Myanmar: Political prisoners face reprisals while junta continues to target journalists, activists and trade unionists
Myanmar’s civic space is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Since the 2021 coup, thousands of activists and protesters have been detained on fabricated charges including terrorism, incitement and sedition. Many have been convicted by secret military tribunals in unfair trials and given harsh sentences, including the death penalty. Some have been tortured or killed. There has also been an unrelenting crackdown on the media and civil society.
The UN has continued raising concerns about the serious violations in Myanmar. In September 2023, Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, briefed the UN Human Rights Council on Myanmar. He emphasised the junta’s “blatant disregard for fundamental principles of humanity”. He pointed to three specific tactics employed against civilians: airstrikes, mass killings, and the burning of villages.
In October 2023, Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, highlighted in his report to the UN General Assembly the junta’s attacks against civilians, including reports of mass killings, beheadings, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, forced labour, and the use of human shields by junta forces. However, he said a “growing trend of coordinated action by Member States, including sanctions targeting key financial institutions and jet fuel, is offering the hope of a more effective path forward to weaken the military junta”.
In December 2023, the UN Special Rapporteur urged UN Member States to “save lives endangered by an intensifying military conflict in Myanmar by taking immediate measures to stop the flow of weapons that the military junta is using to commit probable war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Human rights groups say that the junta is continuing to ignore the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) orders to protect the Rohingya as “state policies are pushing hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of bare survival in Rakhine State”. Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (BROUK) said in a new report published in November 2023 that Rohingya people 'live increasingly desperate lives amid widespread restrictions on humanitarian aid by the junta as well as their freedom of movement, access to healthcare and livelihoods. At the same time, the junta and armed groups have tortured, killed and arbitrarily detained Rohingya people'.
Some countries have continued to impose sanctions to pressure the junta to end violations. On 31st October 2023, the US imposed a ban on financial transactions involving the Myanmar state-owned oil company, the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). MOGE’s natural gas projects generate over US$1 billion annually for the Myanmar junta, its single largest source of foreign revenue. The US also announced additional sanctions on five individuals and three entities involved in the junta’s abuses, in coordination with Canada and the United Kingdom. In November 2023, the EU approved additional restrictive measures against four persons and two companies generating income for the military regime and providing arms and other equipment used by the armed forces.
In December 2023, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) recommended the removal of the accreditation status of the military junta’s Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC). The GANHRI Sub-Committee on Accreditation stated that it “considers that the MNHRC is operating in a manner that seriously compromises its independence and/or effectiveness as an accredited NHRI in partial compliance with the Paris Principles.”
Despite these actions by the international community, ASEAN member states have not made any significant progress to end the violations or restore democracy, nearly three years on from the coup. They have continue to assert the failed five point consensus and established in September 2023 a troika mechanism that would allow the immediate past, current and incoming ASEAN chairs to manage the crisis. In December 2023, civil society groups slammed ASEAN’s efforts to include the junta in an ‘inclusive dialogue’ with various stakeholders on the crisis. More recently, a Laotian diplomat - Alounkeo Kittikhoun - was appointed the ASEAN special envoy to Myanmar.
In recent months, political prisoners faced increased sentences for holding protests. Journalists have continued to be arrested and prosecuted, while a media outlet was shutdown. The Broadcast Law was amended to allow the junta to take control of TV and radio media. Individuals including activists were arrested for their critical social media posts, while a new report highlighted the intensity of internet repression in Myanmar. Human rights defenders and activists were arrested, convicted or killed, while a new report highlighted the assault on trade union activists. The junta also extended its repression to activists abroad.
Junta extends sentences of 63 protesting prisoners
At the end of September 2023, Radio Fee Asia (RFA) reported that junta authorities extended the prison sentences of 63 political prisoners for taking part in a protest in Ayeyarwady’s Pathein Prison.
The Political Prisoner Network Myanmar said the prisoners protested against plans to hang a teacher in the prison and the beating of another inmate who was discovered with a mobile phone. 26 of the protesters had their sentences extended by three years for damaging public property while 37 were sentenced to an additional three years for causing pain to a prison employee.
