As Myanmar’s military junta celebrated the annual Armed Forces Day holiday with a parade in the country’s capital Saturday, soldiers and police elsewhere reportedly killed dozens of people as they suppressed protests in the deadliest bloodletting since last month’s coup.
In a nationally televised speech before thousands of soldiers Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing did not directly refer to the nationwide protests that show no signs of stopping. But at a massive parade ground at the capital Naypyitaw, he referred to “terrorism which can be harmful to state tranquility and social security,” and called it unacceptable.
People in cities and towns around Myanmar marked the public holiday with more demonstrations against the Feb. 1 coup.
Myanmar security forces reportedly killed 93 people Saturday, in the deadliest day since last month’s military coup. A count issued by an independent researcher in Yangon who has been compiling near-real time death tolls put the total at 93, spread over more than two dozen cities and towns. The online news site Myanmar Now reported the death toll had reached 91.
Figures collected by the researcher, who asked not to be named for his security, have generally tallied with the counts issued at the end of each day by the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners, which documents deaths and arrests and is widely seen as a definitive source.
The Associated Press is unable to independently confirm the death tolls.
Saturday’s killings quickly drew international condemnation, with multiple diplomatic missions to Myanmar releasing statements that mentioned the killing of civilians, including children.
“On Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day, security forces are murdering unarmed civilians, including children, the very people they swore to protect. This bloodshed is horrifying,” the U.S. embassy in Myanmar tweeted. “These are not the actions of a professional military or police force.”
The military government does not issue regular casualty counts, and when it has released figures, the totals have been a fraction of what independent parties such as the United Nations have reported. It has said its use of force has been justified to stop what it called rioting.
The protesters refer to the national holiday by its original name, Resistance Day, which marks the beginning of a revolt against Japanese occupation in World War 2. This year’s event was seen as a flashpoint, with protesters threatening to double down on their public opposition to the coup with more and bigger demonstrations.
State television MRTV on Friday night showed an announcement urging young people — who have been at the forefront of the protests and prominent among the casualties — to learn a lesson from those killed already, about the danger of being shot in the head or back. The announcement also suggested that some young people were taking part in protesting as if it was a game, and urged their parents and friends to talk them out of participating.
In his lengthy speech, Min. Aung Hlaing accused Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government of failing to investigate irregularities in the last polls, and repeated that his government would hold “a free and fair election” and hand over power afterward. He gave no details.
The military has claimed there were irregularities in the voting rolls for last November’s election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide.
The junta detained Suu Kyi on the day it took power, and continues to hold her on minor criminal charges, while investigating allegations of corruption against her that her supporters dismiss as politically motivated.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Saturday’s events showed that the military, known in Myanmar as the Tatmadaw, should be prosecuted in international courts of law.
“This is a day of suffering and mourning for the Burmese people, who have paid for the Tatmadaw’s arrogance and greed with their lives, time and time again,” he said.