Myanmar activists cancel new year festivities; U.N. urges end to 'slaughter'

·3-min read

(Reuters) -Opponents of military rule in Myanmar cancelled traditional new year festivities on Tuesday and instead showed their anger with the generals who seized power through low-key displays of defiance and small protests across the country.

The United Nations human rights office said it feared that the military clampdown on protests since the Feb. 1 coup risked escalating into a civil conflict like that seen in Syria and appealed for a halt to the "slaughter".

A Myanmar activist group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, says the security forces have killed 710 protesters since the ouster of an elected government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Protesters were out again on the first day of the five-day New Year holiday, known as Thingyan, which is usually celebrated with prayers, ritual cleaning of Buddha images in temples and high-spirited water-dousing on the streets.

"We do not celebrate Myanmar Thingyan this year since over 700 of our innocent brave souls have been killed," said one Twitter user named Shwe Ei.

Women wearing fine clothes for the most important holiday of the year protested in several towns holding traditional pots containing seven flowers and sprigs that are displayed at this time, media pictures showed.

Many people painted the protesters' three-finger salute on their Thingyan pots.

"People's power, our power," women marching on a street in the main city of Yangon chanted as passersby clapped, video posted by the Myanmar Now media group showed.

In some places, people set out dozens of Thingyan pots daubed with messages such as "Save Myanmar" in silent shows of opposition to the military.

There were no immediate reports of violence at any of the protests but information has become scarce because of the junta's curbs on broadband internet and mobile data services.

Soldiers shot and killed a man and a woman delivering milk on a motorbike in the northwestern town of Tamu, on the border with India, three media outlets reported.

Several small blasts went off in different places, including two in Yangon, but there were no reports of casualties or claims of responsibility.

A spokesman for the junta could not be reached for comment.

'DEADLY MISTAKES'

The coup has plunged Myanmar into crisis after 10 years of tentative steps toward democracy with daily protests and workers in many sectors on strike, bringing the economy to a standstill.

U.N. High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said in a statement 3,080 had been detained and there are reports that 23 people have been sentenced to death following secret trials.

"I fear the situation in Myanmar is heading towards a full-blown conflict. States must not allow the deadly mistakes of the past in Syria and elsewhere to be repeated," Bachelet said.

Bachelet referred to the reported killing of 82 people in the central town of Bago last week and she said targeted sanctions, as imposed by some Western countries, were not enough.

She called for "immediate, decisive and impactful measures to push Myanmar’s military leadership into halting its campaign of repression and slaughter".

Activists keen to maintain the momentum of their campaign against the military have called for protests throughout the holiday, which runs until Saturday.

This was the second year in a row the new year festivities were called off. Last year, it was because of the novel coronavirus.

"We cannot enjoy this year. We will celebrate once we get democracy," said another Twitter user, Su Su Soe.

The military says it had to overthrow Suu Kyi's government because a November election again won by her National League for Democracy was rigged. The election commission dismissed the accusation.

Suu Kyi, 75, who has led Myanmar's struggle against military rule for decades and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has been detained since the coup and charged with various offences. These include violating a colonial-era official secrets act that alone could see her jailed for 14 years.

(Reporting by Reuters Staff, writing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel; editing by Jane Wardell, Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore)