Arrests of Activists, Journalists Continue in Myanmar as Military Tribunals Impose Harsh Sentences

May 10th, 2022  •  Author:   CIVICUS Monitor  •  17 minute read
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Gates outside of the Insein Prison in Yangon, April 2022

15 months after the military coup, serious human rights violations by the military junta continued to be documented in the country, which is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), as of 5th May 2021, 1,821 individuals have been killed by the junta since the coup, while a total of 10,535 individuals are currently under detention. At least 912,700 people have been displaced due to armed clashes and attacks, while the junta continued to block humanitarian aid.

Nicholas Koumjian, the head of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, said in February 2022 that the mechanism is working to substantiate cases of over a thousand individuals who have been killed in circumstances that may qualify as crimes against humanity or war crimes. He also stated that there were credible allegations of arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence and even killings while in detention.

On 21st February 2022, The European Council adopted a fourth round of sanctions targeting 22 individuals and 4 entities, while on 10th March, the European Parliament (EP) adopted an urgency resolution on the situation in Myanmar. The EP condemned the military junta’s violent and illegitimate rule and called for the immediate and unconditional release of all political leaders, civil society activists and all those detained or imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a new report dated 15th March 2022 to the UN Human Rights Council that the international community must take concerted, immediate measures to stem the spiral of violence in Myanmar, where the military has engaged in systematic and widespread human rights violations and abuses – some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The High Commissioner also supported the referral of the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, whether by the Security Council or by duly recognised national authorities.

On 29th March 2022, The Human Rights Council adopted by consensus at the 49th Session a resolution to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for a further year and maintain monitoring and reporting by the High Commissioner, with a focus on accountability. The resolution called for the release of “all those who have been arbitrarily detained, charged, arrested, convicted or sentenced on specious grounds, including human rights defenders, journalists and civil society representatives and for the respect of freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and of opinion and expression.”

One year on, since adopting the Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar on 24th April 2021, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member states have not achieved any progress in addressing the human rights and humanitarian crisis perpetrated by the military junta. Civil society groups have condemned the inaction of ASEAN and urged the regional bloc to move beyond the consensus and align its efforts with the international community to immediately and meaningfully address the dire situation in Myanmar.

In recent months, activists were arrested, faced fabricated charges – including of terrorism – and given harsh sentences including the death penalty, by secret military tribunals. According to reports, many activists had unfair trials and were tortured or ill-treated. Myanmar’s press freedom rankings dropped further according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and journalists continued to be criminalised on charges of “incitement, sedition and ‘terrorism’”. At least 26 writers were jailed in 2021. The junta also arrested dozens of activists for supporting the ‘silent strike’ around the one year anniversary of the coup.

Association

Reports continue of activists facing arbitrary arrest, criminalisation, torture, ill-treatment and killings at the hands of the military junta. According to AAPP, 1,039 people have been sentenced, with 65 sentenced to death, as of 5th May 2022.

Criminalisation and harsh sentences against activists persist   

On 21st January 2022, two pro-democracy figures were sentenced to death for alleged involvement in terrorist activities. They were accused of allegedly possessing weapons and carrying out bombings. Phyo Zeyar Thaw, a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who is also a rapper, was arrested in November 2021 and sentenced to death for offences under the Counter-Terrorism Law. Prominent democracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, better known as “Jimmy”, received the same sentence from the military tribunal.

On 10th March 2022, prominent democracy activist Mya Aye was sentenced to two years in prison by a junta court as he marked his 56th birthday. He was sentenced at a court inside Insein Prison. As previously documented, Mya Aye, one of the leaders of the 88 Generation, was arrested on 1st February 2021 – following the coup – on hate speech charges under Article 505(c) of the Penal Code for incitement. Mya Aye was arrested twice under the former junta for his political activism during and after the 1988 uprising and served a total of 12 years in prison.

Nine young activists belonging to an anti-coup protest group in Mandalay were detained on 6th April 2022, according to a report by the Irrawaddy. U Aggavumsa, the leading organiser of anti-coup protests in Pyigyitagun, said two safe houses were raided and six men and three women were detained.

Criminalisation of activists by secret military tribunals

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), many activists have been sentenced by the Myanmar junta’s secret military courts including in the country’s most notorious Insein Prison. RFA said that the courts appear to take orders from top divisional military commanders, reducing the chances of successfully appealing a decision, given that the highest authority in the military tribunal system is the chairman of the State Administration Council, the formal name of the junta-run government under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Myanmar’s Supreme Court, though the highest civilian court in the country, cannot intervene in cases tried by military tribunals under the Defence Services Act of 1959.

A new report published by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP) in March 2022 highlights systematic violations faced by prisoners in detention including unfair trials and torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment.