Authorities retaliate against political prisoners in Monywa Prison
In October 2023, Myanmar-Now reported that political prisoners who participated in a September 2023 hunger strike in Sagaing Region’s Monywa Prison were facing retaliatory legal penalties a month later, the Monywa People’s Strike Committee said.
In early September, close to 50 inmates took part in the strike to protest repressive treatment at the prison in the Sagaing Region’s capital, provoking further crackdowns by the prison authorities. After negotiating an end to the strike, authorities were reportedly adding time to the participants’ sentences.
Continued crackdown on journalists
The crackdown on the media by the junta has persisted in Myanmar. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on 8th January 2024, at least 64 journalists are still detained in the country.
Myanmar junta shutters independent news outlet in Rakhine state https://t.co/AfNuJysOwI— Radio Free Asia (@RadioFreeAsia) October 30, 2023
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), on 30th October 2023, soldiers arrested Development Media Group reporter Htet Aung while he was taking photos of soldiers making donations to Buddhist monks during a religious festival in the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe. Hours later, soldiers, police and special branch officials raided the Development Media Group’s bureau, confiscated cameras, computers, documents, financial records and cash, sealed off the office building and arrested the night watchman. The news outlet’s staff have since gone into hiding, they added. Htet Aung was charged under Section 65 of the Telecommunications Law, a defamation provision that carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
DMG was established in 2012 along the Thailand-Myanmar border, but later moved its operations to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe. The news outlet covers armed conflict and human rights violations in the western state that borders Bangladesh.
“Myanmar’s military regime must release Dawei Watch journalists Aung San Oo and Myo Myint Oo, drop any pending charges against them, and stop intimidating journalists for their work,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.https://t.co/63SmuHu6Ia— CPJ Asia (@CPJAsia) December 18, 2023
On 11th December 2023, Aung San Oo and Myo Myint Oo, two Myanmar journalists from the news agency Dawei Watch, were arrested at their home in the middle of the night by several police and military officers in the southern town of Mergui. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the two journalists' computers were seized during the arrest, as were their phones and those of their relatives. According to the same source, junta soldiers said they had arrested them for "publishing reports" and placed them in an interrogation centre.
Junta amends law to take control of broadcast authority
In November 2023 the junta took control of the authority in charge of overseeing television and radio media. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the junta amended the law without discussion on 6th November 2023, to take control of the Broadcasting Council, the authority in charge of overseeing television and radio media. The amended text now provides for junta cadres to be automatically appointed to the Council board.
Section 2(q) of the Broadcast Law was amended to define “council” as a body “formed with members of the [junta] for supervising, monitoring and managing television and radio broadcasting measures.” The Television and Radio Broadcasting Council’s duties include drawing up and promulgating a code of conduct for broadcasting services, and taking administrative action on broadcasting services which violate provisions of the Broadcast Law.
The amendment also revokes Sections 9-13 of Chapters 4 and 5 of the Broadcasting Law, which concern how council members are elected, how long a council member can serve, and what justifies removal of a council member.
Cédric Alviani, RSF Asia-Pacific Bureau Director, said: “By taking control of the Broadcasting Council, the military regime eliminates one of the last obstacles to its complete control over the media. We call on the international community to step up its pressure for the junta to put an end to the media lockdown it has established since the 2021 coup.”
Documentary filmmaker sentenced to life imprisonment
#Myanmar: Filmmaker #ShinDaewe sentenced to life imprisonment, accused of 'abetting' terrorism. Harshest term for a journalist since the junta regained power in 2021. #CFWIJ vehemently condemns the sentence, demands her immediate and unconditional release. pic.twitter.com/jAgq3it4H0— #WomenInJournalism (@CFWIJ) January 15, 2024
On 10th January 2024, Shin Daewe, a former reporter and award-winning documentary film director, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court held inside the notorious Insein prison located near Yangon, the former capital located in central Myanmar. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), she was handed the maximum sentence under section 50(j) of the Counter-Terrorism Law for allegedly “abetting” terrorism. It is to date the most severe term handed down to a journalist since the junta returned to power in February 2021.
