Myanmar Remains Mired in Violence

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) -- Protesters in Myanmar on Thursday marked two months since the military seized power by once more defying the threat of lethal violence and publicly demonstrating against the toppling of the democratically elected government.

The Feb. 1 coup has been met with massive public resistance that security forces have been unable to crush through escalating levels of violence, including now routinely shooting protesters. Outside efforts including sanctions imposed by Western nations on the military regime have failed to help restore peace.

In Yangon, the country's biggest city, a group of young people shortly after sunrise Thursday sang solemn songs honoring the more than 500 protesters killed so far. They then marched through the streets chanting slogans calling for the fall of the junta, the release of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the return of democracy.

Protests were also held in Mandalay and elsewhere.

The demonstrations followed a night of violence including police raids and several fires. In Yangon, several retail shops owned in whole or part by Myanma Economic Holdings Limited, which is an investment arm of the military, went up in flames. The shops are the targets of boycotts by the protest movement.

The crisis in the Southeast Asian nation has expanded sharply in the past week, both in the number of protesters killed and with the military launching airstrikes against the guerrilla forces of the Karen ethnic minority in their homeland on the border with Thailand. The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar warned the country faces the possibility of civil war.

That's a stark reversal for Myanmar, which prior to the coup had been making slow progress toward greater democracy following decades of brutal military rule.

In areas controlled by the Karen, more than a dozen civilians have been killed since Saturday and more than 20,000 have been displaced, according to the Free Burma Rangers, a relief agency operating in the area.

In addition to those deaths, an airstrike Tuesday on a gold mine in Karen guerrilla territory on Tuesday left as many as 11 more people dead, said a local news outlet and an NGO worker in touch with residents near the site.

Saw Kholo Htoo, the deputy director for Karen Teacher Working Group, said residents told him five people were killed at the mine and another six at a nearby village. The Bago Weekly Journal also reported the attack.

David Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers confirmed that a video of the attack's aftermath showed the gold mine and that there had been airstrikes in the area.

About 3,000 Karen villagers have fled for safety in neighboring Thailand in recent days, but many have returned under unclear circumstances. Thai authorities said those displaced went back to Myanmar voluntarily after a brief stay, but humanitarian aid groups say they are not safe and many remain in hiding in the jungle and caves on the Myanmar side of the border.

The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, warned Wednesday that the country faces the possibility of civil war and urged the U.N. Security Council to consider "potentially significant action" to restore democracy.

Burgener didn't specify what action she considered significant, but she painted a dire picture of the military crackdown and told the council in a closed briefing that Myanmar "is on the verge of spiraling into a failed state." A virtual presentation of the briefing was obtained by The Associated Press.

Any U.N. resolutions for concrete action such as a comprehensive ban on weapons sales to Myanmar would almost certainly be vetoed by China or Russia, who are political allies of the junta as well as major suppliers of arms to its military.

Inside Myanmar, an opposition group made up of ousted lawmakers on Wednesday declared the country's 2008 constitution void and put forward an interim replacement charter in another challenge to the ruling junta.

The moves, while more symbolic than practical, could help woo the country's armed ethnic militias to ally themselves with the mass protest movement based in cities and towns.

The 2008 constitution, implemented under army rule, ensured the military maintained its dominance during the country's decade of progress toward democracy, such as by reserving it enough seats in Parliament to block any charter changes and retaining responsibility for several key government ministries

The junta cites emergency provisions in the charter as giving its takeover on Feb. 1 constitutional legitimacy.

One of the aims of the interim constitution put forward by the ousted lawmakers is to meet the longstanding demands of its myriad ethnic minority groups for greater autonomy in their regions. In seeking an alliance with the ethnic minority armed groups, the lawmakers hope they will form a federal army as a counterweight to the government armed forces.

More than a dozen ethnic minority groups have for decades sought greater autonomy from the central government, sometimes through armed struggle. Even in times of peace, relations have been strained and ceasefires fragile.

Several of the major groups --- including the Kachin, the Karen and the Rakhines' Arakan Army in western Myanmar --- have publicly denounced the coup and said they will defend protesters in the territory they control.