Last week in Southeast Asia, alarming levels of violence were reported in Myanmar, with military troops and police using lethal force to quell nationwide mass demonstrations. Meanwhile, anti-government demonstrations in Thailand decreased amid an increased use of force by police against demonstrators. The crackdown on demonstrators in both Thailand and Myanmar has drawn widespread criticism from human rights groups and the international community. In Indonesia and the Philippines, there was an uptick in fighting between state forces and Islamist groups. A rare clash between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and state forces was reported in Basilan province. Lastly, two high-profile attacks on public defenders associated with the left were also reported in the Philippines.
On the day before the one-month mark of the coup, the political crisis in Myanmar took a violent turn when protesters took to the streets as part of an international “#MilkTeaAlliance” campaign on 28 February. Youth in countries including Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan — who have banded together under the hashtag that has come to signify resistance to authoritarianism — held protests to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar. In the morning, security forces broke up protests across the country by firing live rounds into the crowds in several cities, resulting in multiple fatalities. Notably, several protesters were killed in the country’s largest city of Yangon, which until then had only witnessed isolated incidents of direct interventions by security forces.
The deadly crackdown on 28 February marked a dramatic turn of events as demonstrators began to harden their positions and adopt new strategies, including by constructing barricades using wooden poles, sandbags, and tires at the frontlines of demonstrations (DW, 3 March 2021). With both sides determined to strengthen their positions, security forces continued their efforts to crack down on demonstrators in subsequent days, particularly in Yangon. This culminated in the deadliest week of violence since the coup began on 1 February, as security forces fired live ammunition directly at unarmed demonstrators, and used slingshots, rubber bullets, and water cannons to break up demonstrations (BBC, 4 March 2021). On 3 March, a deadly crackdown by security forces across the country resulted in at least 38 deaths according to the UN Special Envoy for Myanmar (AP, 4 March 2021). Throughout the day, social media platforms were flooded with images of dead bodies, including many that were killed by direct gunshot wounds to the heads.
The violent developments in Myanmar have sparked international outrage at the disproportionate use of force by security forces, and the Singapore Foreign Minister issued a rare statement calling the actions of Myanmar’s security forces a “national shame” (Reuters, 5 March 2021). The strongly worded remark from Singapore has taken some pundits by surprise, considering the non-interference principle upheld by ASEAN countries, and the good relations that the Singapore government has maintained with Myanmar’s previous military regimes.
The escalation in the lethal use of force by authorities has been accompanied by other worrying trends that are in violation of national and international laws, including incidents of security forces attacking medics and ambulances, as well as journalists covering the demonstrations. Journalists have also been targeted — at least 35 journalists have been detained since 1 February (Myanmar Now, 9 March 2021). At the same time, arbitrary detentions have increased at an alarming rate. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as of 5 March, a total of 1,522 people have been arrested, detained, or charged since the coup began (AAPP, 5 March 2021). In the majority of cases, detainees have been held incommunicado, and a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur states that many of these detentions may be considered to be enforced disappearances (OHCHR, 4 March 2021).
Meanwhile, there was a slight increase in clashes between the Myanmar military and Karen National Union/Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), with at least one fatality reported. The clashes took place amid the increased presence of the KNU/KNLA at demonstrations in areas under its control. On Friday, KNU/KNLA troops were seen accompanying thousands of protesters at a major rally to provide protection. This has been the strongest show of support for the anti-coup movement thus far by an ethnic armed organization (The Guardian, 6 March 2021). In addition to calling for a restoration of the democratically elected government, protesters demanded that Myanmar military troops withdraw bases from their areas.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, anti-government demonstrations decreased last week as police intensified their crackdown on demonstrators. The most violent crackdown occurred on 28 February, when riot police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons to break up a protest in Bangkok. Human rights groups criticised the use of force as excessive, citing a lack of advance warnings by authorities and their purposeful targeting of vulnerable body parts (Khaosod English, 2 March 2021). In the aftermath of the incident, the king announced that injured protesters, along with police, would be accepted as patients under royal patronage, thereby acknowledging the pro-democracy movement officially for the first time (Bangkok Post, 4 March 2021). Notwithstanding the king’s move, which could be viewed as a conciliatory gesture, protests are expected to increase in intensity and frequency in coming weeks as detained protest leaders continue to be denied bail.
Elsewhere, fighting between state forces and rebel groups was reported in Indonesia and the Philippines. In Indonesia, security forces clashed with the separatist West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), resulting in the deaths of two rebels, including a platoon commander who had been on security forces’ wanted list since 2017 (Detik, 3 March 2021). Separately, fighting between security forces and the East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), a militant group with links to the Islamic State, resulted in the deaths of two militants and a soldier. The MIT was reportedly planning to carry out an attack in the Sulawesi town of Poso, where the group is based.
In the Philippines, security forces clashed with the Islamist groups Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and Dawlah Islamiyah in separate incidents, resulting in several casualties, including the deaths of four BIFF militants. A skirmish between the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was also reported in Basilan province following allegations by authorities that the MILF had violated the “normalization process” by occupying a village (Philippine News Agency, 2 March 2021). Clashes between the two sides have been rare in recent years since the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law in 2018. The law followed from the signing of a 2014 peace deal wherein the MILF agreed to a structured disarmament plan, which has been ongoing for the past few years, in exchange for increased autonomy (Philippine Information Agency, n.d.).
Also in the Philippines, violence involving the communist New People’s Army (NPA) dropped overall last week. This comes amid a series of high-profile attacks on public defenders associated with the left. Amongst the victims was a legal counsel to one of the petitions against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 currently being debated at the Supreme Court. Additionally, a barangay captain who accused police of planting evidence as part of anti-communist operations that resulted in violence against Tumandok tribespeople in December was also targeted. Though the government’s involvement in these attacks has not been established, these attacks represent an increasingly hostile environment for leftists in the country, especially as the government’s practice of red-tagging activists — branding them as “communists” to discredit them — continues unabated (Human Rights Watch, 10 February 2021).
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