World News

Myanmar crackdown death toll seen at least 20

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Twenty people are known to have been killed in a crackdown by Myanmar’s military junta on September’s pro-democracy protests, but the real toll is likely to be far higher, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Friday.

In the fullest account to date of the suppression of the largest uprising since 1988, the New York-based rights group described soldiers firing live ammunition into crowds of fleeing civilians and beating those arrested.

It documented 20 deaths of students, civilians and Buddhist monks in Yangon but said that many more were likely to have died in the former Burma’s main city and nationwide.

The group, which interviewed more than 100 witnesses for the report, said it had not been able to obtain any information from cities outside Yangon because of the regime’s refusal to admit human rights workers or independent journalists.

“In addition to monks, many students and other civilians were killed, although without full and independent access to the country it is impossible to determine the exact casualty figures,” the report said.

Official media have admitted that 10 people died in the crackdown, including a Japanese video journalist shot dead at point blank range when soldiers were sent in to clear one Yangon street.

However, United Nations human rights envoy Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, who visited Myanmar last month, said the military had admitted to him the death toll was at least 15.

Pinheiro is due to publish a report on his mission next week, and has said he will release a nationwide casualty estimate.

Western governments say the toll is likely to be much higher than anything officially acknowledged by a military regime that has been in charge for the last 45 years and which appears to thrive on international isolation and notoriety.

In 1988, as many as 3,000 people are thought to have been killed when, over several months, the junta crushed a nationwide pro-democracy uprising led by students.

The carnage led to the downfall of then junta supremo Ne Win and a general election in 1990. The military suffered a crushing defeat at the polls, but ignored the result and kept opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

This time, international anger at the crackdown has been fierce and widespread, and has pushed the junta into agreeing to talks about talks on political reform with Suu Kyi, who has been in detention for 12 of the last 18 years.

The junta also says it has released all but 80 of the 2,927 people rounded up during the protests, which started in mid-August with small, isolated demonstrations against a shock increase of fuel prices.

Diplomats and rights groups do not believe those numbers, or the vague commitments about democratic reform.

“The crackdown is far from over,” Human Rights Watch said. “Harsh repression continues and the government is still lying about the extent of the deaths and detentions.”

Reporting by Ed Cropley; Editing by Michael Battye