YANGON, Burma – Supporters of Burma’s junta attacked protesters demanding the end to the military government that took power in a coup, using slingshots, iron rods and knives Thursday to injure several of the demonstrators.
The violence complicates an already intractable standoff between the military and a protest movement that has been staging large rallies daily to demand that Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government be restored to power. She and other politicians were ousted and arrested on Feb. 1 in a takeover that shocked the international community and reversed years of slow progress toward democracy.
Facebook, meanwhile, announced that it would ban all accounts linked to the country’s military as well as ads from military-controlled companies — a reflection of international outrage over the takeover.
On Thursday, tensions escalated on the streets between anti-coup protesters and supporters of the military. Photos and videos posted on social media showed groups attacking people in downtown Yangon as police stood by without intervening.
The number of injured people and their condition were not immediately clear.
According to accounts and photos posted on social media, hundreds of people marched Thursday in support of the coup. They carried banners in English with the slogans “We Stand With Our Defense Services” and “We Stand With State Administration Council,” which is the official name of the new junta.
When the marchers were jeered by bystanders near the city’s Central Railway station, they responded by firing slingshots, throwing stones and then chasing down the bystanders. One band that broke away stabbed and kicked a man they had chased. Video shows there had been both pro- and anti-coup crowds near the station Thursday.
Supporters of the military have gathered in the streets before, especially in the days immediately before and after the coup, but had not used violence so openly.
Critics of the military charge it pays people to engage in violence, allegations that are hard to verify. They have been raised during earlier spells of unrest, including a failed anti-military uprising in 1988 and an ambush of Suu Kyi’s motorcade in a remote rural area in 2003, when she was seeking to rally her supporters against the military regime then in power.
Such confrontations could make it harder to resolve Burma’s crisis.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi visited the Thai capital, Bangkok, on Wednesday and held talks with her Thai counterpart Don Pramudwinai and Burma’s new foreign minister, retired army colonel Wunna Maung Lwin. The meeting was part of Marsudi’s efforts to coordinate a regional response to the crisis in Myanmar.
“We asked all parties to exercise restraint and not use violence … to avoid casualties and bloodshed,” Marsudi said in a virtual news conference after her return to Indonesia.
Marsudi said she had conveyed the same message to a group of elected members of Burma’s Parliament who have formed a self-styled alternative government after being barred by the military coup from taking their seats in the takeover. The lawmakers are from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, which won a landslide victory in elections last November that would have given it a second five-year term in office.
Marsudi’s efforts echo those of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has urged Burma’s military to make some concessions to help ease tensions. The 10-country regional grouping views dialogue with the generals as a more effective method of achieving compromise than more confrontational methods, such as the sanctions often advocated by Western nations.
Several countries have levied or are considering new sanctions against the military junta, and on Thursday, Facebook announced it, too, was taking action.
It said in a statement that it considered the situation in Myanmar an “emergency,” explaining that the ban on accounts linked to the military was triggered by events since the coup, including “deadly violence.”
Facebook already had banned several military-linked accounts since the coup, including army-controlled Myawaddy TV and state television broadcaster MRTV. The bans also apply to Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
Facebook and other social media platforms came under enormous criticism in 2017 when right groups said they failed to do enough to stop hate speech against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
The army launched a brutal counterinsurgency operation that year that drove more than 700,000 Rohingya to seek safety in neighboring Bangladesh, where they remain in refugee camps. Burma security forces burned down villages, killed civilians and engaged in mass rape, and the International Court of Justice is considering whether these actions constitute genocide.
The junta has tried to block Facebook and other social media platforms, but its efforts have proven ineffective. For more than a week it has also turned off access to the internet nightly from 1 a.m.
The military says it took power because last November’s election was marked by widespread voting irregularities, an assertion that was refuted by the state election commission, whose members have since been replaced.
The junta has said it will rule for a year and then hold fresh elections.