Defiant anti-coup protesters return to cities and towns after deadliest day of junta's crackdown in which nearly 40 people were killed, with global powers condemning the "brutal violence".

Demonstrators block a road during an anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar, March 4, 2021.
Demonstrators block a road during an anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar, March 4, 2021. (Reuters)

Myanmar's pro-democracy activists have hit the streets to demonstrate against military rule a day after 38 people were killed in the most violent day of unrest since last month's coup.

Police opened fire to break up a protest in the town of Pathein, to the west of Yangon, early on Thursday, media reported, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

On Wednesday, police and soldiers opened fire with live rounds with little warning in several cities and towns, witnesses said, a day after neighbouring countries had called on the junta to show restraint.

Regardless of the danger, activists said they refused to live under military rule and were determined to press for the release of elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and recognition of her victory in the election in November.

"We know that we can always get shot and killed with live bullets but there is no meaning to staying alive under the junta," activist Maung Saungkha told Reuters news agency.

In some parts of Yangon, protesters hung sheets and sarongs on lines across the street to spoil the view of police aiming their guns. They also uncoiled barbed wire to reinforce barricades.

"It's dangerous to be here after about 9:30 a.m. They are shooting in the streets," one food vendor in Yangon told AFP news agency on Thursday morning.

In a district where protests have occurred almost daily in Yangon, the protesters had built barriers with old tires, bricks, sandbags, bamboo and barbed wire.

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Family members cry near a spot where a protester was killed during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar March 4, 2021.
Family members cry near a spot where a protester was killed during a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar March 4, 2021. (Reuters)

UN urges halt to 'vicious crackdown'

The United Nations human rights chief called on Myanmar's security forces on Thursday to halt their "vicious crackdown on peaceful protesters" and urged the military to release people unlawfully detained since the February 1 coup.

Michelle Bachelet said that more than 1,700 people have been arbitrarily detained and that arrests were escalating. They included 29 journalists arrested in recent days, some charged with incitement to opposition or attending an unlawful assembly.

At least 54 people have been killed by Myanmar police and soldiers since the coup, but the actual death toll could be much higher, she said in a statement, citing figures her office has been able to verify.

"Myanmar's military must stop murdering and jailing protesters," Bachelet said, decrying the use of live ammunition against peaceful protesters across the country where hundreds have been wounded.

Soldiers and police are reported to be conducting door-to-door searches and detaining people, some of whom disappear into custody without their family being told about their whereabouts, a practice known as enforced disappearance, she said.

Bachelet urged Myanmar officials who have joined the civil disobedience movement to support efforts to hold military leaders accountable for serious human rights violations, through UN investigations and proceedings at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

European Union has also reportedly suspended its support for development projects in Myanmar to avoid providing financial assistance to the military, officials said.

The 27-nation bloc informed a committee of the World Trade Organization on Thursday that it had put on hold all development cooperation that would support the military authorities, a Geneva-based trade official said.

READ MORE: Myanmar forces fire on crowds ahead of regional meeting on coup crisis

Fighter jets soar over Mandalay city

Five fighter jets made several low passes in formation over the second city of Mandalay early on Thursday, residents said, in what appeared to be a show of military might.

UN special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, said in New York that on Wednesday was the bloodiest day since the coup, with 38 deaths, bringing the total toll to more than 50 as the military tries to cement its power.

A rights group and some media have given different numbers of wounded and killed in Wednesday's violence. 

The dead included four children, an aid agency said. Media reported that hundreds of protesters were arrested.

A spokesman for the ruling military council did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

'Fear, false news'

The junta has sought to hide its crackdown from the rest of the world, choking the internet and banning Facebook, the most popular social media platform.

Six journalists were also arrested on the weekend and charged under a law prohibiting "causing fear, spreading false news, or agitating directly or indirectly a government employee", according to their lawyer Tin Zar Oo.

Among them was Associated Press photographer Thein Zaw, who was arrested on Saturday as he covered an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon. Video emerged on Wednesday of him being held in a chokehold by police as he was handcuffed.

However protesters, citizen journalists and some media groups have continued to send images out of Myanmar, and on Thursday the funeral of a 19-year-old woman killed in Mandalay was streamed live on Facebook.

The victim, Ma Kyay Sin, had been wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with 'Everything will be OK' in big letters on the front when she was shot in the head.

Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party said in a statement that flags would fly at half mast at its offices to commemorate the dead.

Schraner Burgener said she warned Myanmar deputy military chief Soe Win that the military was likely to face strong measures from some countries and isolation in retaliation for the coup.

"The answer was: 'We are used to sanctions, and we survived'," she told reporters. "When I also warned they will go (into) isolation, the answer was: 'We have to learn to walk with only few friends'."

READ MORE: Deaths in Myanmar as forces open fire to break up anti-coup protests

UNSC to discuss Myanmar 

The UN Security Council is due to discuss the situation on Friday in a closed meeting, diplomats said.

UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said the "systematic brutality" of the military was again on display.

"I urge members of the UN Security Council to view the photos/videos of the shocking violence," he said on Twitter.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States was "appalled" by the violence and was evaluating how to respond.

The United States has told China it expects it to play a constructive role, he said. China has declined to condemn the coup, with Chinese state media calling it a "major cabinet reshuffle".

The European Union said the shootings of unarmed civilians and medical workers were clear breaches of international law. It also said the military was stepping up repression of the media, with a growing number of journalists arrested.

READ MORE: Envoy, junta make rival claims over Myanmar's UN seat

Children killed in shooting

In Yangon, witnesses said at least eight people were killed on Wednesday, while media reported six were killed in the central town of Monywa.

Save the Children said four children were killed including a 14-year-old boy who Radio Free Asia reported was shot dead by a soldier on a passing convoy of military trucks. The soldiers loaded his body onto a truck and left, according to the report.

Security forces in Yangon detained about 300 protesters, the Myanmar Now news agency reported.

Police in Yangon ordered three medics out of an ambulance and beat them with gun butts and batons, video broadcast by US-funded Radio Free Asia showed. Reuters was unable to verify the video independently.

Policemen cross into India

At least 19 Myanmar police officers have crossed over into India and are seeking refuge there, a senior police official told Reuters.

The men crossed into Champai and Serchhip, two districts in the northeastern state of Mizoram that share a porous border with Myanmar, the official said, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

All the men, who are lower-ranking policemen, were unarmed, the official said. "We are expecting more (people) to come," he said, citing intelligence reports.

The military justified the coup by saying its complaints of voter fraud in the November 8 vote were ignored. Suu Kyi's party won by a landslide, earning a second term.

The election commission said the vote was fair.

Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold new elections but given no time frame.

Suu Kyi, 75, has been held incommunicado since the coup but appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing this week and looked in good health, a lawyer said.

READ MORE: Myanmar junta discusses coup crisis with Thai, Indonesian officials

Source: TRTWorld and agencies