A shadow government of ousted Myanmar lawmakers said Wednesday it has set up a "people's defence force" to protect civilians, as the police and military deploy deadly arms against anti-coup protesters.
The country has been in turmoil since the military deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, triggering a mass uprising of daily protests and a nationwide boycott from civil servants.
So far, nearly 770 people have been killed in deadly crackdowns, according to a local monitoring group — though the junta has a far lower death toll which it blames on “rioters”.
A group of ousted lawmakers who call themselves the “National Unity Government” (NUG) and are working underground to oppose the junta announced their own “people’s defence force” to “stop the use of violence against people”.
It is intended as a precursor to a “Federal Union Army”, the NUG said in a statement — referring to a long-touted idea of bringing anti-coup dissidents together with Myanmar’s ethnic rebel fighters into an army.
Some in the anti-coup movement have called for unity among Myanmar’s myriad rebel armed groups to defeat the military’s well-trained soldiers.
A few of the groups have condemned the military coup and the use of violence against unarmed civilians. Some are also providing shelter and even training to dissidents who flee into their territories.
But the more than 20 groups — made up of disparate ethnic minorities agitating for more autonomy — have long distrusted the ethnic Bamar majority, including lawmakers affiliated with Suu Kyi’s government.
An official of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) — which has said it is sheltering anti-coup dissidents — expressed scepticism at the NUG announcement.
“As far as I know, it is the people themselves who walk into the jungle and receive the training from the (ethnic armed organisations)… it is not decided by the NUG,” said KNPP vice-chair Khu Oo Reh.
He added that while the NUG has spoken with many rebel groups about a militia made up of civilians, “I have no idea what their intentions are.”
Another group along Myanmar’s eastern border, which declined to be named, said the statement was “confusing”.
Before the NUG’s announcement Wednesday, some communities across Myanmar — especially in townships that have seen a high death toll at the hands of police — have announced local “defence forces” for their areas.
State media reported Tuesday night that five protesters — including a former MP with Suu Kyi’s party — were killed when they tried to plant a bomb in the southern region of Bago.
Bombs have exploded sporadically across the country in recent weeks, especially in Yangon. Authorities have blamed some of the blasts on “instigators”.