Myanmar police opened fire on Tuesday to disperse crowds protesting against a military coup as foreign ministers of neighbouring countries prepared to hold talks with the junta in a bid to find a peaceful way out of the crisis.
The talks, to be held in a video call, will come two days after the bloodiest day of unrest since the military overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on February 1, unleashing anger and mass street protests across the country.
Hundreds of protesters, many wearing hard hats and clutching makeshift shields, had gathered behind barricades in different parts of the main city of Yangon to chant slogans against military rule.
“If we’re oppressed, there will be an explosion. If we’re hit, we’ll hit back,” demonstrators chanted before police moved in firing stun grenades to scatter crowds in four different parts of the city.
There were no reports of injuries in Yangon but four people were wounded in the northwestern town of Kale, where police fired live ammunition to disperse a crowd after protesters threw things at advancing police, a witnesses said.
“They were acting like they were in a war zone,” a teacher at the protest said of the police. “I feel very angry and sad at the same time.”
The teacher, who declined to be identified, said as well as the four wounded by live ammunition, several people were hurt by rubber bullets.
At least 21 protesters have been killed since the turmoil began. The army has said one policemen was killed.
The coup halted Myanmar’s tentative steps towards democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule, and has drawn condemnation and sanctions from the United States and other Western countries, and growing concern among its neighbours.
Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said his counterparts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would be frank when they meet by video call on Tuesday and will tell a representative of Myanmar’s junta that they are appalled by the violence.
In a television interview late on Monday, Balakrishnan said ASEAN would encourage dialogue between Suu Kyi and the generals.
“They need to talk, and we need to help bring them together,” he said.
ASEAN groups Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
The military justified the coup saying its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Suu Kyi’s party were ignored. The election commission said the vote was fair.
Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, in remarks read on state television by a newscaster, said protest leaders and “instigators” would be punished and threatened action against civil servants refusing to work.
Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold new elections and hand power to the winner but has given no time frame.
ASEAN’s effort to engage with Myanmar’s military has been criticised by supporters of democracy, with a committee of ousted Myanmar lawmakers declaring the junta a “terrorist” group and saying ASEAN’s engagement would give it legitimacy.
Sa Sa, the committee’s anointed envoy to the United Nations, said ASEAN should have no dealings with “this illegitimate military-led regime”.
Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin indicated on Twitter that ASEAN would be firm with Myanmar and said the bloc’s policy of non-interference in each other’s affairs was “not a blanket approval or tacit consent for wrong to be done”.
Suu Kyi, 75, appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing on Monday and looked in good health, one of her lawyers said. Two more charges were added to those filed against her after the coup, the lawyer said.
The Nobel Peace laureate has not been seen in public since the coup.
Hundreds of people have been arrested, according to activists, among them six journalists, one of whom works for the Associated Press. Tin Zar Oo, a lawyer for the AP journalist, said the reporter had been charged under a penal code section making it a crime to publish material that could cause a soldier or other service member “to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty”.
Another reporter has been arrested in the coastal town of Myeik, his agency, the Democratic Voice of Burma, said.
The United States warned Myanmar’s military that it would take more action if security forces kill unarmed people and attack journalists and activists, which State Department spokesman Ned Price called “abhorrent violence”.