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Violence Erupts Again In Myanmar On Armed Forces Day

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The military in Myanmar is cracking down even harder on protesters. There are reports that security forces have shot and killed more than 90 people today. More than 320 people have been killed since the coup on February 1.

Reporter Michael Sullivan has been following developments in Myanmar. We've reached him in Thailand. Michael, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: What seems to be behind the increase in violence today?

SULLIVAN: A couple of things. One, today was Armed Forces Day in Myanmar. And that's a big deal for a military that's ruled the country, often brutally, for much of the past 70 years. It's a proud institution and one that wouldn't go easy on having lots of demonstrators in the streets today denouncing the military, defying the military nearly two months after the coup. And that's pretty much what happened.

Many protesters have been fearing such a crackdown for this very reason, but they turned out today anyway, Scott, all over the country in the biggest demonstrations in weeks. And the security forces responded with live ammunition and little remorse, even for those who weren't protesters. Local media reports several children killed by security forces, including a 5-year-old boy in Myanmar's second largest city, Mandalay. Today was the single bloodiest day since the coup.

SIMON: Have the leaders of the military government registered any reaction other than their actions?

SULLIVAN: No reaction. But the coup leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, gave a televised address from the capital Naypyidaw this morning, justifying the coup yet again as necessary, accusing the democratically elected government of now deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi of election fraud in the November general election, an election her National League for Democracy won in a landslide. He also said, again, that new elections would be held, though he again failed to say when. And even though he didn't address the protests directly, he did vow to, as he put it, safeguard democracy, warning that violent acts that affect stability and security - again, his words - are inappropriate.

SIMON: Michael, given the events of today and the extraordinary loss of life, is there any prospect for events in the future that could end the bloodshed anytime soon?

SULLIVAN: Not likely. Even though Myanmar's neighbors have been clamoring for such a thing for the two sides to sit down to find a way out, I don't think the military cares all that much, Scott, about what the neighbors say or what the world says. Remember; this is the same military that carried out a ruthless campaign against the Muslim minority Rohingya in 2017 that left thousands dead amid allegations of genocide and forced more than 700,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, a military Aung San Suu Kyi ironically defended when she went to The Hague in December 2019 to answer charges of genocide against the military. Now it's detaining her, and she hasn't been seen in public since the coup.

And on the protester side, Scott, I think many just see this as an existential moment, a chance to rid their country of the military's grip on power forever or accept living as serfs. They want the military gone. There really doesn't appear to be any middle ground.

SIMON: And what might be next?

SULLIVAN: Not clear either. Since the coup, many members of Suu Kyi's NLD have fled to other areas of the country controlled by ethnic minority militias who are no friends of the military. And a lot of protest leaders have fled, too, to avoid being rounded up by the military, who've detained more than 2,500 people so far. A leader of one of those militias in Myanmar's Shan State, much of which is contested, said today his group would have to get involved if the military continues its crackdown.

And, Scott, some of these militias are pretty well armed. They've been fighting the military for decades. If enough of the other militias said the same, that could be a problem for Myanmar's military. But it's a big if.

SIMON: Reporter Michael Sullivan, thanks so much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.