A popular poet and comedian, and a women’s rights campaigner who co-founded Myanmar’s independent Mizzima news channel are the latest in Myanmar to fall foul of the military junta.
The military, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, has recently targeted poets, comedians and celebrities in order to silence protest against its power grab following democratic elections last November in which Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won a landslide victory.
The miltary authorities recently published a list of 120 celebrities wanted for arrest, some of whom have since been detained.
Popular comedian, poet, actor and director Maung Thura, known commonly as Zarganar, was arrested and detained on 6 April without charge.
Zarganar spoke to Index in 2012, a year after his release from an earlier 59-year prison sentence imposed in 2008 by the former military dictatorship in the country.
In the article, he describes his time in prison and told Index: “Freedom of speech and freedom of expression is very important for our country, for openness and transparency.”
“Over the 40 years [of the last military regime], we were living in a dark room. People could not see us,” he said. “Free art, free thought, freedom. It is very important.”
Paing Takhon, a 24-year-old actor who had expressed support for the protests, has also been detained.
The detained are perhaps the lucky ones.
Poet K Za Win was killed on 3 March by Myanmar’s security forces during protests in Monywa. On the same day, footage of bodies being dragged through the street by army personnel surfaced online.
Meanwhile, Daw Thin Thin Aung, a journalist and women’s rights activist who co-founded the banned independent news channel Mizzima in 1998, has also been detained by the Tatmadaw military.
Mizzima lost its licence to broadcast in early March along with other broadcasters Khit Thit Media, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), 7 Day and Myanmar Now. Despite this, Mizzima has continued its coverage of the violent arrests, shootings and other actions taken by security forces against both citizens and journalists online.
Former Mizzima journalist U James Pu Thoure has also been detained by the authorities, continuing General Min Aung Hlaing’s attack on journalists reporting on protests in the country against the coup.
Mizzima editor-in-chief Soe Myint said in a statement: “Mizzima Media is deeply concerned to learn that Daw Thin Thin Aung and U James Pu Thoure, former members of Mizzima, have been detained without charges.”
Myint said that both Thin Thin Aung and Pu Thoure had formally left the organisation since the coup of 1 February 2021.
Thin Thin Aung had previously worked as a journalist for the BBC while in exile in India. As well as her journalism, she spent many years campaigning for women’s rights in Burma, also founding the Women’s League of Burma (WLB).
Of her detainment, the WLB said “We are extremely concerned about the life and safety of Thin Thin Aung. We urge the international community to press the military coup council for the immediate release of Thin Thin Aung and other detained activists.”
Concerns have also been raised over Thin Thin Aung’s health, particularly as prison conditions in the country are notoriously poor. Mizzimia’s Soe Myint said she had been unwell for some time and had withdrawn from active working life prior to leaving Mizzima.
Since the coup, many journalists have been arrested and charged under Section 505(a) of the country’s penal code which makes it a crime to publish any “statement, rumour or report”, “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, any officer, soldier, sailor or airman, in the Army, Navy or Air Force to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in his duty”, essentially making criticism of the military government impossible.
According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as of 9 April, 40 journalists had been arrested of which 31 have been detained and sentenced. It said that seven other journalists facing arrest warrants remain in hiding.
The AAPP says that the total number of people killed in Myanmar since the coup is 614. In the same period, more than 2,850 people have been arrested or detained without charge.