Myanmar junta uses force on streets; US, UK target finances

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — As Myanmar’s junta used violence again Thursday to try to suppress protests against the military’s takeover, the United States and Britain announced tough sanctions against two holding companies that provide financial sustenance for the army regime.

The U.S. Treasury Department said its action against Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited targeted the army’s control of large parts of the country’s economy, “which is a vital financial lifeline for the military junta.”

The sanctions against the two companies and their holdings blocks access to any property they control in the United States and effectively bars any U.S. person or company from conducting any sort of business with them, including supplying them with funds or providing goods or services. The department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control can make exceptions for companies it licenses.

“These sanctions specifically target the economic resources of Burma’s military regime, which is responsible for the overthrow of Burma’s democratically elected government and the ongoing repression of the Burmese people,” the announcement from Washington said. “These sanctions are not directed at the people of Burma.” Burma is another name for Myanmar.

Britain’s action only targets Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited. “Today’s sanctions target the military’s financial interests to help drain the sources of finance for their campaigns of repression against civilians,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

The U.S. and Britain had already issued sanctions personally targeting the military leaders who staged the Feb. 1 coup. Opponents of the coup, inside and outside Myanmar, had been lobbying strongly to target the holding companies as well.

Inside Myanmar, protesters returned to the streets in large numbers, a day after people engaged in a “silence strike” by staying home and closing businesses for the day.

Security forces sought to break up some of the protests by force. Social media accounts and local news outlets reported violent attacks on demonstrators in Hpa-an, the capital of the southeastern Karen state, as well as the eastern Shan state’s capital of Taunggyi and Mon state’s capital of Mawlamyine, also in the southeast. It was not clear if soldiers used live ammunition in addition to firing rubber bullets at the demonstrators.

The Myanmar Now news service said initial reports were that four people were killed in Taunggyi. The Democratic Voice of Burma news service said two young men were shot and seriously wounded in Hpa-an.

Protests in the two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, proceeded peacefully in the morning, but later reports said security forces in Yangon had attacked demonstrators.

As the violence resumed, the U.N.’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar called for U.N. members to hold an emergency summit with all concerned parties, including the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, an organization of elected lawmakers who have declared themselves the country’s legitimate government. The group has been declared illegal by the junta.

“Conditions in Myanmar are deteriorating,” said Tom Andrews. “But they will likely get much worse without an immediate robust, international response in support of those under siege.”

He said diplomatic moves to resolve the crisis were moving too slowly.

The foreign ministers of Indonesia and Singapore called on Myanmar’s military to stop the use of force and prevent more casualties. “We also urged Myanmar to start dialogue to put democracy, peace and stability back on track,” Indonesia Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said after meeting with her Singaporean counterpart.

All three countries are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the two foreign ministers agreed they would urge ASEAN’s national leaders to work on a common position for supporting Myanmar.

“Both Indonesia and Singapore also believe that there should be no foreign interference. But ASEAN stands ready to help in any way we can help,” Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said.

The military’s seizure of power ousted the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won a landslide election victory last November. It halted the Southeast Asian nation’s move toward democracy that began when Suu Kyi’s party took office in 2016 for its first term, after more than five decades of military rule.

Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says at least 286 people have been killed in connection with the crackdown. It says 2,906 people have been arrested, charged or sentenced at one point in connection with resisting the coup, with most remaining detained.

Kanbawza Tai News, an online news service based in Taunggyi, reported that four of its staff, including its publisher and its editor, were detained Wednesday night. It said the home of the editor was raided and materials seized.

The detentions constitute the junta’s latest attack on press freedom. About 40 journalists have been detained since the Feb. 1 coup, and roughly half are still in custody. The military government has also ordered at least five news outlets to shut down, although they continue to operate.

Thein Zaw, a journalist for The Associated Press who was arrested last month while covering an anti-coup protest, was released Wednesday. The judge in his case announced during a hearing that all charges against him were dropped because he was doing his job at the time of his arrest. He had been facing a potential three-year prison sentence under the public order law he was charged with violating.

On Wednesday, more than 600 protesters were released from Yangon’s Insein Prison, where Thein Zaw had also been held — a rare conciliatory gesture by the ruling military.

A Polish freelance journalist, Robert Bociaga, said Wednesday he’d also been freed but was being expelled from Myanmar. He was detained on March 12 while covering a protest in Taunggyi. Bociaga said in an email to The Associated Press that on Monday he was fined and ordered deported, and on Wednesday was sent to Yangon. He said he was due to take a flight to Europe on Thursday.

“We are relieved to confirm that Robert has been released from custody,” The Diplomat, an online publication he worked for, said on Twitter. “We recognize, however, that others remain behind bars. We call for all journalists held in Myanmar to be released immediately.”

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