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At least 18 dead after bloodiest day of protests since Myanmar military coup

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One month after the Myanmar military ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the country is seeing its deadliest day of anti-coup protests after at least 18 people died in clashes with security forces. Ryan Heath, Politico's senior editor and author of Global Translations newsletter, joins CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss the latest in the military's crackdown against anti-coup protesters and the impact on geopolitics.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: The US State Department and the United Nations are condemning the rise in violence in Myanmar. Riot police shot and killed at least 18 demonstrators Sunday in the deadliest day yet of the military coup. According to the UN, soldiers and police fired live ammunition into crowds in several cities. They wounded dozens of people. Anti-coup protests began four weeks ago when the military seized control of the government and arrested a civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

For more, let's bring in Ryan Heath. He is a senior editor and author of the "Global Translations" newsletter for Politico. Ryan, good to have you. So what sparked this new rise in violence in Myanmar?

RYAN HEATH: Well, it's very hard to know exactly what motivates the military in Myanmar. They have a very long-standing reputation for unpredictability. So what we know more than their motivation is the fact that the violence seems to be fairly indiscriminate at this point. And it's also very difficult to verify facts on the ground because of the fact that the internet has been so frequently shut off. And so there's a bit of a tug of war going on as well between providers like Facebook, who have banned the military and military-associated accounts, and the military that have responded in kind by shutting off communications.

So it does appear that nearly anyone who goes onto the street is at risk at this point. You've already referenced the number of people that have been killed. And it's very hard to know what happens next. Because we're not anywhere close to UN sanctions. And we are stuck in the stalemate now where the military appears to have control and no one else is willing to go and respond in kind with force to remove them.

LANA ZAK: And Ryan, as you mentioned, given that the internet has been shut down in Myanmar for the last two weeks, could the death toll actually be higher than what we know?

RYAN HEATH: Yes, it's hard to overstate how much local people in Myanmar rely on Facebook, for example. Many of them will actually say that Facebook is the internet. So we are often operating in a dark zone when it comes to know exactly the extent of the violence.

LANA ZAK: And Ryan, you mentioned sanctions earlier. The Biden administration imposed sanctions against the military earlier this month. But since then, the military leadership has been responding with even more aggression. So what should the international community and the United States be doing now?

RYAN HEATH: Well, the next steps could include expanding the range of officials who are subject to targeted sanctions. So the situation now is that individual countries, including the US, have applied sanctions to a few of the top officials. But it's by no means a broad network. And we haven't got to the point where the UN Security Council has been able to come together with a united view on something like sanctions. They've expressed concern about violence.

That was considered a win when they came to that agreement a couple of weeks back. And the US will have the opportunity to push for further action on Monday. The US takes over the presidency of the Security Council. So the new ambassador for the US, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, this will be a test of when she's able to achieve in the body in coming days.

But I'm not hopeful. I've spoken to ambassadors on the Security Council in the last couple of hours. They say a debate is likely to happen. But there hasn't been any fundamental shift in what the group is willing to do by consensus.

LANA ZAK: I want to dig deeper into that. Because, obviously, geopolitics is at play here. Talk to us about China, Russia, US interests, and the other interests of Security Council members and how that's all factoring into the international response.

RYAN HEATH: Absolutely, the reason why it was a bit of a surprise that the Security Council came out with any strongly-worded statement at all earlier in the month was because there are so many divergent interests here. But they're a little bit surprising. So you might expect China and the US to be on opposite sides of this dispute or responding to the coup. And, actually, the Chinese government is skeptical of the military in Myanmar because they're quite unpredictable, they put themselves first-- so they're not supplicants to the Chinese military, who had a reasonably good relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Now that explains partially as well why Westerners, Western governments have become a bit skeptical of the democracy leader over the last few years. Russia is another flash point. The military used Russian arms, Russian equipment. So it's very unlikely that Russia is going to swing behind some kind of very serious point of sanctions. So that's likely to cause or continue the tensions that already exist in the US-Russia relationship.

The EU, of course, comes out with strongly-worded statements. But they don't have a military. So the words are as far as the EU can go. And the UK has been one of the real leaders in the Security Council. They've been very clear. So they're always at the head of the pack in terms of the language of condemnation that they use.

And a lot of players, including the Biden administration, think it will be critical for Myanmar's neighbors to take a strong stance here. So the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is not fully democratic itself, will have to be united in condemning what is going on. And Indonesia has led that response. They have expressed strong concern.

But we're just in that zone now where it's a stalemate where there's obviously a lot of concern and not many people are willing to take it that step further. No one's talking those coordinated sanctions. No one's talking military intervention in response. So we may be headed for a situation where the military retains control and Myanmar heads towards being a pariah state again, which it has been for most of the last few decades.

LANA ZAK: Right, right, and also a state under military rule with the ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Now since we're discussing her right now, there's reportedly a court hearing for her scheduled for Monday. Ryan, tell us what this is about.

RYAN HEATH: You've actually caught me out. So you're ahead of me on that one, I'm afraid. What we can expect is that that is not going to be a fair and free process. So that's more going to be a show trial, if I understand the court system there well. But I don't actually know the details of that charge sheet and that appearance, I'm afraid. What we can expect is really that there's going to be difficulty for the protesters to move forward here.

Because we have the democracy activists and the National League for Democracy-- so Aung San Suu Kyi's party-- obviously very clearly all united and opposed to the coup. But there's a lot of the ethnically-based political organizations have tried to stay on the sidelines for now. They haven't been very vocal. And unless you get all of those forces opposing the military, it's going to be very hard to loosen the military's grip at this point.

LANA ZAK: And out of all fairness to you, Ryan, it is difficult to get information about the process and all of this with the military coup still ongoing. So don't be too hard on yourself on that. But indeed-- but indeed, it is she is facing very serious allegations that so far include questions about the last election, which international observers have said was conducted fairly and-- and it continues to be something, though, that the people of Myanmar are reacting very, very violent-- not violently, but that they are-- they're reacting certainly very passionately against the military coup.

RYAN HEATH: Yes, and that's an important piece of context that the elections were very clearly won by the National League for Democracy. They were due to assume their new positions in parliament and government the day the coup took place. So to try and turn that back against Aung San Suu Kyi, that frankly does have echoes of some of those disputes we saw after the US election. And there's not a lot of evidence that there were actually problems with that election. So be very skeptical of what you hear in that court tomorrow would be my advice.

LANA ZAK: All right, Ryan Heath, thank you.

RYAN HEATH: Thank you.