Protesters wearing different Myanmar ethnic costumes taking part in a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 25. Photo: AFP/Facebook

Security forces opened fire Thursday on anti-coup protesters in Myanmar’s eastern Karen state, as demonstrators took to the streets in nationwide dawn rallies to demand a return to democracy.

The military junta has unleashed a deadly wave of violence as it struggles to quell nationwide protests against the February 1 ouster and arrest of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

But protesters have continued calling for the military to step down, defying nighttime curfews to stage candlelight vigils for the dead, and taking to the streets in dawn marches to avoid security forces.

In the city of Hpa-An in Karen state, protesters were preparing sandbags about 6am on Thursday when scores of soldiers and police swooped in and tried to clear the streets using stun grenades.

“After that, they shot with rubber bullets as well as real bullets, about 50 shots,” said a protester. “A student got shot in the thigh by a live round and is now receiving medical treatment.”

A local resident confirmed the crackdown, saying it started before the protest had got under way.

Despite the police action, protesters in Hpa-An continued staging impromptu gatherings throughout the day, driving through the town and flashing the three-finger salute – a sign of resistance against the junta.

Medical personnel taking part in a dawn protest in Mandalay on March 25. Photo: AFP/Facebook

Dawn protests

Early-bird protesters were also out in parts of Myanmar’s commercial hub Yangon, marching with red balloons at dawn with signs saying “Get out terrorist dictator,” according to local media.

In the country’s second-largest city Mandalay, scores of health workers paraded through the streets at dawn carrying flags.

Thursday’s protests followed a day of “silent strikes” on Wednesday that left the streets of Yangon and other major centers deserted.

Overnight, a village south of Mandalay used candles to show support for a group of ousted MPs – called the Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese word for “parliament” – working underground against the junta.

The junta has banned the group, announcing that any involvement with them is akin to “high treason.”

State-run media also reported Thursday that police had arrested 14 Yangon youths caught fleeing the city for territories in Myanmar’s east, which are controlled by ethnic armed militias.

So far, hundreds have fled to Karen state, where the rebel Karen National Union has sheltered hundreds of anti-coup activists escaping the junta.

More than 280 people have been killed, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners – a local monitoring group tracking the death toll and arrests.

But the junta puts the death toll much lower at 164, and has branded the victims as “violent terrorist people.”

Unrestricted access for UN

International condemnation from the UN, the United States and former colonial power Britain has done little to quell the violent crackdowns.

There are fears that Saturday – Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day, usually marked with a parade in Naypyidaw – could be a flashpoint.

On Wednesday the United Nations Human Rights Council expressed grave concern over human rights violations and reiterated that those responsible should be held to account.

The resolution called for Myanmar to allow UN monitoring officials unrestricted access to assess the country and for the junta to free all those arbitrarily detained – including Suu Kyi and President Win Myint.

“We remain concerned at ongoing arbitrary arrests, including of journalists and civil society leaders,” deputy UN spokesman Farhan Haq said.

But the junta-appointed deputy foreign minister Kyaw Myo Htut hit back in a pre-recorded video, state media reported.

He said Myanmar’s sovereignty had to be respected and UN meddling could bring “serious impediments on the efforts for bringing peace.”