Armoured vehicles have rolled into Myanmar cities amid fears of a crackdown on anti-coup protesters after nine days of mass demonstrations demanding a return to civilian rule.
Western embassies – from the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and 11 other nations – issued a statement late on Sunday calling on security forces to “refrain from violence against demonstrators and civilians, who are protesting the overthrow of their legitimate government”.
Earlier, soldiers were deployed to power plants in the northern state of Kachin, leading to a confrontation with demonstrators, some of who said they believed the army intended to cut off the electricity.
The security forces opened fire to disperse protesters outside one plant in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin state, footage broadcast live on Facebook showed, although it was not clear if they were using rubber bullets or live fire.
As evening fell, armoured vehicles appeared in the country’s largest city of Yangon, Myitkyina and Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, live footage broadcast online by local media showed, the first large-scale rollout of such vehicles across the country since the February 1 coup.
The US embassy in Myanmar urged American citizens to “shelter in place”, citing reports of the military movements in Yangon. It also warned there was a possibility of a telecoms interruptions overnight between 1am and 9am.
As well as the mass protests across Myanmar, the country’s military rulers were faced with a strike by government workers, part of a civil disobedience movement to protest against the coup that deposed the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Trains in parts of the country stopped running after staff refused to go to work, local media reported, while the military deployed soldiers to power plants where they were confronted by angry crowds.
The military government ordered civil servants to go back to work, threatening action. The army has been carrying out nightly mass arrests and on Saturday gave itself sweeping powers to detain people and search private property.
But hundreds of railway workers joined demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday, even as police went to their housing compound on the outskirts of the city to order them back to work. The police were forced to leave after angry crowds gathered, according to a live broadcast by Myanmar Now.
Richard Horsey, a Myanmar-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the work of many government departments had effectively ground to a halt.
“This has the potential to also affect vital functions – the military can replace engineers and doctors, but not power grid controllers and central bankers,” he said.
In Yangon, many areas have begun forming neighbourhood watch brigades to monitor their communities overnight – in defiance of a curfew – and to prevent the arrests of residents joining the civil disobedience movement.
Some have also expressed fears that a mass prisoner amnesty this week was orchestrated to release inmates into the public to stir up trouble, while freeing up space in overcrowded jails for political detainees.
“We don’t trust anyone at this time, especially those with uniforms,” Myo Ko Ko, a member of a street patrol in Yangon, told AFP news agency.
Near the city’s central train station, residents rolled tree trunks onto a road to block police vehicles and escorted away officers who were attempting to return striking railway employees to work.
Tin Myint, a Yangon resident, was among the crowds who detained a group of four people suspected of carrying out an attack in the neighbourhood.
“We think the military intends to cause violence with these criminals by infiltrating them into peaceful protests,” he said.
He cited pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, when the military was widely accused of releasing criminals into the population to stage attacks, later citing the unrest as a justification for extending their own power.
The army had on Saturday reinstated a law requiring people to report overnight visitors to their homes, allowed security forces to detain suspects and search private property without court approval, and ordered the arrest of well-known backers of mass protests.
The country’s new military leadership has so far been unmoved by a torrent of international condemnation.
An emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday called for the new military government to release all “arbitrarily detained” people and for the military to hand power back to Suu Kyi’s administration.
Traditional allies of the country’s armed forces, including Russia and China, have dissociated themselves from what they have described as interference in Myanmar’s “internal affairs”.
The military rulers insist they took power lawfully and have instructed journalists in the country not to refer to itself as a government that took power in a coup.
“We inform… journalists and news media organisations not to write to cause public unrest,” said a notice sent by the information ministry to the country’s foreign correspondents’ club late Saturday.