UPDATED: UN fears Myanmar could be heading towards ‘full-blown’ conflict

The UN rights chief warned Tuesday of possible crimes against humanity in Myanmar and said it seemed to be heading towards a massive conflict like the one ravaging Syria.

The UN rights chief warned Tuesday Myanmar could be spiralling towards a “full-blown” Syrian-style conflict, after a two-month crackdown that a local monitoring group says has already claimed more than 700 lives.

Myanmar is in chaos and its economy has been paralysed since the military seized power from civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1.

Warning of possible crimes against humanity, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday urged countries to take immediate action to push Myanmar’s military to stop its “campaign of repression and slaughter of its people.”

Daily rallies across Myanmar have been met with live rounds. 

At least 710 civilians have been killed as of late Monday, including 50 children, according to a local monitoring group. 

“I fear the situation in Myanmar is heading towards a full-blown conflict,” Bachelet said in a statement. 

“There are clear echoes of Syria in 2011,” she warned, referring to the start of a civil war that over the past decade has killed nearly 400,000 people and forced more than six million to flee the country.

In recent weeks, several of Myanmar’s ethnic rebel groups in some lawless border territories have stepped up attacks on the military and police, raising fears of a broader civil conflict.

The military has retaliated with air strikes, which the Free Burma Rangers — a Christian aid group working in the area — said had displaced more than 24,000 civilians in Karen state by Saturday.

The Rangers, which runs a health clinic in the state, said air strikes had killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 40.

The area is remote and communications are difficult, and AFP has not been able to independently verify the deaths.

Villagers in some areas were unable to prepare their rice crops because of fears the military would shell them in their fields, the aid group said.

“They are afraid they will have no rice harvest next fall,” it said in a statement.

Military attacks sent a few thousand people fleeing into neighbouring Thailand in recent weeks, but most have returned to the Myanmar side of the border.

In Yangon, authorities are hunting those responsible for an underground newsletter titled “Molotov”.

The publication was started by a group of young activists to fight ongoing internet outages and information suppression.

“The Molotov journal is illegally published,” the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar said, adding that legal action would be taken against those involved.

Overnight, the junta announced a further 20 people were added to an arrest warrant list of 200 celebrities, including actors and singers, who are accused of spreading dissent against the military.

If convicted, they could face three years in jail.

– Cancelled water fights –

With violence raging, many in coup-hit Myanmar are vowing to mark this week’s Buddhist New Year festival with protests rather than the traditional water fights. 

Some protesters say it would be disrespectful to enjoy the Thingyan holiday period when so many have lost their lives and around 3,000 people are detained.

Last year’s festivities were also called off because of pandemic restrictions.

In parts of Yangon, Monywa and Bago, protesters observed Thingyan by painting pots with pro-democracy messages Tuesday and placing them on streets with flowers inside. 

“Fight for democracy,” a sign sticking out of a line of pots said in one Yangon township.

Others said, “Never give up”.

“We are not having normal celebrations. Even though it is festival time right now, we cannot have fun. We will not be happy until this dictator is overthrown and we will revolt until then,” a university student in Mandalay told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the danger of arrest.

Another protester named Ray in Yangon said the pots were a way to welcome the new year and “honour fallen heroes”.

In Mandalay, people placed the pots and flowers on a golden stupa, with signs showing the three-fingered salute that has become a symbol of resistance. 

Young people in cities nationwide continued to take to streets Tuesday, some marching with flowerpots.

Meanwhile, security forces found and defused a bomb beneath the Myaynigone bridge in Yangon on Tuesday morning, a police source said.

In a statement, the UN rights office urged countries to take immediate and decisive action to push the military leaders behind a February 1 coup in Myanmar to stop their “campaign of repression and slaughter of its people.”

“I fear the situation in Myanmar is heading towards a full-blown conflict,” Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in the statement.

“States must not allow the deadly mistakes of the past in Syria and elsewhere to be repeated.” 

Myanmar is in chaos and its economy paralysed since the military seized power from civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1.

A junta crackdown against dissent has resulted in the civilian death toll reaching at least 710 as of late Monday including 50 children, according to a local monitoring group. 

Ethnic armed rebel groups have meanwhile stepped up attacks on the military and police in recent weeks, raising fears of Myanmar spiralling into broader civil conflict.

And the military has retaliated with air strikes that have reportedly displaced thousands of civilians. 

“The military seems intent on intensifying its pitiless policy of violence against the people of Myanmar, using military-grade and indiscriminate weaponry,” Bachelet said.

“There are clear echoes of Syria in 2011,” she warned, referring to the start of a civil war that over the past decade has killed nearly 400,000 people and forced more than six million to flee the country.

“There too, we saw peaceful protests met with unnecessary and clearly disproportionate force,” she said.

“The state’s brutal, persistent repression of its own people led to some individuals taking up arms, followed by a downward and rapidly expanding spiral of violence all across the country.”

– ‘Horrific’ –

Bachelet pointed out that her predecessor Navanethem Pillay had warned in 2011 “that the failure of the international community to respond with united resolve could be disastrous for Syria and beyond.”

“The past 10 years have shown just how horrific the consequences have been for millions of civilians,” she said.

Bachelet pointed to “credible reports” indicating that Myanmar’s Tatmadaw military forces opened fire with rocket-propelled grenades,fragmentation grenades and mortar fire in the southern city of Bago late last week.

At least 82 anti-coup protesters were reportedly killed in the brutal crackdown.

Security forces also reportedly prevented medical personnel from helping the wounded and charged relatives a “fine” of around $90 to claim the bodies of those who were killed, the UN rights office said. 

At the same time, it said, at least 3,080 people are currently detained across the country, while 23 people have reportedly been sentenced to death following secret trials, including four protesters and 19 others accused of political and criminal offences.

Bachelet urged the international community to take action.

“Statements of condemnation, and limited targeted sanctions, are clearly not enough,” the former Chilean president said.

“States with influence need to urgently apply concerted pressure on the military in Myanmar to halt the commission of grave human rights violations and possible crimes against humanity against the people.”

by Nina LARSON