Security forces killed at least 22 anti-coup protesters in the poor industrial capital of Myanmar’s Hlaingthaya suburb on Sunday after Chinese-funded factories burned down, a group of lawyers said.
Another 16 protesters were killed elsewhere, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as well as a police officer, making it the bloodiest day since the coup on February 1 against elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The Chinese embassy said many Chinese workers were injured and trapped by unidentified assailants at garment factories in Hlaingthaya and that it had called on Myanmar to protect Chinese property and citizens. China is seen as a supporter of the military junta that has taken power.
When smoke rose from the industrial area, security forces opened fire on protesters in the suburbs, which is home to migrants from all over the country, local media say.
“It was awful. People were shot in front of my eyes. It will never leave my memory,” said a photojournalist on stage who did not want to be named.
Martial law was introduced in Hlaingthaya and another district in Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial hub and former capital, state media reported.
Army-led Myawadday TV said security forces acted after four clothing factories and a fertilizer plant were set on fire and about 2,000 people had stopped fire trucks from reaching them.
A spokesman for a junta did not respond to calls and requested comments.
Doctor Sasa, a representative of elected legislators from the congregation who were expelled from the army, expressed solidarity with the people of Hlaingthaya.
“The perpetrators, the attackers, the enemies of the people of Myanmar, the evil SAC (State Administration Council) will be held responsible for every drop of blood that is spilled,” he said in a statement.
The latest deaths would lead to 126 tolls from the protests, AAPP said. It is said that more than 2150 people had been detained on Saturday. More than 300 have since been released.
China demanded action
The Chinese embassy described the situation as “very serious” following the attacks on Chinese-funded factories. It did not comment on the murders.
“China calls on Myanmar to take further effective action to stop all acts of violence, punish the perpetrators in accordance with the law and ensure the security of life and property of Chinese companies and personnel in Myanmar,” it said in a statement.
No group took responsibility for burning the factories.
The embassy’s Facebook page was bombarded with negative comments in Myanmar’s language and more than half of the reactions – over 29,000 – used laughing emoji.
Anti-Chinese sentiment has risen since the coup that toppled Myanmar, with opponents of the army’s takeover and noted Beijing’s subdued criticism of Western condemnation.
Only two factories had been burned at the time, protest leader Ei Thinzar Maung wrote on Facebook.
“If you want to do business in Myanmar stably, respect the Myanmar people,” she said. “Fighting Hlaingthaya, we are proud of you !!”
The UN Special Envoy for Myanmar condemned what she called “ongoing brutality”.
Christine Schraner Burgener said she “had personally heard from contacts in Myanmar heartbreaking stories of murder, mistreatment of protesters and torture of prisoners over the weekend.”
The repression undermined the prospects for peace and stability, she said, appealing to the international community to support the people of Myanmar and their democratic ambitions.
Britain, Myanmar’s former colonial ruler, said it was appalled by security forces’ use of deadly force against innocent people in Hlaingthaya and elsewhere.
“We call for an immediate end to this violence and for the military regime to hand over power to those democratically elected by the people of Myanmar,” said British Ambassador Dan Chugg.
The army said it took power after allegations of fraud in a November 8 election won by Suu Kyi’s party were rejected by the election commission. It has promised to hold a new election, but has not set a date.
Suu Kyi has been detained since the coup and will return to court on Monday. She faces at least four charges, including illegal use of walkie-talkie radio and coronavirus protocol infringement.
Away from Hlaingthaya, at least 16 deaths were reported elsewhere in Myanmar, including in the other city of Mandalay and in Bago, where state television MRTV said a police officer had died of a chest wound after a confrontation with protesters.
He is the second police officer to be reported dead in the protests.
The violence took place a day after Mahn Win Khaing Than, who is on the run with most senior officials of the Suu Kyi National League for Democracy Party, said the civilian government would give people the legal right to defend themselves. It announced a law on this on Sunday.