Shin Daewe, 50, was arrested and searched by soldiers on 15th October in a bus station in Yangon, while picking up a video drone she had ordered online to use in filming a documentary. During her detention, she was interrogated and allegedly subjected to torture, according to her husband, who noticed evidence of beating such as “stitches on her head and welts on her arms” during his two visits to the prison.
A renowned media professional, Shin Daewe covered the political and social issues affecting her country. In the past, she worked as a video journalist for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) before embarking on a career as a documentary filmmaker. Several of her documentaries have won international awards.
Former minister jailed for social media posts
Ye Htut, the Minister of Information during President Thein Sein’s administration was arrested under incitement charges at his home in Ahlone Township of Yangon on Oct. 28. He was a minister from 2014 to 2016. #Yangon #WhatsHappeninglnMyanmar— DVB English News (@DVB_English) October 30, 2023
Read more: https://t.co/3PLdCFN4qK pic.twitter.com/G9ay8c2URk
In November 2023, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that a court in Yangon’s Insein Prison had sentenced Myanmar’s former Information Minister Ye Htut to 10 years in prison.
The former minister from 2014-2016 under Thein Sein’s quasi-military government, which handed power to Aung San Suu Kyi following the 2015 elections, received three years in prison for “spreading false news” and seven years for “sedition” in violation of Sections 505(a) and 124(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code.
A source who is close to management of Insein Prison said that the closed-door trial was brief. Ye Htut was among nearly 40 people arrested after they posted critical comments about the military junta on social media accounts. Pro-junta Telegram channels had accused him of revealing a retired military officer’s address on social media.
Internet repression by the junta
Freedom House, in its annual report on online freedom of expression – Freedom on the Internet – released in October 2023 said that the Myanmar junta “continued to repress internet freedom in the face of ongoing civil disobedience, political opposition, and armed resistance during the coverage period.”
The groups said that “localized internet shutdowns, data price hikes, online trolling, and arbitrary prosecutions that result in long prison terms have created a high-risk and hostile online space for the public at large. The military’s direct and indirect control over all major service providers has enabled the enforcement of strict rules on user identity registration as well as mass censorship and surveillance.”
Most interest users remained confined to a list of approximately 1,500 military-approved websites and only those with circumvention tools were able to bypass extensive blocking and reach other internet resources.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP), in 2023 alone, authorities arrested nearly 9,000 people, with about 6,600 sentenced to prison terms. According to the group as of 12th January 2024, a total of 25,799 people have been arrested by the junta with 19,911 currently in detention.
Environmental and land rights defender Man Zar Myay Mon sentenced again
🇲🇲#Myanmar: Environmental & land rights #defender Man Zar Myay Mon has been sentenced to an additional 11 years in prison, bringing his total sentence to 21 years— The Observatory (@OBS_defenders) November 2, 2023
📣We call for his immediate and unconditional release! #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar
On 18th October 2023, the Monywa Prison Court sentenced human rights defender Man Zar Myay Mon to 11 years in prison, on three counts under Articles 50(a), 51(c), and 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law, including “possession or distribution of explosives”.
Man Zar Myay Mon is an environmental and land rights defender, member of the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA) and of the Subnational Coordination Unit (SCU) of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) in Sagaing Region. He was a leading figure of peaceful anti-coup protests in Chaung-U Township, Sagaing Region, following the military coup.
He was detained on the morning of 8th June 2021 by soldiers while he was attempting to flee Shan Htoo Village, Chaung-U Township, Sagaing Region. The soldiers shot him in the leg while he was riding a motorbike, immediately captured, handcuffed and blindfolded him. According to reports, previously he was sentenced to 10 years for five violations of Section 505 of the Penal Code.
