Karen rebel group calls for unity among all ethnic fighters as seven people are reportedly shot dead in fresh protests against military regime.
Myanmar security forces have opened fire on some of the biggest protests against military rule in days, killing seven people, media reported, as a key rebel group called for unity among ethnic fighters against the military, which took power in a February coup.
The protests, after a spell of dwindling crowds and what appeared to be more restraint by the security forces, were coordinated on Sunday with demonstrations in Myanmar communities around the world to mark what organisers called "the global Myanmar spring revolution."
"Shake the world with the voice of Myanmar people's unity," the organisers said in a statement.
Streams of demonstrators, some led by Buddhist monks, made their way through cities and towns across the country, including the commercial hub of Yangon and the second city of Mandalay, where two people were shot and killed, the Mizzima news agency reported.
Two people were killed in the central town of Wetlet, the Myanmar Now news agency said, and two were killed in different towns in Shan State in the northeast, two media outlets reported.
One person was also killed in the northern jade-mining town of Hpakant, the Kachin News Group reported.
Reuters could not verify the reports and a spokesperson for the ruling junta did not answer calls seeking comment.
The protests are only one of the problems the generals have brought on with their February 1 ouster of an elected government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Wars with ethnic minority insurgents in remote frontier regions in the north and east have intensified significantly over the past three months, displacing tens of thousands of civilians, according to UN estimates.
Rebel group seeks unity among ethnic fighters
Meanwhile, a prominent rebel group in eastern Myanmar appealed to other ethnic armies to unite against the military.
As security forces have deployed deadly violence against civilians to suppress a persistent anti-junta movement, some of Myanmar's myriad ethnic armies have spoken out against the military.
Among the most prominent opponents is the Karen National Union (KNU), which has admitted offering shelter to fleeing dissidents in the territory they control along Myanmar's eastern border.
Clashes have escalated in Karen state between the KNU's fighters and the military.
Last week the rebels attacked and razed a military base. The junta retaliated with air strikes and rocket launchers aimed at rebel-held territory.
'Let us stand united'
On Sunday – after five days of air raids – the vice chief of staff for the KNU's armed wing wrote an open letter calling for all ethnic Karen fighters to unite, regardless of their loyalties.
"Never has there been such a great opportunity during the 70-plus years of revolution. Take advantage of this and fight against the Burmese military dictatorship," said Lieutenant General Baw Kyaw Heh.
"In our generation, let us stand united ... to escape the military dictatorship."
His letter was addressed to two other rebel groups in Karen state – the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, a group formed by a former KNU commander. Both have remained silent since the coup.
State-run media last week reported that their officials had met with the junta in separate meetings to discuss "peace processes."
Baw Kyaw Heh also called for unity among ethnic Karen fighters in the Border Guards Forces (BGF) – a subdivision of Myanmar's military made up of former ethnic insurgents.
"So BGF, as you are Karen, you need to think carefully about it and make the right decision," he said. "Karen people should not be killing each other."
Unity among rebels appear unlikely
Myanmar has more than 20 ethnic rebel groups, many of whom hold territories in the country's border regions.
A messy struggle over autonomy, control of lucrative drug production and natural resources has long pitted them against each other and the military.
Since the coup, besides fighting the KNU in the east, the junta has also engaged in artillery shelling and air strikes against the Kachin Independence Army in the north.
Unity among the rebel groups appears an unlikely prospect due to their fighting and a long-held general distrust of Myanmar's ethnic Bamar majority.
At least 759 protesters killed
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners advocacy group says security forces have killed at least 759 protesters since the coup.
Reuters is unable to confirm the casualty toll.
The military, which ruled for almost 50 years until launching a tentative reform process a decade ago, acknowledged in mid-April the death of 248 protesters, saying they were killed after they initiated violence.
Several members of the security forces have been killed in the protests, the military said.
The protests and a parallel civil disobedience campaign of strikes have crippled the economy and raised prospects of hunger for the poor, aid agencies have warned.
The UN Development Programme warned last week that the impact of the pandemic and the political crisis could see as many as 25 million Myanmar people slide into poverty by 2022.