Protests have continued in Myanmar, nearly four months after the Myanmar military seized power in a coup on 1st February 2021 and arrested the civilian leaders of the national and state governments. According to the latest data from human rights group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as of 31st May 2021, 840 individuals have been confirmed killed by the military and a total of 4,424 people are currently in detention.
According to the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (Altsean-Burma), there has been increased fighting between the junta and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) with expanded airstrikes on Kachin and Karen states, and continued shelling of villages in Chin, Kachin, Karen, Shan, and Sagaing States/Regions. During May 2021 alone, security forces killed at least 125 civilians and displaced over 150,000.
On 21st May 2021, the United Nations in Myanmar reported ongoing violence in the town of Mindat in Chin State in western Myanmar, following reports of indiscriminate attacks by the security forces against civilians and resulting population displacement and civilian casualties. Local sources indicated that close to 4,000 people have been internally displaced since the hostilities escalated on 12th May, with an unconfirmed number, believed to be in the thousands, hiding in nearby forests and mountains in search of safety and protection. There are reports of houses and other civilian property damaged, destroyed or occupied by security forces.
The Karen Peace Support Network (KPSN) reported on 25th May that airstrikes by the junta in Karen State’s Mutraw district have killed dozens, with thousands displaced. On 26th May, The Irrawaddy reported that some 70,000 residents from around 150 villages in Demoso, Loikaw and Shan State’s Pekon Township have been displaced in the five days of fighting.
On 26th May, it was reported that at least 73 children were killed by the junta across Myanmar from 15th February to 15th May, according to the Ministry of Human Rights of the National Unity Government (NUG). Several children were shot while playing near or inside their homes as soldiers and police raided residential areas while shooting at random. Others died during protests.
In May 2021, The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) released the final comprehensive report of its international election observation mission to the 2020 Myanmar General Elections. The organisation said that while “the 2020 Myanmar polls encountered several challenges including restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the outcome of the elections was deemed to reflect the true will of the electorate”.
On 17th May 2021 the US administration announced more sanctions against key figures in the military regime as well as some family members of previously designated officials. The sanctions were announced in coordination with Canada and the UK.
However, there has been a lack of progress by ASEAN to implement the consensus agreement decided in Jakarta on 24th April 2021. Instead, according to reports, nine out of the 10 members of ASEAN want a draft UN resolution to drop a call for an embargo on arms supplies to the Myanmar military.
Over the last month, there have been reports of torture or other ill-treatment of political prisoners by the military junta as well as activists being attacked and killed. Activists also continue to face trumped up charges by the junta such as treason and restricted access to lawyers. Journalists continue to be targeted for their reporting while the junta is seeking to further limit the internet.
Hundreds of political prisoners held in notorious Insein prison
Since the coup, hundreds of political prisoners have been held in Insein Prison, one of Myanmar’s most notorious jails with a history of inhumane conditions and treatment.
The prison is on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and currently holds about 13,000 inmates, more than double its 5,000-person capacity. Built by British colonisers to help subjugate the population, the prison became infamous for its harsh conditions and the torture of prisoners during a half-century of military dictatorship.
VOA reported in May 2021 that some have been tortured during interrogation at the hands of authorities, according to released prisoners. Japanese journalist Yuki Kitazumi recently spent over a month at Insein after being arrested by the junta. He spent his time in an isolated cell. More than 100 other prisoners, however, were crammed into a single room where it was difficult to move.
Kitazumi said that most of the political prisoners were tortured in the military compound where fellow inmates suffered abuse while blindfolded throughout intake interrogations. He said, “One man was asked to choose: knife or a gun? He chooses a gun. And then the interrogator points to his head very close and makes the interrogation.”
Kitazumi also said prisoners were forced to eat from the concrete floor with hands cuffed behind their backs. “Sometimes [they were] hit by a stick when they denied a question,” he said. “They continued for a very long time — for two days or three days.”
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), at least 4,000 pro-democracy activists remain detained following the coup. Ko Bo Kyi, an AAPP founder, told VOA that at least 400 political prisoners were being held at Insein, which he described as overcrowded, holding at least 10,000 inmates. One goal of the penal system is to break the spirit of the inmates, said Bo Kyi. Some ex-prisoners have suffered lifelong trauma as a result.
Pro-democracy activist tortured and killed in custody
On 25th May 2021, it was reported that a veteran pro-democracy activist had died while in military custody in Bago Region. The 53-year-old Ko Soe Moe Hlaing, also known as Ko Mae Gyi, was arrested in Zaung Tu village in Bago Region along with a few other villagers after a regime informant told troops about their whereabouts.
A friend said they were told by witnesses that Ko Mae Gyi was violently beaten over the head with rifle butts at the time of his arrest. His wife was informed by telephone that he was dead. His friends believed that the activist was tortured to death for his strong political beliefs against the military regime. The family was only allowed to see Ko Mae Gyi’s face after his body was placed inside a coffin at Mingaladon military hospital in Yangon before his funeral.
Ko Soe Moe Hlaing had devoted his life to the country’s struggle for democracy since 1988.He was also involved in the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) which was the first students’ army formed to oppose the then-regime in 1988. Due to his political activism during and after 1988, he was jailed for 13 years after being arrested for taking part in a student movement demanding the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi under the previous military regime.