According to AAPP, the legal basis for arrests is being systematically withheld from activists arrested and their lawyers including the reason for detention, charges, date of charge and evidence filed until trial. Bail is often denied, and any legal defence disregarded. In several court cases, police who were testifying for the prosecution did not witness the alleged violations and the prosecution has also on occasion had no physical evidence placing defendants at the scene. Access to lawyers has been severely curtailed for political prisoners since the coup.

The report also found that political prisoners are systematically physically and mentally tortured by the junta, of whom at least 103 pro-democracy supporters have been tortured to death in interrogation centres since the coup, most within 48 hours of arrest. Violence against detained political prisoners begins from the moment they are arrested and can take place inside interrogation camps, prisons, police custody or on the streets. All genders are also being subjected to sexual abuse. Political prisoners also experience mental torture, most commonly isolation from the outside world. Those involved in prison strikes have been beaten and tortured, had to do forced labour and denied access to adequate medical treatment.

Ousted leader sentenced to jail for corruption

A court found former leader Aung San Suu Kyi guilty of corruption on 27th April, the latest verdict in a series of secret trials. The closed-door hearings in the capital Nay Pyi Taw were closed to the public and media, and Suu Kyi’s lawyers forbidden from speaking to journalists.

A junta court found her guilty of taking a USD 600,000 bribe in the form of cash and gold bars from the former head of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and region. She was sentenced to five years in jail.

The latest conviction takes her total prison sentence to 11 years, as she was previously found guilty of other offences. In December 2021, she was convicted of inciting dissent against the military and breaking public health COVID-19 rules. In January 2022, she was also found guilty of having contraband walkie-talkie radios in her house and breaching further pandemic rules.

Suu Kyi still faces 10 other corruption charges, each carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years, as well as charges of electoral fraud and violating the Official Secrets Act. She denies all of the accusations and rights groups have condemned the court trials as a sham.

Expression

Journalists continue to be detained and sentenced

Journalists have been systematically targeted by the junta since the coup and 135 journalists have been jailed since it seized power in February 2021, while others routinely face harassment, arrest and even death for doing their jobs. As of 4th April, 55 journalists – 42 men and 13 women – remain in detention.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Myanmar’s press freedom ranking dropped further from 140th to 176th out of 180 counties in its new index published on 3rd May 2022. The organisation said that the junta “obliterated the fragile progress towards greater press freedom” over the last decade and has become one of the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.

On 19th January 2022, the junta arrested two journalists in southern Myanmar. Reporter Ko Zaw, reporter Ma Moe Myint and designer Ko Thar Gyi from Dawei Watch, an online news outlet based in Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi Region, were detained at their homes at midnight. Dawei Watch covers news mainly from southern Myanmar. Since the coup, the role of local news outlets has been crucial in exposing and documenting junta violence and atrocities against civilians.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, on 2nd February 2022, Thurin Kyaw, founder of the independent outlet Media TOP 4, was beaten by unidentified attackers while he covered a rally in support of the ruling military junta in Yangon. The following afternoon, authorities in Yangon’s Insein township arrested Thurin Kyaw at his home.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reported that journalist Hanthar Nyein was sentenced on 21st March 2022 in a military-run court inside Yangon’s Insein Prison. The court charged the journalist with incitement under Section 505(a) of the Myanmar Penal Code. On 22nd March, Than Htike Aung was handed the same charge, but was sentenced in Dekkhina District Court in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s capital. Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code criminalises the circulation of any information that is deemed “false news” against the military regime. Both journalists pleaded not guilty. Radio Free Asia reported that Ye Yint Tun, a reporter for the Myanmar Herald, was also sentenced to two years in prison on 23rd March, under Sections 505(a) and 505(b) of the Penal Code. The sentencing of the three journalists comes one year after their original arrests.

At least two journalists from Shan State in Myanmar were sentenced to two years in prison. Lwe Am Phaung (21 years old), a female television correspondent of Shwe Phi Myay (SPM) news agency was jailed under Section 505(a) of the Penal Code by the military court on 7th April. Earlier, Khaing Myint Tun alias Shwe Lin Thit, a journalist from Kyaung Gyi Su ward in Taunggyi town, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the court on 5th April 2022.

A journalist who contributes to news outlets including Voice of America and Frontier Myanmar was formally indicted on 22nd April 2022 by a court in Yangon. Sithu Aung Myint, who was arrested in August 2021 along with freelance journalist Htet Htet Khine, is facing two charges related to content that authorities say was critical of the military. He is facing charges under Section 505(a) of the penal code and charges of sedition under Section 124(a). If convicted, he could face up to three years’ imprisonment on the first charge and up to 20 years on the second.

On 25th April 2022, journalist and writer Tu Tu Tha was arrested by the regime’s troops in Yangon’s Thanlyin township. She was detained at her home along with her son and two others. Tu Tu Tha, 49, is the former editor at The Irrawaddy’s Burmese edition. The reason behind her arrest is still unclear.

