Asia

BBC journalist freed in Myanmar as EU prepares sanctions

YANGON (AFP) – A BBC journalist held in Myanmar has been freed, the broadcaster said on Monday (March 22), as demonstrators took to the streets for fresh anti-coup protests against the military.

Myanmar’s junta has unleashed deadly violence on protesters who have risen against the military’s ousting of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi last month.

The crackdown has drawn international condemnation, and the European Union imposed sanctions on 11 junta officials on Monday, with Germany condemning the level of violence as “completely unacceptable”.

More than 2,600 people have been arrested and 250 killed since the Feb 1 coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a local monitoring group that has warned fatalities could be even higher.

Mr Aung Thura, a journalist with the BBC’s Burmese service, was detained by men in plain clothes while reporting outside a court in the capital Naypyitaw last Friday.

The broadcaster confirmed on Monday in a news story on its website that he had been freed, but gave no further details.

A second journalist detained at the same time, Mr Than Htike Aung from the local outlet Mizzima, was still in custody.

The junta has sought to stem the flow of news about the protests and crackdown, revoking the licences of independent local media – including Mizzima – raiding newsrooms and arresting journalists.

Scores of people, including teachers, marched on Monday through the pre-dawn streets of Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, some carrying placards calling for UN intervention in the crisis.

Mandalay has seen some of the worst violence of the crackdown and recorded eight more deaths on Sunday, a medical source told AFP, adding that as many as 50 people were injured.

Machine gunfire rang out late into the night across the city of 1.7 million.

“People were really scared and felt insecure the whole night,” a doctor told AFP by phone.

To protest the brutality of the crackdown, a group of doctors in Mandalay staged a “placard only” demonstration by lining up signs in the street, Voice of Myanmar reported.

A group of monks staged a similar “monkless” protest.

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There were also early morning protests in parts of Yangon, the commercial capital and largest city, where drivers honked their horns in support of the anti-coup movement.

Residents in Yangon’s Hlaing township released hundreds of red helium balloons with posters calling for a UN intervention to stop atrocities, according to local media.

One man was also killed during daytime clashes with security forces in the central city of Monywa on Sunday and hundreds turned out to protest a day later, local media reported.

International concern has been growing over the junta’s brutal approach as the death toll climbs, with a senior UN expert warning the military is likely committing “crimes against humanity”.

But so far, the generals have shown little sign of heeding calls for restraint as they struggle to quell the unrest.

In a fresh bid to step up pressure, the European Union hit 11 junta cadres with sanctions – in the form of travel bans and asset freezes.

The United States and Britain have already taken similar steps.

As EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to sign off on the sanctions, Germany’s Heiko Maas said the violence must stop.

“The number of murders has reached an unbearable level, and that is why we will not be able to avoid imposing sanctions,” he told reporters.

Myanmar’s regional neighbours have also weighed in, with Indonesia and Malaysia calling for an emergency summit of the 10-country Asean to discuss the crisis.

Following the call, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan embarked on a whistle-stop diplomatic tour including meetings in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia.

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On the commercial front, French energy giant EDF announced that a US$1.5 billion (S$2.01 billion) hydropower dam project in Myanmar had been suspended in response to the coup.

Australia and Canada have meanwhile confirmed they are providing consular assistance to two business consultants detained in Myanmar.

It is understood that Australian Matthew O’Kane and Ms Christa Avery, a dual Canadian-Australian citizen, are under house arrest after trying to leave the country on a relief flight last Friday.

The couple run a consultancy business in Yangon.

The Canadian and Australian foreign ministries have refused to comment further on the case.

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