Junta arrests civil society activist for social media comments
1/4 According to people close to the family, Daw Saw Su Su Htwe, the chairperson of the Shin Than Chin Twal Latt Social Assistance Association in Thu Dama Wati City, Thaton Township, Mon State, was being interrogated after the junta arrested her. pic.twitter.com/WaNsJ90ccL— The Human Rights Foundation of Monland (@HURFOM) December 20, 2023
On 16th December 2023, Daw Saw Su Su Htwe, the Chair of the “Shin Tan Chin Twelve Lat” Social Welfare Association based in Thu Dhamma Watti New Town, Thaton Township, Mon State was arrested.
According to a report, Daw Saw Su Su Htwe wrote a comment under the social media post of a member of the People’s Defense Force (PDF) who was a former member of her association. The junta arrested her within hours after she wrote the comment. The pro-military Telegram Channel reported Daw Saw Su Su Htwe’s comments for promoting terrorism and that she supported the anti-junta People’s Defense Forces. Daw Saw Su Su Htwe was detained and interrogated at the 9th Military Training School.
Political prisoner allegedly tortured to death
Myanmar Political Prisoner Dies in Custody - Ko San Lin San, who was jailed under the Counterterrorism Law, died at Pathein Prison in Ayeyarwady Region on December 30 - his family says he was tortured to death: https://t.co/osVYhYGuJW— RE7 (@rob_e7) January 5, 2024
In January 2024, The Irrawady reported that political prisoner Ko San Lin San, who was jailed under the Counterterrorism Law, died at Pathein Prison in Ayeyarwady Region on 30th December. His family says he was tortured to death. Prison authorities said the singer and composer died of hydrocephalus, excessive fluid within the brain.
Ko San Lin San, 29, was badly beaten during interrogation until two wooden sticks broke, said a relative. Ko San Lin San did have hydrocephalus but it had been cured around eight years ago, said the relative, who insisted that he died due to brutal beatings in an interrogation centre and prison.
According to the Myanmar Political Prisoners’ Network and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, some 34 political prisoners died in military junta prisons across Myanmar in 2023, with 18 killed inside jails and 16 others dying due to a lack of medical treatment. Some political prisoners were killed after being accused of escape during transfer.
ILO reports violations against trade union activists
In October 2023, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published the findings of a Commission of Inquiry established in March 2022 by the International Labour Conference (ILC) in respect of non-observance by Myanmar of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87) and the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29).
The findings include evidence of numerous instances of severe physical and verbal violence against trade union leaders and members as well as their families, while a large number of trade union leaders and members have been subjected to arrests (with or without warrants) and detentions. Most trade unionists who have been arrested have undergone criminal trials in civilian or military courts and have been sentenced to imprisonment and fines. Convictions appear to be predetermined before the trial, with the courts simply executing military orders.
Military authorities have proceeded to cancel passports and citizenship of trade union leaders charged with newly introduced criminal offences for the exercise of their legitimate trade union activities. There is also evidence of threats and intimidation of workers, including trade unionists, who wished to participate in public demonstrations, both by the labour authorities and by public sector employers.
Many are unable to organise workers, register their unions, communicate between each other, represent workers in labour disputes, conduct training activities or meaningfully engage in any other union activities. This persistent oppression of trade unionists – specifically targeting the leaders of the country’s only trade union confederation and the main federations – has resulted in their quasi-total incapacity to continue to engage in trade union activities.
Junta revokes passports of anti-coup activists in Singapore
In October 2023, RFA reported that the junta had revoked the passports of anti-coup activists living in Singapore – an unprecedented move which typically reserves such tactics for high-profile opposition leaders and members of the shadow government based abroad.
The move came with no prior warning and only applies to residents of Singapore, said sources who told RFA Burmese they learned that their passports had been invalidated when they tried to leave or return in recent weeks. RFA was unaware of similar measures taken against Myanmar nationals in other countries and the number of passports nullified by the move was not immediately clear.
RFA also report that they had received reports that the junta is not only taking action against Myanmar activists, but also lodging complaints about them to Singapore’s police, based on tips from informants.