Police in Myanmar Crack Down on Crowds Defying Protest Ban

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Police cracked down on demonstrators opposing Myanmar's military coup, firing warning shots and shooting water cannons to disperse crowds that took to the streets again Tuesday in defiance of rules making protests illegal.

Water cannons were used in Mandalay, Myanmar's second-biggest city, where witnesses said at least two warning shots were fired to try to break up the crowd. Reports on social media said police arrested more than two dozen people there. Police also used water cannons in the capital, Natpyitaw, for a second day and fired shots into the air.

Police were reported to have also shot rubber bullets at the crowd in Naypyitaw, wounding several people. Photos on social media showed an alleged shooter — an officer with a short-barreled gun — and several injured people.

Unconfirmed social media reports circulated of shootings with live rounds and deaths among the protesters, with the potential of sparking violent retaliation against the authorities, an outcome proponents of the country's civil disobedience movement have warned against. The AP was unable to immediately confirm the reports.

The protesters are demanding that power be restored to the deposed civilian government and are seeking freedom for the nation's elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other ruling party members detained since the military took over and blocked the new session of Parliament from convening on Feb. 1.

The growing defiance is striking in a country where past demonstrations have been met with deadly force and are a reminder of previous movements in the Southeast Asian country's long and bloody struggle for democracy. The military used deadly force to quash a massive 1988 uprising against military dictatorship and a 2007 revolt led by Buddhist monks.

The decrees issued Monday night for some areas of Yangon and Mandalay banned rallies and gatherings of more than five people, along with motorized processions, while also imposing a 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew. It was not immediately clear if regulations have been imposed for other areas.

Violation of the orders, issued under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, is punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine.

Demonstrations were also held in other cities Tuesday, including Bago — where city elders negotiated with police to avoid a violent confrontation — and Dawei, and in northern Shan state.

In Magwe in central Myanmar, where water cannons were also used, unconfirmed reports on social media claimed several police officers had crossed over to join the protesters' ranks. A police officer in Naypyitaw was also said to have switched sides. The AP was unable to immediately confirm the reports.

Crowds also gathered in Yangon, the country's biggest city where thousands of people have been demonstrating since Saturday, despite a heightened security presence. No violence was reported.

Soldiers do not appear to have been deployed to stop the demonstrations, a small indicator of restraint by the military government. The army has a record of brutality in crushing past revolts as well as in fighting ethnic minorities in border areas seeking self-determination. It also has been accused of carrying out genocide in its 2017 counterinsurgency campaign that drove more than 700,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority across the border to seek safety in Bangladesh.

State media for the first time on Monday referred to the protests, claiming they were endangering the country's stability.

“Democracy can be destroyed if there is no discipline,” declared a statement from the Ministry of Information, read on state television station MRTV. “We will have to take legal actions to prevent acts that are violating state stability, public safety and the rule of law.”

However, the military commander who led the coup and is now Myanmar's leader made no mention of the unrest in a 20-minute televised speech Monday night, his first to the public since the takeover.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing instead repeated claims about voting fraud that have been the justification for the military's takeover, allegations that were refuted by the state election commission. He added that his junta would hold new elections as promised in a year and hand over power to the winners, and explained the junta's intended policies for COVID-19 control and the economy.

The general's remarks, which included encouragement for foreign investors, did nothing to assuage concern about the coup in the international community.

The U.N.'s Human Rights Council, the 47-member-state body based in Geneva, is to hold a special session on Friday to consider “the human rights implications of the crisis in Myanmar.”

Britain and the European Union spearheaded the request for the session, which will amount to a high-profile public debate among diplomats over the situation in Myanmar and could lead to a resolution airing concerns about the situation or recommending international action.

The call for the special session — the 29th in the nearly 15-year history of the council — required support from at least one-third of the council's 47 member states.

New Zealand has suspended all military and high-level political contact with Myanmar, its Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced Tuesday in Wellington, adding that any New Zealand aid should not go to Myanmar's military government or benefit them.

“We do not recognize the legitimacy of the military-led government and we call on the military to immediately release all detained political leaders and restore civilian rule,” Mahuta said. She said New Zealand was also placing a travel ban on the military leaders and had joined other countries in calling for the special session at the United Nations Human Rights Council.