YANGON: Concerns are growing over the safety of Yangon residents after the ruling military junta imposed martial law and a communication blackout in several parts of Myanmar’s largest city to quell anti-coup protests.
The protests saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets across the country to demand the release and restoration of elected government leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, who were overthrown when the military seized power in last month’s coup.
At least 70 people were killed in the country on Sunday, the deadliest day since the beginning of the demonstrations. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) Burma has recorded 217 protester deaths since the Feb. 1 coup but warns that the actual number of casualties is “likely much higher.” The AAPP estimates that nearly 2,200 people have been arrested in relation to the protests. Most of them remain in detention.
After the bloody crackdown on Sunday, anti-regime rallies are difficult to see in Yangon’s most populated Hlaing Thar Yar township — one of the six areas where martial law has been imposed. Elderly residents, women and children have been witnessed fleeing the district.
“The heavy security presence and internet blackout put residents in a black hole. They don’t even know what is happening in the next neighborhood, and rumors of people being arrested or killed without a reason have only amplified their fear. It is driving people to flee Hlaign Thar Yar,” Win Maung, a lawmaker from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, told Arab News on Thursday.
He said security forces had increased abuse, arbitrary detention and torture in Hlaign Thar Yar — his constituency — since the announcement of martial law on Sunday.
“After the merciless crackdown on protesters, security forces continue widespread rights violations here. Troops abducted male residents and used them as forced labor to remove roadblocks and barricades,” Maung said.
“They raid houses day and night in hunting dissident leaders. They threaten people at gunpoint.”
Densely populated Hlaign Thar Yar is also the worst-hit by the internet shutdown.
“Only a few people use Wi-Fi, while most rely on mobile internet. After mobile internet was banned, people shifted to use Wi-Fi as an interim plan. Now some Wi-Fi services are also cut, and only broadband networks and wireless routers remain uncut,” he said, adding that the information blackout had left people confused on what is happening and whether and where protests are being held.
Protesters have relied on their mobile phones to organize, document and live stream demonstrations and crackdowns by security forces.
“If you don’t know whether other people are fighting against the military or not, then you might consider you are too weak to do it,” he said.
Residents say that soldiers stationed at a military-owned garment factory in Hlaing Thar Yar summoned men from nearby streets on Thursday to tell them to obey the new rules or face bullets. The announcement was made during the funeral of a man who was killed in Sunday’s violence.
“They said they are following orders and would not hesitate to gun down anyone who doesn’t obey them,” a Hlaing Thar Yar resident, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, told Arab News.
“I think they intentionally chose the place to show how we would be treated if we opposed them,” he said.