Two years on: The dwindling freedoms following Myanmar’s military coup

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.”

Index condemns the conviction of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi

Index on Censorship condemns the sentencing to four years in prison of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi and calls for all charges to be dropped. She was convincted of incitement and also of breaking Covid regulations during the campaign for the election last year.

It is the first of eleven charges she faces which, if convicted on all counts, could mean she spends the rest of her life behind bars. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since a military coup in the country in February 2021.

UK foreign secretary Liz Truss has expressed her concerns that “the arbitrary detention of elected politicians only risks further unrest”.

While Suu Kyi has attracted criticism for her silence over the Rohingya genocide she remains a respected political figure who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights in the country. Before her current house arrest, Suu Kyi was state counsellor of Myanmar, similar to the role of prime minister in the UK, and also as minister of foreign affairs, roles she took on in 2016.

Suu Kyi has also been a frequent contributor to Index on Censorship over the years, including in March 1996, just after her release from a previous period of house arrest.

At the time, she wrote: “The regaining of my freedom has in turn imposed a duty on me to work for the freedom of other women and men in my country who have suffered far more – and who continue to suffer far more – than I have.”

In an article in 2012, she wrote about taking responsibility for the words we say.

“Can freedom of speech be abused? Since historical times it has been recognised that words can hurt as well as heal, that we have a responsibility to use our verbal skills in the right way”, she wrote.

Myanmar: Poets, celebrities and journalists detained by military

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116543″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]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.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”38″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Journalists held in Insein prison, Myanmar’s “darkest hell-hole”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116336″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]The new military junta in Myanmar is continuing to assault and jail journalists as it progresses with its bloody coup.

At least 26 journalists have been arrested since Min Aung Hlaing seized power on 1 February and at least ten have been charged under section 505(a) of Myanmar’s penal code.

Two of the journalists, MCN TV News reporter Tin Mar Swe and The Voice’s Khin May San, have been granted bail but the remaining eight are still detained in the notorious military-run Insein prison in Yangon, known as “the darkest hell-hole” in the country and a byword for torture, abuse and inhumane conditions for inmates.

Section 505(a) 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.

Reporters are particularly vulnerable during protests. Myo Min Htike, former secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Association, recently told Index that journalists are being targeted across the country, particularly if they have covered protests against the coup and many have fled in fear for their lives and liberty.

Credible reports from the country show the dangers facing reporters covering the protests. Shin Moe Myint, a 23-year-old freelance photo journalist was severely beaten and arrested by policemen while she covered a protest in Yangon on 28 February.

Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) journalist Ko Aung Kyaw live-streamed a violent arrest in which, according to reports by The Irrawaddy, he had stones thrown through his window and police officers firing threateningly into the air when asked if they had obtained a warrant to enter his premises.

Aung Kyaw could “be heard shouting that a stone injured his head and appealing to neighbours for help before the security forces broke into his house and arrested him”.

Thein Zaw, covering the protests for Associated Press, has been charged with violating public law while Ma Kay Zon Nway of Myanmar Now and Aung Ye Ko of 7 Days News have also been arrested.

Others still detained include the journalists Hein Pyae Zaw, Ye Myo Khant, Ye Yint Tun, Chun Journal chief editor Kyaw Nay Min and Salai David of Chinland Post.

Sit Htet Aung of the Myanmar Times, who took the picture above, was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape a beating and detention.

Use of section 505(a) shows an automatic crackdown on criticism of the military regime and since the coup, the junta has implemented a number of problematic legislation changes which could easily be used against journalists in the country.

According to Amnesty International: “Courts routinely convict individuals under this section without evidence establishing the requisite intent or a likelihood that military personnel would abandon their duty as a result of the expression.”

“In practice, the section has often been used to prosecute criticism of the military – expression protected by international human rights law.”

The law has since been amended, meaning anyone charged under it can be arrested without a warrant and it is no longer a bailable offence, thus any future arrests – which are likely – will find journalists in Myanmar detained with little hope of an immediate reprieve.

The same amendments apply to 124(a) of the penal code, which previously made anti-government comments illegal.

Journalists also rely heavily on the internet to publish their stories, but amendments to the Electronic Transactions Law allow law enforcement to harvest the personal data of anyone deemed to be in breach of a cyber-crime, or – more broadly – those critical of the regime online.[/vc_column_text][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”38″][/vc_column][/vc_row]