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.”

Who is 2022’s Tyrant of the Year?

At the end of every year, Index on Censorship launches a campaign to focus attention on human rights defenders, dissidents, artists and journalists who have been in the news headlines because their freedom of expression has been suppressed during the past twelve months. As well as this we focus on the authoritarian leaders who have been silencing their opponents.

Last year, we asked for your help in identifying 2021’s Tyrant of the Year and you responded in your thousands. The 2021 winner, way ahead of a crowded field, was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, followed by China’s Xi Jinping and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad .

The polls are now open for the title of 2022 Tyrant of the Year and we are focusing on 12 leaders from around the globe who have done more during the past 12 months than other despots to win this dubious accolade.

Click on those in our rogues’ gallery below to find out why the Index on Censorship team believe each one should be named Tyrant of the Year and then click on the form at the bottom of those pages to cast your vote. The closing date is Monday 9 January 2023.





Tyrant of the year 2022: Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar

“As a child Aung San Suu Kyi was a celebrated heroine in my family home and Myanmar, an authoritarian regime determined to squash democracy.  For a few years there was hope, although not for the Rohinghya community (thanks to Min Aung Hlaing), until the military coup of 2021,” says Index on Censorship CEO Ruth Anderson.  

In February 2021 Min Aung Hlaing seized power – declaring himself commander-in-chief of Myanmar and consolidating all political power into the State Administration Council – a body which he also chairs. He has since sought to quash all dissent. Challenge is not tolerated, politicians have been arrested and imprisoned on spurious charges. Since the coup 2,530 civilians have been killed by the military, 13,000 people remain in detention and 128 political prisoners have been sentenced to death, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.  

In a series of court cases since the military coup, former leader Aung Sun Suu Kyi has now been sentenced to 26 years’ imprisonment. 

“These acts alone would warrant his crown as Tyrant of the Year but when you also consider his personal treatment of the Rohingya community then it’s difficult to see how anyone else qualifies for the title,” says Anderson. “Even before the coup Min Aung Hlaing was accused of acts of genocide against the Rohinghya minority – over one million Rohingya have been forced to flee Myanmar, and available data suggests that over 24,000 Rohingya have been systematically murdered by the state, over 18,000 women and girls raped and 36,000 thrown into fires. All by direct order of Min Aung Hlaing. The UN has declared that he should be tried for war crimes at the Hague. This man is a tyrant by every definition.”   

The military coup in Myanmar: the media under attack

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116235″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Journalists are facing increasingly difficult circumstances in reporting what is happening as Myanmar’s new regime attempts to tighten its grip on the power it took from a democratically elected government at the start of the month.

Myo Min Htike, former secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Association, has told Index that journalists are being targeted across the country, particularly if they have covered protests against the coup.

In Mandalay, two journalists were pursued by special branch after they had covered a pro-democracy demonstration, he said.

The editor of an online publication is on the run from military intelligence and has gone into hiding, although the association’s regional safety coordinator thinks his mobile is being tapped and fears for his safety.

Journalists from Myanmar Now, DVB and RFA are all being threatened with arrest if they are not in hiding, he added.

Some local media in Rakhine and Kachin state are closing down while others have asked some reporters to stay away from newsrooms.

One of the biggest concerns is that the internet will be shut down. In the Saging region, mobile internet has been cut off today and there are rumours of a wider shutdown in the next few days.

On 11 February, Frontier Myanmar told the story of a freelance reporter who had gone to take photos of soldiers stationed between the towns of Muse and Namhkam in northern Shan State.

“They chased after him, and hit him in the chest with the barrel of a gun,” said Sai Mun, an editor at the Shan Herald Agency for News.

“When he fell to the ground, they smashed the mobile phone he was taking photos with. They told him he couldn’t take photos, and said he could be killed if he did,” said Sai Mun.

On 9 February, Mizzima journalist Than Htike Aung was hit by rubber bullets fired by police. Mizzima TV is one of two TV news channels that has been ordered off the air.

Another journalist was set upon by a nationalist mob in support of the coup.

In response to the conditions journalists in Myanmar are being forced to work under, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released a statement saying the violence had “dire implications for freedom of expression”.

“The reports of violence and suppression of protests have dire implications for freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly,” they said. “The IFJ stands in full solidarity with our journalist and media colleagues as well as all citizens of Myanmar protesting the military imposition of power and calling for an immediate return to democracy.”

Freedom to protest and the freedom to report on those protests by journalists are often the first things to be restricted in the event of a military coup and this familiar pattern has been repeated since the Myanmar coup took place on 1 February.

It came after military leader Min Aung Hlaing alleged that the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in November was fraudulent, without providing evidence. On 9 February, NLD’s offices were raided by soldiers.

Written into Myanmar’s constitution is the right to assemble peacefully and – with protests against the coup continuing – the new administration has taken steps to prevent this from happening.

Under the state of emergency, the military regime has banned meetings of more than five people in one place, but Myanmar’s citizens have already begun to defy the ruling.

In response the military regime has used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas on protestors and there are reports of the use of live bullets in the capital of Naypyidaw.

It is against this backdrop that Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has targeted the media but the new leader and his allies hardly have a glowing record when it comes to dealing with media and journalists.

In 2019, journalist Swe Win was shot in what appeared to be a targeted attack. Not long before, he had published an article revealing the business interests of Min Hlaing which had apparently “infuriated the top”.

Last year, Khaing Mrat Kyaw, editor of Narinjara News, and Nay Myo Lin, the editor-in-chief of the Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, were charged with terrorism offences for carrying interviews with the insurgent Arakan Army. Kyaw Linn, a reporter with Myanmar Now, was attacked with rocks in May by unidentified assailants; he has frequently reported on the conflict between Myanmar’s military forces and the Arakan Army.

Looking forward, journalists are already fearful of existing legislation that may be used against them by the new regime, such as the Counter-Terrorism Law and also charges of defamation under the Telecommunications Law.

A proposed new Cyber Security Law demands all internet service providers to give up data stored on citizens at the government’s request.

Significantly, those deemed to be spreading “misinformation” online could face up to three years in jail, a clear violation of free speech.

The regime’s early days and the steps towards new and highly consequential legislation has journalists in the country uneasy.

Speaking to the Columbia Journalism Review, the shot journalist Swe Win said, “Even though I foresaw the coup, I did not foresee the brutal way it would be launched.”

“Within five hours of the coup, I ordered all my colleagues to leave their houses and stay somewhere with their families or their friends. Half of the team did not want to accept my idea because they were outraged, as equally as members of the public. “‘Why should we leave? We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.’”

Additional reporting by associate editor Mark Frary.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”5641″][/vc_column][/vc_row]