Myanmar crackdown death toll passes 520

 

Yangon, Myanmar: The civilian death toll in the Myanmar military's crackdown on protesters passed 520 as armed rebel groups on Tuesday threatened the junta with retaliation if the bloodshed does not stop.

World powers have ramped up their condemnation of the military's campaign against the anti-coup movement that is demanding the restoration of the elected government and the release of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Washington suspended a trade pact with Myanmar and UN chief Antonio Guterres called for a united global front to pressure the junta after more than 100 protesters were killed in a bloody weekend.

Adding to that pressure campaign, a trio of ethnic rebel groups on Tuesday condemned the crackdown and threatened to fight alongside protesters unless the military reined in its violence.

Daily rallies across Myanmar by unarmed demonstrators have been met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live rounds.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said it had confirmed a total of 521 civilian deaths by late Tuesday night but warned the true toll was probably significantly higher.

On Tuesday, protesters in Yangon emptied rubbish bags in the streets as part of the latest action.

Eight people were killed Tuesday including a 35-year-old protester in the town of Muse in Shan state, and there were also fatalities at Myitkyina in Kachin State as well as Mandalay and Bago, AAPP said.

State media also reported a protester's death in South Dagon, Yangon, while authorities are investigating a bomb explosion at a police station in the city of Bago which injured a few officers.

Airstrikes launched by the junta also killed six people in eastern Karen state, according to the Fifth Brigade of the Karen National Union (KNU), one of the country's largest armed groups.

Rebel warning

Three of the country's myriad armed ethnic insurgent groups -- the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army, and the Arakan Army (AA) -- issued a joint statement threatening retaliation.

"If they do not stop, and continue to kill the people, we will cooperate with the protesters and fight back," the statement said.

If such groups take up arms, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) warned that the situation could degenerate into civil war.

Two dozen ethnic minority rebellions have flared in Myanmar since independence from British colonial rule in 1948, fighting over autonomy, identity, drugs, and natural resources.

The military has sought to cut deals with some armed groups and earlier this month took the AA off the list of terrorist organizations.

But over the weekend it launched airstrikes in Karen state -- the first such strikes in 20 years -- targeting the KNU after the group seized a military base.

Further strikes were launched on Tuesday, but Padoh Saw Taw Nee, the KNU's head of foreign affairs, said it would continue its position of "strongly supporting people's movement against (the) military coup".

Close to 3,000 people fled through the jungle to seek safety across the border in Thailand.

The Thai foreign ministry said late Tuesday about 2,300 have returned back to Myanmar and about 550 remain in Thailand.

"I have never seen it (air strikes) before -- I am so afraid," Naw Eh Tah, 18, told AFP.

Hsa Moo, a Karen human rights activist, told AFP that Thai authorities had pushed the people back and accused them of blocking UN refugee officials from the area.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha insisted that there was "no influx" of refugees and that the kingdom's authorities had not "scared them off with guns or sticks".

Some Karen people injured in the weekend airstrikes sought medical treatment Tuesday on the Thai side of the border -- the most serious case was a 15-year-old with a collapsed lung and broken rib.

Thai police said they had intercepted 10 parcels containing 112 grenades and 6,000 rounds of ammunition in northern Chiang Rai province that had been destined for Myanmar's notorious border town Tachileik.

Global concern

UN Secretary-General Guterres said the crackdown was "absolutely unacceptable" and urged the Myanmar authorities to undertake a "serious democratic transition".

US President Joe Biden's administration announced Monday that the 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, which laid out ways to boost business but was not a fully-fledged deal, would remain suspended until democracy is restored.

The UN Security Council will meet on Wednesday to discuss the situation, diplomatic sources said, after Britain called for emergency talks.

China added its voice to a chorus of international concern on Monday, calling for restraint from all sides.

The US, Britain, and the EU have all imposed sanctions in response to the coup and crackdown, but so far diplomatic pressure has not persuaded the generals to ease off.

Myanmar's ethnic armed groups explained

Unrest in coup-hit Myanmar has thrown the spotlight on some of the country's armed ethnic groups, as three of them threaten the junta with retaliation for its deadly crackdown on protests.

Some analysts are warning that the crisis could spiral into even more conflict if the insurgents follow through on their threats.

Here's a breakdown of how some of the myriad armed groups fit into the Myanmar puzzle.

Who are the rebels?

Independence from British colonial rule in 1948 left a complex patchwork of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic groups in Myanmar.

In the decades since, a messy struggle has worn on in different regions over autonomy, ethnic identity, drugs, jade, and other natural resources.

The conflicts have pitted rebel groups against the Myanmar military, which is dominated by the Bamar ethnic group.

Now, an estimated one-third of Myanmar's territory -- mostly the border regions -- is controlled by 20-odd armed rebel outfits, according to the International Crisis Group.

Key groups include the United Wa State Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Arakan Army, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, and the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army.

Since 2015, 10 armed groups have signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement with the civilian government after Myanmar's tentative democratic transition following decades of military rule.

But fighting continued in some pockets, particularly Kachin and Shan states in the north, and Rakhine state in the west, often with civilians trapped in the middle.

The Kachin conflict has continued since 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire broke down, displacing at least 100,000 people. And in Rakhine, years of fighting between the Arakan Army (AA) and the military has killed hundreds and forced more than 200,000 to flee their homes.

With a standing force of 25,000, the China-backed United Wa State Army is one of the world's largest non-state militaries.

But it largely sticks to its autonomous enclave on the northern border and has so far had little involvement in the aftermath of the coup.

Shan State is home to several organizations that allowed unofficial autonomy in an uneasy agreement with Myanmar's military.

It is also home to much of Myanmar's methamphetamine production -- reportedly a key source of income for some rebel groups.

How have the rebels responded to the coup?

Several rebel groups were swift to condemn the February 1 coup which ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Karen National Union (KNU), the oldest insurgent group in Myanmar, said the coup would harm the country.

And the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) in the north said the military had violated "all norms of democracy" and could not be trusted.

As the junta cracked down hard on anti-coup protests over recent weeks, hundreds of people fled to eastern areas controlled by the KNU, who sheltered them.

Over the weekend, the junta launched airstrikes in Karen state -- the first such strikes in 20 years -- targeting the Fifth Brigade of the KNU after the group seized a military base.

On Tuesday, three groups -- the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army, and the Arakan Army  -- issued a joint statement threatening retaliation over the ongoing military repression of protests, which led to more than 500 civilian deaths.

Where could this lead?

The ICG describes the Arakan Army as an effective fighting force that has inflicted "heavy casualties" on the Myanmar military in Rakhine state.

Debbie Stothard of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) warned that if rebel groups such as the Arakan Army followed through on their new threats, the situation could degenerate towards civil war.

"On the one hand, the junta does not want to give in and on the other hand, demonstrators who were largely peaceful until now are tempted to call for help from the armed rebel groups to protect themselves," she told AFP.

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