On 25th April 2022, a court in Insein Prison indicted freelance journalist Soe Yarzar Tun under Section 52a of the Counter-Terrorism Law, which carries a prison sentence of up to seven years. The reporter was detained in Bago Region’s Thone Sel Township on March 10, just days after he had escaped arrest when fifty soldiers raided a monastery in Bago where he was practising as a monk. He was held at the Phayar Lay Interrogation Centre in Yangon’s Hlegu Township and then sent to the local police station, adding it was likely the journalist was tortured under interrogation.

At least 26 writers jailed in 2021, says rights group

Myanmar jailed more writers and public intellectuals in 2021 than any other country, according to a freedom of expression advocacy group. PEN America’s annual census of detained writers, the Freedom to Write Index, found Myanmar’s junta detained at least 26 writers in 2021 as it sought to suppress opposition after seizing power from the democratically elected government.

According to PEN America, after the coup in Myanmar in February 2021, many poets and authors used their writing to express outrage and grief at military atrocities and inspire dissent. Of the 26 detained in Myanmar in 2021, the majority are held in prisons but have not yet been charged, according to PEN.

Many have continued to write while in hiding or temporary exile, sharing work on Facebook or private apps where they feel it is safe to do so. Others have been forced to self-censor due to the security risks.

Outrage as Telenor Myanmar sells to company linked to the junta

In March 2022, the sale of Telenor Myanmar to M1 Group received final regulatory approval from the Myanmar Investment Commission. M1 Group is a Lebanese investment holding company and has chosen the local partner Shwe Byain Phyu, a group of companies with ties to military-owned businesses. Telenor initially agreed to sell its Myanmar unit to M1 Group in 2021 but authorities preferred a local buyer at the time, stalling the bid. The holding company has announced it will eventually sell 80 percent of its stake to Shwe Byain.

In February 2022, Global Voice reported that activists and civil society groups in Myanmar sent open letters and launched an online petition to the Norwegian government opposing the sale of Telenor Myanmar to a company with links to the junta.

Activists and civil society groups have warned that the sale would allow the military regime to access more than 18 million Telenor customers’ data. Sensitive information of users including SIM card registration, call and internet logs and location data could now fall into the hands of the military.

Telenor is a multinational telecom company based in Norway. It started operating in Myanmar in 2014 through its subsidiary, Telenor Myanmar. After the military coup in February 2021, Telenor Myanmar faced pressure from the military government which gave several orders related to surveillance and content blocking. In July 2021, Telenor announced its intent to leave Myanmar.

Peaceful Assembly

Activists are still pursuing peaceful protests despite grave danger and numerous challenges, According to Amnesty International, one of the most popular methods of protest has been “flash mobs” where activists run through the streets for a few minutes before dispersing to avoid being shot, arrested or run over by military vehicles. The public has also held “silent strikes” across the country, during which shops and businesses shut down, roads emptied, and people stayed home to show defiance of military rule.

Arrests around strike to mark anniversary of military coup

A nationwide ‘silent strike’ on 1st February 2022 marked the one-year anniversary of the junta’s seizure of power.

Streets were deserted and shops abandoned across many of Myanmar’s towns and cities from 10 am to 4 pm as the public defied threats by the military junta and stayed at home. Images posted on social media showed usually congested roads with no traffic and stores shuttered. In Mandalay, the second largest city, a normally bustling market had virtually no customers.

The military, which has struggled to control widespread opposition to its rule, had threatened charges of sedition or terrorism against anyone who participated in the stay-at-home protest. Business owners had also been told their properties would be seized if they participated.

Despite the risk of further military violence, some activists held small rallies prior to the silent strike. Protesters, led by students, sprinkled the streets of Yangon with red paint, the colour associated with the National League for Democracy. Activists shared images of the act on Facebook, writing: “Our blood is red and we will march towards our enemy.”In Mandalay, protesters marched in the morning, chanting: “Who dares to live on the opposite side of the people?”

Many also held up three fingers, the resistance salute adopted from “the Hunger Games” movie that has also been used by pro-democracy demonstrators in neighbouring Thailand.

According to The Irrawaddy, on 3rd February 2022, at least 109 critics of the junta, mostly from Yangon, were hunted down from 27th January to 2nd February for their posts on Facebook, according to reports in junta-controlled newspapers. Others were arrested in Mandalay, Sagaing, Tanintharyi, Bago, Ayeyarwady and Magwe regions and in Shan, Kayin and Kachin states. The newspaper reports stated that the detainees spread posts aimed at destabilising the state and inciting people.

On 11th February 2022, RFA reported that the junta had arrested and charged more than a 200 people for their social media posts in support of the anti-regime movement and for allegedly encouraging others to take part in the strike by committing on social media to close their shops. The junta said that it would charge the alleged strike supporters under the Counter-Terrorism Law and the Electronic Communications Act, and that those found guilty of violating the laws were subject to having their property confiscated.


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