Anti-coup protesters rally on Myanmar New Year holiday

Yangon (AFP) –


Anti-coup protesters turned Myanmar's New Year festival of Thingyan into a rallying point Tuesday, painting pro-democracy messages on traditional clay pots and collecting flowers.

Myanmar is in chaos and its economy paralysed since the military seized power from civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1.

A junta crackdown against dissent has resulted in the civilian death toll reaching at least 710 as of late Monday including 50 children, according to a local monitoring group.

Many in the anti-coup protest movement have vowed to boycott water fight celebrations for the Thingyan festival, with some saying it would be disrespectful to have fun when so many have lost their lives and around 3,000 people are detained.

Last year's festivities were also called off because of pandemic restrictions.

Protesters in parts of Yangon, Monywa and Bago painted traditional Thingyan pots with pro-democracy messages Tuesday before placing them on streets with flowers inside.

"Fight for democracy," a sign sticking out of a line of pots said in one Yangon township.

Other pots said "Never give up".

"We are not having normal celebrations. Even though it is festival time right now, we cannot have fun. We will not be happy until this dictator is overthrown and we will revolt until then," a university student in Mandalay told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the danger of arrest.

Another protester named Ray in Yangon said the pots were a way to welcome the new year and "honour fallen heroes".

"There will be a whole itinerary of things to do in the coming five days to show that we are against this dictatorship happening in Myanmar and that we will keep fighting for democracy," he told AFP.

In Mandalay -- Myanmar's cultural hub -- people placed the pots and flowers on a golden stupa, with signs showing the three-fingered salute that has become a symbol of the resistance movement.

Young people in Mawlamyine, the fourth largest city, took to the streets early Tuesday while people marched with pots and flowers in the city of Dawei and small towns in Shan and Kachin states.

Meanwhile, security forces found and defused a bomb beneath the Myaynigone bridge in Yangon on Tuesday morning, a police source said.

- Hiding in the jungle -

Ethnic armed rebel groups have stepped up attacks on the military and police in recent weeks, raising fears of Myanmar spiralling into broader civil conflict.

The military has retaliated with air strikes which the Free Burma Rangers, a Christian aid group working in the area, said had displaced more than 24,000 civilians in Karen state by Saturday.

The Rangers, who run a health clinic in the state, said air strikes had killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 40.

The area is remote and communications are difficult, and AFP has not been able to independently verify the deaths.

The group said a 60-year-old man was killed and an 11 year-old girl wounded in mortar bomb attacks last week.

Villagers in some areas were unable to prepare their rice crops because of fears the military would shell them in their fields, the aid group said.

"They are afraid they will have no rice harvest next fall," Free Burma Rangers said in a statement.

In Yangon, authorities are hunting those responsible for an underground newsletter titled "Molotov" that is circulating both online and in printed form across the country.

The publication was started by a group of young activists to fight ongoing internet outages and information suppression.

"The Molotov journal is illegally published," the state Global New Light of Myanmar said, adding that legal action would be taken against those involved and anyone offering assistance to the publication.

Overnight, the junta announced a further 20 people were added to an arrest warrant list of 200 celebrities, including actors and singers, who are accused of spreading dissent against the military.

If convicted they could face three years' jail.