By MORGAN WINSOR and CONOR FINNEGAN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — The United States has ordered some American diplomats and their loved ones to evacuate Myanmar amid escalating violence two months after the military junta seized power.
The U.S. Department of State announced in a brief statement Tuesday that it would require non-essential U.S. government employees and their family members to depart the conflict-torn Southeast Asian nation. That means only a skeleton crew, including the U.S. ambassador, will stay behind in Yangon, the country’s commercial capital and largest city.
The order is an upgrade of the State Department’s previous instructions from Feb. 14 that had allowed those individuals to leave voluntarily.
The State Department also repeated an earlier warning for Americans not to travel to Myanmar, referring to the country as Burma, its former name under British colonial rule.
“The Burmese military has detained and deposed elected government officials,” the department said in the statement Tuesday. “Protests and demonstrations against military rule have occurred and are expected to continue.”
Although the U.S. embassy in Yangon will remain open to the public and continue to provide consular services, the State Department said it “has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens” in select Burmese townships with heightened civil unrest and armed violence “as U.S. government employees must obtain special authorization to travel to these locations.”
Myanmar plunged into turmoil after the country’s military ousted the civilian-led government on Feb. 1, detaining the de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and other members of her National League for Democracy party. Peaceful protests against the apparent coup have erupted nationwide, spreading from city to city, despite weeks of internet shutdowns, threats and mass arrests.
But the junta, which calls itself the State Administration Council, has become increasingly violent in its efforts to quell the opposition, with security forces at times firing live rounds into crowds of demonstrators. On Saturday, as the military celebrated the annual Armed Forces Day holiday with a parade in the capital, authorities elsewhere killed scores of protesters in what’s believed to be the deadliest bloodletting since the Feb. 1 coup.
“On Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day, security forces are murdering unarmed civilians, including children, the very people they swore to protect,” U.S. Ambassador Thomas Vajda said in a statement Saturday. “This bloodshed is horrifying. These are not the actions of a professional military or police force. Myanmar’s people have spoken clearly: They do not want to live under military rule. We call for an immediate end to the violence and the restoration of the democratically elected government.”
As of Tuesday, a total of 2,608 people were detained in Myanmar in relation to the Feb. 1 coup, and 521 others have been killed, though the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human rights organization based in Yangon.
A 26-year-old activist who is on the front lines of the anti-coup protest movement and spoke to ABC News on condition of anonymity said she lives in a neighborhood where demonstrations take place every day. She said it’s safer nowadays to live in an area with protests because the military is raiding homes and shops with impunity in quieter areas and abusing residents.
Every few days, someone is shot in the arm or leg, she said. One of her fellow protesters recently was shot dead and their group had to fight to get the body back from authorities, who tried to remove it, she added.
Fleeing from gunfire every day once frightened her, but now she’s used to it, she said, and she knows that if they don’t protest the junta will win.
Since Saturday night, the military has also been conducting daily airstrikes in Myanmar’s southeastern Karen state, where an ethnic minority armed force is fighting for greater autonomy for the Karen minority. The Karen National Union, the leading political body representing the Karen people, said in a statement that many civilians, including children, have been injured or killed in the bombings and that its armed wing may have to respond. The attacks have forced thousands of Karen to go into hiding or flee into neighboring Thailand, according to Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian relief agency that provides medical assistance in the region.
The Karen National Union, which has battled government forces for more than 70 years, signed a ceasefire agreement with the central government in 2015 but tensions have surged since the Feb. 1 coup. The airstrikes are the most significant attacks the region has seen in years.
Meanwhile, the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization, another ethnic rebel group that has long fought for self-determination against the central government, has reportedly staged a series of attacks on government forces in northern Myanmar since the Feb. 1 coup, signalling the deepening role of ethnic minority armed groups in support of the anti-coup movement.
The military previously ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years before appearing to slowly transition to democratic rule a decade ago, holding its first general elections in years in 2015 — a landslide victory for the NLD. Suu Kyi had spent 15 years under house arrest while leading the struggle for democracy against the Burmese junta and was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her “nonviolent” efforts.
Suu Kyi is understood to have had a tentative shared power agreement with the military since she was named state counsellor in 2016, offering the government a veneer of democratic legitimacy as they embarked on a decade of reforms. The role of state counsellor, akin to a prime minister or a head of government, was created because Myanmar’s 2008 constitution barred Suu Kyi from becoming president because her late husband and children are foreign citizens.
The Nov. 8 general election was meant to be a referendum on Suu Kyi’s popular civilian government but her party expanded their seats in Parliament, securing a clear majority and threatening the military’s tight hold on power. The constitution guarantees the military 25% of seats in Parliament and control of several key ministries.
Suu Kyi’s newly elected government was supposed to convene for the first time on Feb. 1 but power was instead handed over to Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, who’s already under U.S. sanctions for his role in the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority. An order signed by the acting president granted full authority to Hlaing to run the country and declared a state of emergency that will last for at least one year, citing widespread voter fraud in the November election.
Hlaing’s office said in a statement that the military would hold a “free and fair general election” after the state of emergency ends. Voter rolls will be checked and the nation’s election commission, which last week rejected the military’s allegations of voter fraud, will be “re-established,” according to the statement.
Suu Kyi is still revered in Myanmar despite losing some of her international luster for her refusal to condemn the human rights abuses against the Rohingyas. She is believed to be under house arrest at her residence in the capital, Naypyidaw, and faces a slew of charges, including illegally importing walkie-talkie radios and inciting public unrest.
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