(Reuters) – Some of Myanmar’s neighbours pressed its ruling junta on Tuesday to release ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and cease using lethal force against opponents of their Feb. 1 coup to work out a solution to the crisis.
The calls from fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) came as Myanmar police again opened fire to disperse crowds after weeks of demonstrations against military rule. Several people were wounded, witnesses said.
ASEAN foreign ministers held talks with a representative of the junta in a video call two days after the bloodiest day of unrest since the military overthrew Suu Kyi’s elected government.
At least 21 people have been killed since the coup, which Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with the BBC was a “tragic” step back for Myanmar.
The foreign minister of Indonesia, which has been pushing a regional diplomatic effort, urged Myanmar to “open its doors” to the ASEAN bloc to resolve the escalating tension, but said there was little it could do if it did not.
Retno Marsudi, called for the release of political detainees and for the restoration of democracy, while pledging that ASEAN countries would not break their pledge of not interfering in each other’s affairs.
“Restoring democracy back on track must be pursued,” Retno said. “Indonesia underlines that the will, the interest and the voices of the people of Myanmar must be respected.”
The foreign ministers of Malaysia and the Philippines also called for the release of Suu Kyi.
But some countries were less emphatic and a statement from the group said “all parties” should refrain from instigating violence and that ASEAN stood ready to help.
ASEAN groups Myanmar, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
The bloc’s effort to engage with Myanmar’s military has been criticised by supporters of democracy, with a committee of ousted Myanmar lawmakers declaring the junta a terrorist group and saying ASEAN’s engagement would give it legitimacy.
Sa Sa, a senior member of the committee who has been anointed as its representative to the United Nations, said ASEAN should have no dealings with “this illegitimate military-led regime”.
Myanmar’s own representative to the United Nations denounced the coup last week and after the junta announced he had been fired, he staked a formal claim as the legitimate representative, according to letters seen by Reuters.
The coup halted Myanmar’s tentative steps towards democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule and has drawn condemnation and sanctions from the United States and other Western countries.
Singapore’s Lee said sanctions would not affect the junta but hurt the people and the way forward was to free Suu Kyi and work out a solution – describing the takeover as “an enormous tragic step back”.
“To use lethal force against civilians and unarmed demonstrators, I think it is just not acceptable. That is disastrous not just internationally, but disastrous domestically,” said.
Hundreds of protesters, many wearing hard hats and clutching makeshift shields, gathered earlier behind barricades in different parts of Myanmar’s main city of Yangon to chant slogans before police moved in firing stun grenades.
There were no reports of injuries in Yangon but four people were wounded in the northwestern town of Kale, where police fired live ammunition to disperse a crowd after protesters threw objects at advancing police, witnesses said.
State television MRTV later said security forces used stun grenades, rubber bullets and other non-lethal measures.
“They were acting like they were in a war zone,” a teacher at the protest who declined to be identified said of the police.
MRTV said that crowds were being instigated through social media by illegal organisations and causing instability. It said 12 “riotous protesters” had been detained in Yangon.
After the use of force by security forces on the streets, people protested from their balconies after dark across Yangon, chanting “the revolution must succeed” and calls for Suu Kyi’s health.
The military justified the coup saying its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Suu Kyi’s party were ignored. The election commission said the vote was fair.
Junta leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has pledged to hold new elections and hand power to the winner but has given no time frame.
Suu Kyi, 75, appeared at a court hearing via video conferencing on Monday and looked in good health, one of her lawyers said. Two more charges were added to those filed against her after the coup, the lawyer said.
More than 1,100 people have been detained, according to activists, among them six journalists in Yangon, one of whom works for the Associated Press, which has called for his release.
(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Additional reporting by Tom Allard, Jospeh Sipalan; Writing by Martin Petty and Rob Birsel; Editing by Stephen Coates, Simon Cameron-Moore and Nick Macfie)