Junta jails mother for activism of sons
On 28th May 2021 it was reported that a military court had jailed Daw Mi Nge, the 64-year-old mother of alleged activists in Yangon, for three years for incitement under Article 505(a) of the Penal Code. She was allegedly beaten and detained when junta forces unsuccessfully searched her home in Yangon’s North Okkalapa Township for her activist sons, Ko Tin Htut Paing and his brother, and detained her instead. After her arrest, her family hired a lawyer, Daw Tin Zar Oo, to represent her, but she was only able to inquire about where she was being held.
Poet and anti-coup activist dies after being set on fire
According to The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, on 14th May 2021, poet Sein Win was collecting donations in a noodle factory in Monywa for those displaced by violence, when a man in civilian clothes poured gasoline on him and set him on fire. Despite being promptly taken to the Monywa General Hospital, Sein Win died of his injuries on the same day. The assailant was identified as Aung Ko. There has been no report of his arrest.
As a prominent pro-democracy figure and long-time supporter of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Sein Win had actively taken part in the pro-democracy protests since the 1st February military coup, especially through charitable work among local communities.
Ayeyarwady region activists and lawmakers hit with treason charges
Myanmar Now reported on 20th May that nearly 50 people in Ayeyarwady Region initially charged with violating Section 505a of the Penal Code for incitement were hit with additional charges of treason. The new charges—violating Sections 122 and 124a of the Penal Code—carry the death penalty or life in prison. Those charged include 31 activists and 17 current and formerly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) parliamentarians.
After seizing power, the military amended Section 505a of the Penal Code, increasing the prison sentence for those convicted from two to three years. Section 124a was also amended by the coup regime. It carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years for inciting “disaffection towards the Government […] or the Defence Services.” Conviction of high treason under Section 122 is accompanied by the death penalty or 20 years’ imprisonment.
Detained protest leader meets with lawyer for the first time since arrest
Prominent anti-coup protest leader Wai Moe Naing met with his lawyers for the first time on 27th May 2021, more than a month after his arrest, according to his mother. The meeting took place during a court hearing in Monywa Prison, where he is currently being held.
The protest leader from Monywa in Sagaing Region faces a total of 10 criminal charges, including treason, murder, incitement, unlawful association, wrongful confinement and armed robbery. His mother said that the hearing was specifically related to the charges of incitement under Section 505a of the Penal Code, adding that he had already appeared before the same prison court to face other charges.
Wai Moe Naing rose to prominence for his role in organising daily anti-coup protests in Monywa, which sits on the eastern bank of the Chindwin River. As previously documented, Ko Wai Moe Naing, was beaten and dragged away by junta forces after his motorcycle was rammed on 15th April 2021. Fears had grown for his safety and health after a photo apparently showing him to have been badly tortured went viral the day after his arrest.
More than 125,000 teachers suspended for opposing coup
On 23rd May 2021, it was reported that more than 125,000 school teachers had been suspended by the military junta for joining a civil disobedience movement to oppose the military coup. The suspensions have come days before the start of a new school year, which some teachers and parents are boycotting as part of the campaign that has paralysed the country since the coup.
A total of 125,900 schoolteachers had been suspended as of 22nd May, said an official of the teachers’ federation, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals. Around 19,500 university staff have also been suspended, according to the teachers’ group.
A National Unity Government, set up underground by opponents of the junta, said it would do all it could to support the teachers and students – calling on foreign donors to stop funding the junta-controlled education ministry.
Journalists targeted following coup
On 12th May 2021, a military court convicted Democratic Voice of Burma reporter Min Nyo on charges of criminal mutiny and sentenced him to three years in prison. He was convicted under Article 505(a) of the Penal Code, a broad criminal provision that penalises the dissemination of information that could agitate or cause security forces or state officials to mutiny. The court ordered him to be held at Pyay Prison.
On 24th May 2021, American citizen Danny Fenster became the third foreign journalist arrested and detained since the coup. He was arrested by authorities at Yangon’s Mingalardon Airport while waiting to board a flight to Malaysia. He was reportedly taken to Insein Prison and, as of 31st May, no charges had been brought against him.
According to Amnesty International, as of 21st May 2021, 88 journalists have been arrested since the coup. More than half remain in detention, and 33 are in hiding. Two have been released on bail. Dozens have fled the country or have sought refuge in territory controlled by Ethnic Armed Organisations. Two journalists have sustained gunshot wounds while covering protests.
Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Research, said: “Journalists are at the frontline of the struggle to expose the truth on what is happening in Myanmar today. The brazen violence, intimidation and harassment the military authorities are levelling at them only illustrates how powerful exposing the truth can be. Individual journalists can be threatened, arrested, or even meet a worse fate, but Myanmar’s free media as a whole can never be silenced.”
Junta seeking to further limit the internet
Activists have used social media platforms – particularly Facebook – highly effectively to organise protests, galvanise the public and document abuses, while the military has been banned from Facebook altogether, limiting its outreach abilities.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) published on 18th May 2021, Myanmar’s military rulers are seeking to limit access to the internet to an internal network of only “whitelisted” sites to quash opposition to their seizure of power,
The report likened the internet to a “virtual battlefield” where the military is struggling to gain an edge because it lacks technological capacity. ICG argued that the intranet plan reflects the junta’s lack of preparedness for the protests that followed the coup, and its lack of technological sophistication. The International Crisis Group’s report urged companies and governments to ensure they are not abetting the military’s efforts to control the internet and suppress opposition.
As previously documented, following the coup internet shutdowns were imposed designed to interfere with protest organising and to prevent Myanmar citizens, journalists and human rights activists from easily broadcasting what is happening on the ground to the rest of the world.