UN human rights investigator for Myanmar says "growing reports, photographic evidence" show security forces used live ammunition against protesters in violation of international law.

Demonstrators protest in front of Russian embassy against the military coup and demand for the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 12, 2021.
Demonstrators protest in front of Russian embassy against the military coup and demand for the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in Yangon, Myanmar, February 12, 2021. (Reuters)

Huge crowds have thronged cities around Myanmar in a seventh straight day of protests demanding the return of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, after Washington announced sanctions on the generals behind last week's coup.

A torrent of anger and defiance has brought hundreds of thousands of people out in nationwide rallies demanding the country's generals relinquish power. The United Nations human rights office said on Friday more than 350 people, including officials, activists and monks, have been arrested in Myanmar since the February 1 military coup, including some who face criminal charges on "dubious grounds."

The demonstrations on Friday were largely peaceful, but police fired rubber bullets on students while dispersing a sit-down protest in the city of Mawlamyine, arresting at least five.

At least three people were wounded, a Myanmar Red Cross official said.

With teachers, bureaucrats and air traffic controllers among the government employees walking off the job this week to demand an end to junta rule, the new military leader Min Aung Hlaing told striking workers to return to their offices.

"Those who are away from their duties are requested to return to their duties immediately for the interests of the country," he said, in a speech reported by state media.

READ MORE: US imposes sanctions against Myanmar military leaders after coup

Ahead of mass rallies, state media announced the release of more than 23,000 inmates as part of a prison amnesty.

Friday was a public holiday in Myanmar and mass pardons to empty the country's overcrowded prison system are common on significant local dates.

“I would seriously urge the entire nation to join hands with the Tatmadaw for the successful realisation of democracy,” Min Aung Hlaing said using the local term for the military. 

“Historical lessons have taught us that only national unity can ensure the non-disintegration of the Union and the perpetuation of sovereignty,” he added.

There was no indication that Suu Kyi or any of her allies were among those set to be freed, and authorities have stepped up a crackdown on striking workers.

In the Irrawaddy Delta, home to much of Myanmar's rice crop, police stormed a medical clinic and detained a doctor who had been supporting the civil disobedience campaign as he was treating a patient.

"He was in the middle of putting stitches in his patient's head," the wife of Pyae Phyo Naing, 38, said on Friday, a day after footage of the arrest went viral on social media.

News of the incident did not deter other medical workers from taking part in another day of massive rallies in Yangon.

"Whatever pressure comes from the army chief, we will not pay attention," said Wai Yan Phyo, a doctor.

Elsewhere in the commercial hub, a contingent of Premier League fans put aside their club rivalries to protest the coup.

"I hate the military coup more than Manchester United!" read one sign. Vibrant and unusual protests are becoming part of Myanmar's defiant vocabulary against the coup. Earlier in the week, young women in bridal dresses marched in Yangon with signs saying, "I don't want a dictatorship, I just want a boyfriend."

They were joined by bodybuilders holding posters saying, "Love fitness. Hate coup."

READ MORE: Mass protests against army coup hit Myanmar for second day

Human rights violations

The UN opened an emergency Human Rights Council session with a warning that any international response to the coup should avoid harming vulnerable people, after the Biden administration unveiled targeted sanctions against senior regime figures.

Some 300 elected parliamentarians in Myanmar called on the UN to investigate "gross human rights violations" committed by the military, including arrests of civilian leaders and shooting protesters.

In a letter read out to the Human Rights Council in Geneva by Britain's ambassador Julian Braithwaite, they said the junta had also "placed restrictions on people's freedom of speech by preparing a telecommunications bill intended to control access to the Internet and mobile services.

"We urge the Human Rights Council to support our efforts."

The United Nations human rights investigator for Myanmar said there were "growing reports, photographic evidence" that security forces have used live ammunition against protesters, in violation of international law.

Resolution passed 

The body passed a consensus resolution  urging military leaders in Myanmar to immediately release Suu Kyi and other civilian government leaders detained, while watering down an initial draft text amid pressure led by China and Russia.

In a special session at the Human Rights Council, the original resolution presented by Britain and the European Union was revised to remove calls to bolster the ability of a UN rights expert to scrutinise Myanmar and for restraint from the country's military.

After the updated resolution passed with no opposition, Chinese Ambassador Chen Xu thanked the sponsors for “adopting our recommendations” but said China still was distancing itself from the measure.

Thomas Andrews said that the UN Security Council should consider imposing sanctions, arms embargos, and travel bans due to the military coup on February 1 and reiterated his request to carry out a mission to the country.

Myint Thu, Myanmar's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said that it would maintain cooperation with the UN and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), adding, "We do not want to stall the nascent democratic transition in the country."

READ MORE: Myanmar anti-coup protests continue despite bloodshed

The Human Rights Council has no power to impose sanctions but can train a potent political spotlight on rights abuses and violations. Friday's session comes shortly after the Biden administration, which has already imposed sanctions on top coup leaders, revived US participation at the 47-member Geneva body.

“The seizure of power by the Myanmar military earlier this month constitutes a profound setback for the country after a decade of hard-won gains in its democratic transition,” said the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al Nashif.

A draft resolution, presented by Britain and the European Union, calls for the “immediate and unconditional release" of Suu Kyi, the leader of the civilian government, and other top officials in her government, a lifting of restrictions on the internet and unimpeded humanitarian access, among other things.

The resolution also calls on UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, to give the independent UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, “increased assistance, resources and expertise" to carry out his job.

Disputed election

The coup has united disparate strands of society in opposition, with some reports of police officers breaking ranks to join demonstrations alongside celebrities, students and garment workers.

They have called for the junta to respect the results of November's elections, which saw Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party win in a massive landslide.

The military justified its takeover with claims of widespread voter fraud, though local and international monitors said there were no major issues that could have changed the outcome of the poll.

Min Aung Hlaing's regime has moved quickly to stack courts and political offices with loyalists after bringing the country's decade-old democracy to a sudden end.

Internet restrictions

Concerns are growing over a draft cybersecurity bill that grants the regime power to order internet blackouts and website bans.

The junta has already ordered telecoms to block Twitter and Facebook and imposed a temporary nationwide internet shutdown last weekend.

Facebook called the situation in Myanmar "an emergency" and announced it would reduce the reach of content published on pages run by the military.

Suu Kyi has not been seen since she was detained on February 1, the same day a new parliament was due to convene, but NLD officials have said the Nobel laureate was in "good health."

READ MORE: EU mulls sanctions on Myanmar military over coup

Source: TRTWorld and agencies