Two years on: The dwindling freedoms following Myanmar’s military coup
On the second anniversary of the coup, democracy in the country is slipping further away. A Burmese-led organisation and an exiled journalist describe the landscape
31 Jan 23

This year’s planned elections in Myanmar were always going to be controversial. Then, last week, the military junta that runs the country announced new laws which will create yet more hurdles for democracy. Political parties must re-register within 60 days and sign up at least 100,000 members. Those that the military-controlled government deems to be connected with terrorist groups or to be unlawful will not be allowed to form.

Two years on from the 2021 military coup, Burmese journalist Wai Moe remembers seeing military fighters in the city of Yangon.

“Many of my friends, they did not believe there would be a coup, but I already believed this,” he told Index.

On the morning of 1 February 2021, the phone rang. A friend told Moe that the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had been arrested. That night, he remembers the military announcement that due to the emergency situation, power was being given to the commander-in-chief, General Min Aung Hlaing.

“I learnt about the coup… I was very afraid,” Moe said. “I thought, ‘They’re going to arrest me.’”

He wasn’t arrested that day, but when in April he was offered the opportunity to flee the country on a chartered plane, he took it.

Moe is now in exile from Myanmar for the second time in his life. The first occasion came after his release from a five-year-stint as a political prisoner in the mid-1990s. He said he had been part of an underground organisation that secretly studied politics and history.

He still speaks to people in Myanmar, some of whom he describes as going back to normal life after the recent lifting of the curfew. They visit bars and nightclubs. “Day by day, they are in control,” he said of the military, believing the curfew lift to be a sign of this.

The changing face of the protest movement

 “When the coup occurred, what initially came out of that was a large-scale protest resistance,” Dan Anlezark, the deputy head of investigations at Myanmar Witness, told Index. This Burmese-led organisation formed in March 2021 in response to events that unfolded following the coup. The group identifies and verifies potential human rights abuses to promote accountability in Myanmar, often using videos and testimonies posted on Facebook and other digital platforms.

Following the protests came violent crackdowns.

Student Thu Thu Zin marched at the front of a small anti-coup protest in Mandalay on 27 July 2021, taking one end of the red Mya Taung Strike Front flag and chanting. According to the evidence verified by Myanmar Witness, the 25-year-old was shot and killed. There was nothing to suggest Zin or the protesters had been violent. Zin’s body was removed, sand used to conceal the blood and her body placed into the back of a truck and taken away. Her family found out about her death when they saw photos of her body on social media. The report concludes that the shooting can, with reasonable certainty, be attributed to the military.

“She became quite symbolic of the protest movement at the start, of that resistance and how forcefully it was met,” Anlezark said.

Since that time, the landscape has changed.

“Once the protesters saw exactly how much force they were being met with, those protests died down. If you’re being met with a gun, and you know that they’re willing to use it, it’s not the most effective means of resistance,” he said. Any protests that are still happening tend to be smaller and reactions to specific events.

 Now there is an armed struggle for democracy, as a network of civilian groups, named the People’s Defence Force, clashes with the military. Meanwhile, military junta vehicle convoys are intentionally burning down villages at an alarming rate, according to evidence seen by Myanmar Witness.

Putting the horror of this situation into context, Anlezark explained that they have been examining evidence of burned bodies, found shackled.

“The why is always hard to answer,” he said. “It does look to be that the villages have a link to say PDF [People’s Defence Force] operations or there’s a PDF base nearby, or it’s seen in the eyes of the SAC [State Administration Council] as a means of potential intimidation. Or just to scare the living daylights out of people.”

Erin Michalak has a background in forensic science and now works largely with the arms team at Myanmar Witness. She explained that an increase in unguided airstrikes comes hand-in-hand with the SAC having more aircrafts available to them. Air assets have been transferred from countries including Russia. For some areas in Myanmar, access through ground troops has proven difficult, but airstrikes have made these places potential targets.

“Commentary that I see and that I hear is that the air strikes are almost a symptom of the SAC knowing that they’re not winning or that they’re not progressing how they would like in a ground war,” Anlezark said.

 The vanishing Myanmar media

 “On 8 March, they banned all the private publications,” Moe told Index, explaining that any continuing news outlets became state controlled. After five publications initially had their licences revoked, the rest fell victim shortly after.

Some citizens turned to foreign radio, like the BBC and Radio Free Asia, and accessed international news through VPNs, Moe explained. Facebook was banned in the early days of the coup, but it is still used extensively to share information, as is the messaging app Telegram.

 “If they [media] were pro-democracy or anti-regime, it was shut down or there was a sense that there was going to be something negative that occurred,” Michalak said. “And there are reports and claims of journalists being detained and imprisoned within Myanmar — these are harder to verify.”

In addition, she described evidence of some prisons acting without proper court systems and performing their own sentencing.

“It’s really hard to get an understanding of what’s truly going on here,” she said. “But there is evidence that there has been a negative effect on journalism and freedom of speech within the country.”

In January this year, the military junta released hundreds of political prisoners in celebration of Myanmar’s 75th anniversary of independence. While welcome news to those released, thousands remain behind bars, including former leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who will likely spend the rest of her life in prison and Htien Lin, an artist and Index contributor who was arrested last August.

“It did appear to be very political, with international viewership noticing that they were releasing these prisoners,” Michalak said.

She described how most of the sentences were connected to freedom of speech and expressing disagreement with the regime. Holding high-profile figures for longer would have been difficult for the military, she said.

Myanmar’s military administration has claimed it will run a general election in August 2023, coinciding with the end of the state of emergency.

“We will be very closely monitoring that to identify voter coercion, disenfranchisement, fraud and violence, which is almost certainly going to occur against protesters and people trying to cast a democratic vote,” Anlezark said.

Moe does not see how any proposed elections could be free and fair.

“There is no space for media, no space for press freedom,” he said. “They are only looking for legitimacy.”

In the run up, the military is conducting a nationwide census, and the reasons for it are unclear. The information in the hands of the junta, Anlezark said, could become a targeting list. It might show who is still in the country, who should be and who might have disappeared to join the network of armed civilian groups who have training camps in the jungle. Daily allegations on Facebook claim that census officials are going from town to town and checking their lists. Myanmar Witness is monitoring and collecting the information.

 As to the future of the country, from which he is again exiled, Moe said: “We have to find a way out of the crisis.”

By Katie Dancey-Downs

Katie Dancey-Downs has travelled the world to tell stories about people and the planet. She’s passionate about human rights, the environment, and culture, and has a particular interest in refugee rights. Katie has written for a range of publications, including HuffPost, i News, New Internationalist, Resurgence Magazine, Reader’s Digest, and Big Issue, and is the former co-editor of the Lush Times magazine. She has a degree in Drama and Theatre Arts from the University of Birmingham and an MA in Journalism from Bournemouth University, where she focused her research on the ethical storytelling of refugee issues.