a group of legislators who won seats in the November 2020 elections and who are aligned with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, in Hlaing township, Yangon region, March 23, 2021. Credit: RFA

Out of money

Some workers have run out of money and have not been paid their previous month’s wages because of plant closures, said garment factory worker Than Than Soe.

“And it’s very scary because there is gunfire every night around 11 p.m. or midnight,” he said. “We aren’t getting proper sleep, so we decided to go back home. We will come back when everything settles down and jobs are available again.”

Hlaingthaya, a major Yangon industrial zone, has a population of more than 1 million people, making it the most populous township in all of Myanmar. At least 50 people were killed there when soldiers and police fired on protesters on Marrch 14. Following a declaration of martial law there the next day, residents began facing shortages of food and drinking water.

A worker who is leaving Yangon’s Kyaukmyaung ward and returning home to western Rakhine state said the situation is completely unstable.

“We couldn’t find any jobs for over a year because of COVID-19, and now because of this political instability,” he said. “Life is very difficult here especially for people like us living from hand to mouth, so we decided to go back to our hometowns.”

A worker in Mandalay with an infant said the sound of gunfire every night prevented them from sleeping.

“Nobody knows when this violence might come into their street,” she said. “We don’t feel safe during daytime or nighttime. We are living in fear every day. That’s why I decided to go back to my village.”

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

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