Myanmar Buddhist group signals break with authorities after violent crackdown

(Reuters) – The most powerful group of Buddhist monks in Myanmar called on the junta to end violence against protesters and accused an “armed minority” of torture and killing innocent civilians following last month’s coup, media reported on Wednesday.

In its most forthright condemnation of the military’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations, the government-appointed body also said in a draft statement its members intended to halt activities in an apparent protest.

The State Sahgha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana) planned to release a final statement after consulting the religious affairs minister on Thursday, the Myanmar Now news portal reported, citing a monk who attended a Mahana committee meeting.

Monks were at the forefront of the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” against the junta then in power in Myanmar, an uprising that helped pave the way for democratic reforms.

Mahana members could not immediately be reached by Reuters for comment, but their reported stance signals a rift with authorities by a group that usually works closely with the government.

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on Feb. 1 and detained her and other members of her party, drawing widespread international condemnation.

More than 180 protesters have been killed as security forces try to crush a wave of demonstrations, according to the activist group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

On Tuesday night, security forces fired shots and one 28-year-old man was killed at a demonstration in the commercial capital of Yangon, a brother of the victim said.

A total mobile internet shutdown made it difficult to verify information and very few people in Myanmar have access to WiFi. A junta spokesman did not answer telephone calls to seek comment.

Parts of Yangon have been placed under martial law and thousands of residents have fled the industrial suburb of Hlaingthaya where security forces killed 40 people on Sunday and Chinese-financed factories were set ablaze.

“Here is like a war zone, they are shooting everywhere,” a labour organiser in the area told Reuters, saying that most residents were too frightened to go outside.

Two doctors told Reuters there were still wounded people in need of medical attention in the area, but the army had blocked access.
Chinese state media has warned Beijing could take unspecified action if there are further attacks on Chinese-owned businesses.

Many people in Myanmar believe Beijing is backing the military. Unlike Western powers, China has not condemned the coup and, along with Russia, has prevented the U.N. Security Council from denouncing the military’s actions.

France said the European Union would approve sanctions against those behind the coup next Monday.

The junta, meanwhile, charged with treason an emissary of ousted lawmakers who are attempting to re-establish the civilian government.Sasa, who goes by a single name and is not in the country, said he was proud to have been charged.

“These generals have committed acts of treason every day. Taking what they want for themselves, denying the people their rights and oppressing those that stand in their way,” he said in a statement.

The charges, which army-run television said were for encouraging a civil disobedience campaign and calling for sanctions, carry a possible death sentence

The Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organisation founded by billionaire George Soros, called on Tuesday for the immediate release of a staff member held in Myanmar and said allegations of financial misconduct were false.

State media in Myanmar reported that authorities had detained an official from the Open Society Myanmar and were looking for 11 other employees on suspicion the group passed funds to opponents of military rule.

The army said it took power after its accusations of fraud in a Nov. 8 election won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) were rejected by the electoral commission. It has promised to hold a new election but has not set a date.

Suu Kyi, 75, has been detained since the coup and faces various charges including illegally importing walkie-talkie radios and infringing coronavirus protocols.