Ten of Myanmar’s major rebel groups threw their support behind the country’s anti-coup movement on Saturday, fanning fears that a broader conflict could erupt in a country plagued for decades by on-and-off fighting between the military and the ethnic armies.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi from power on February 1, triggering an uprising that the junta has sought to quell with deadly crackdowns.
According to a local monitoring group, more than 550 people have been killed in the anti-coup unrest, bloodshed that has angered some of Myanmar’s 20 or so ethnic groups and their militias, who control large areas of territory mostly in border regions.
On Saturday, 10 of these rebel groups met virtually to discuss the situation, condemning the junta’s use of live ammunition on protesters.
“The leaders of the military council must be held accountable,” said General Yawd Serk, leader of rebel group the Restoration Council of Shan State.
Last week, the junta declared a month-long ceasefire with ethnic armed groups, though exceptions might be made if “security and administrative machinery of the government… are encroached on”.
The announcement did not encompass stopping lethal force against anti-coup demonstrations.
But Yawd Serk said the ceasefire means security forces should halt “all violent actions”, including against protesters.
The 10 rebel groups that met online are signatories to a nationwide ceasefire agreement that was brokered by Suu Kyi’s government, which attempted to negotiate an end to the ethnic militias’ decades-long armed struggle for greater autonomy.
But distrust runs deep for the ethnic minorities of Myanmar, and Yawd Serk said the 10 signatories to the nationwide ceasefire would “review” the deal during their meeting.
“I would like to state that the (10 groups) firmly stand with the people who are… demanding the end of dictatorship,” he said.
Last week, a UN special envoy on Myanmar warned the Security Council of the risk of civil war and an imminent “bloodbath”.
– ‘No reason for conflict’ –
The rebel groups’ meeting also comes a week after one of them, the Karen National Union (KNU), seized a military base in eastern Karen state, killing 10 army officers. The junta retaliated with air strikes.
The KNU has been a vocal opponent of the military junta and said it is sheltering hundreds of anti-coup activists.
On Saturday, it condemned the military’s use of “excessive force by engaging in non-stop bombing and air strikes” from March 27 – 30, which have “caused the deaths of many people including children”.
“The air strikes have also led to the further displacement of more than 12,000 people,” it said.
Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun said the military has only been targeting KNU’s 5th Brigade — which led the seizure of the military base.
“We had an air strike on that day only,” he told AFP.
“We have signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement… If they follow the NCA, there is no reason for conflict to happen,” Zaw Min Tun said.
Ethnic Karen local media and rights groups have reported multiple bombings and air strikes across the state over recent days.
– ‘This madness must stop’ –
With the junta cutting wifi services, mobile data and imposing a nightly internet blackout that has gone on for nearly 50 days, information flow in the country has been effectively throttled.
“This madness must stop,” UN rights rapporteur Tom Andrews in a tweet. “Sanctions & an arms embargo must be imposed to cut their [the junta’s] access to revenue and weapons.”
At least two cities saw security forces violently crack down before noon on Saturday.
In eastern Mon state, a man was shot in the stomach and died on his way to the hospital.
“He was trying to help our young protesters,” a fellow protester told AFP.
Demonstrators in Yangon, Mandalay and the central city Monywa continued to come out Saturday, wearing helmets and using sandbags as barricades as they faced off against authorities.
But “two were shot in the head,” said a rescue worker in Monywa who had to pick up the bodies.
CNN — which was granted access by the junta — arrived this week with correspondent Clarissa Ward, who was ferried around Yangon in a military convoy.
On Friday, she spoke to two sisters — Shine Ya Da Na Pyo and Nay Zar Chi Shine — who were later detained along with another relative.
Local media reported they had flashed a three-finger salute, a symbol of resistance, while speaking to Ward.
“We don’t know where they’ve been detained,” said a relative of the sisters who did not want to be named.
“They seized their phones, and we lost connection with them… Our family is trying our best for their release.”
CNN did not respond to request for comment on the incident.