Crackdown on activists, protesters continue in Myanmar despite ASEAN summit and global calls

Crackdown on activists, protesters continue in Myanmar despite ASEAN summit and global calls
Activist Ko Wai Moe Naing, trade unionist Daw Myo Aye, journalist Tu Tu Tha and poet Ko Zaw Tun (clockwise)

It has been more than 100 days since the Myanmar military seized power in a coup on 1st February 2021, arrested the civilian leaders of the national and state governments and launched a brutal crackdown against the protest movement across the country. Since then, there have been weak global and regional efforts to address the crisis or halt the serious human rights violations by the military.

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) - representing 76 percent of the 498 democratically elected members of parliament - announced the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG) on 16th April 2021. The CRPH announced that it would serve as the legislative branch, while the NUG would serve as the executive branch and be responsible for forming the judiciary.

The junta has declared the NUG an “illegal organisation” and issued arrest warrants for 26 people, mostly members of a parallel government.

The European Union adopted a new round of sanctions on 19th April 2021 targeting ten people and two military-controlled companies. The ten individuals include members of the State Administrative Council and the two companies are Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Co. Ltd. (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corp. (MEC). On 21st April, the US imposed new sanctions on Myanmar’s two state-owned businesses, Myanmar Timber Enterprise and Myanmar Pearl Enterprises.

On 24th April 2021, a regional ASEAN summit was held in Jakarta to address Myanmar’s human rights crisis. A statement released after the summit said the leaders and foreign ministers from the ten-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had reached a consensus on five points. They included asking for an immediate end to the violence and the opening of a dialogue between the military and civilian leaders, with the process overseen by a special ASEAN envoy who would also visit with a delegation. The group also offered humanitarian assistance. The statement made no mention of the thousands who have been arbitrarily detained by the military, including activists, peaceful protesters and journalists and offered no timeline for these actions to be taken or an implementing mechanism. The summit also failed to acknowledge the National Unity Government (NUG).

On 5th May, more than 200 civil society groups, including CIVICUS, called on the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Myanmar to help protect civilians peacefully protesting a military coup. ALTSEAN Burma reported on 5th May that security forces had launched airstrikes on Kachin and Karen states and shelled villages in the Chin, Kachin, Karen, Shan and Sagaing States/Regions. This has displaced over 47,000 ethnic community members.

According to the latest data from human rights group the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as of 10th May 2021, 781 individuals have been confirmed killed by the military during this junta coup. A total of 3,843 people are currently in detention, 86 of whom have been sentenced.

Over the last month, the deadly crackdown on protests has continued. The Myanmar junta added a ban on satellite television while journalists continue to be targeted. Protest leaders have been targeted by the junta with arrests and fabricated charges while a leading human rights monitoring group has been accused of operating illegally.

Peaceful Assembly

Deadly crackdown on protests resumes

After a brief absence following crackdowns that killed hundreds nationwide, anti-coup protesters returned to the streets in many parts of the country in mid-April 2021, ahead of the ASEAN summit in Jakarta.

Myanmar's military opened fire on protesting healthcare workers in Mandalay on 15th April, killing at least one bystander. A medic who participated in the protest said he saw the arrest of six nurses and doctors during the crackdown. Myanmar's healthcare workers have been at the forefront of a nationwide civil disobedience movement, refusing to return to work under a military regime.

On 23rd April 2021, protesters, led by activists from the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) and youths from several Yangon townships, marched along Anawrahta road. The marchers called for the abolition of the “fascist” Myanmar military and the establishment of a federal union.

Thousands of anti-coup protesters took to the streets across the country on 2nd May and were met with violence by security forces that killed at least six people, according to eyewitnesses. The military council’s armed forces carried out arrests and fired rubber bullets, live ammunition and grenades at civilians in an attempt to end the protest and terrorise those participating, according to reports.

On 8th May 2021, at least eight anti-coup protesters were arrested in Yangon’s Tamwe Township as hundreds took to the city’s streets in a show of resistance to military rule. The protesters were arrested in a high-rise building on Byaing Yay Oe Zin Street where they had fled after being dispersed by regime forces.


Ban on satellite television to block independent media

The Myanmar junta added a ban on satellite television to existing restrictions on the internet and media, tightening its grip over information in the country. On 4th May 2021, the military announced that anyone using satellite dishes to watch television faces up to one year in prison or a fine of K500,000 (USD 320).

The military junta claimed that “illegal organisations and news agencies” were broadcasting programmes via satellite that threaten state security. The ban appears targeted at independent Burmese language broadcasters such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and Mizzima, which have continued broadcasting via satellite since the junta revoked their operating licences in March. The ban will also affect foreign news channels broadcasting via satellite into Myanmar.

The ban on satellite television is part of the military’s full-scale attack on the country’s media, Human Rights Watch said. On 4th May, the junta also announced it was banning two more media outlets, Kachin-based 74 Media and Shan-based Tachileik News Agency, increasing the number of banned media outlets to eight. Many of those outlets, including 74 Media and Tachileik News, have responded with defiance to the junta’s bans, vowing to continue their reporting.

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.

Journalists detained during raids and while covering protests

Journalists continue to be targeted by the military, as previously documented. On 4th April 2021, the authorities began publishing lists of journalists wanted for providing information about the pro-democracy protests. At least 19 journalists were named.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on 29th April, preliminary investigations found at least 40 journalists had been imprisoned, the majority detained during newsroom raids or while covering anti-coup street protests.

Over half of those detained face charges under Article 505(a) of the penal code, a broad provision that criminalises the dissemination of information or “fake news” that could agitate or cause security forces or officials to mutiny. Convictions under that provision allow for maximum three-year prison sentences.

  • On 18th April 2021, Japanese freelancer Yuki Kitazumi, was arrested and taken via a police station to Insein prison, which is notorious for being used to jail media figures. On 4th May, he was charged with spreading ‘fake news’.
  • On 24th April 2021, the Editor-in-chief of the Thanlyin Post, Tu Tu Tha, two of her relatives and a family friend were arrested by the junta in Thanlyin township, Yangon.
  • Kay Zon Nway, a Myanmar Now reporter who was arrested while reporting on an anti-coup demonstration in Yangon in late February 2021, was put in solitary confinement on 28th April 2021 at Insein Prison after she began fasting for Ramadan. The reporter was charged under Section 505a of the Penal Code for incitement.


Protest leaders arrested and charged

Protest leaders have been targeted by the junta with arrests and fabricated charges. Some of the protest leaders’ houses were raided while some of them fled to avoid the arrests. Medical workers and educators are facing charges or have been suspended. Many people have been taken in terrifying night-time raids or abducted off the streets and held in secret facilities out of contact with their families. Little is known about the conditions they are kept in.

  • Ko Wai Moe Naing, a prominent anti-regime protest leader in Monywa, Sagaing Region, was beaten and dragged away by junta forces after his motorcycle was rammed on 15th April 2021. He remains in military custody and his relatives are not allowed to visit him. Fears have grown for his safety and health since a photo apparently showing him to have been badly tortured went viral the day after his arrest. He is facing five criminal charges - murder, unlawful assembly, wrongful confinement, abduction with intent to murder, and incitement.
  • One of Myanmar’s leading trade union leaders was arrested on 15th April 2021. Daw Myo Aye, director of Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar (STUM) has been one of the most prominent union leaders in the civil disobedience movement, which has been organising national strikes and protests since the military seized power. Myo Aye was dragged from her office by the army and taken to a police station where she has been charged and detained.
  • On 19th April, the security forces targeted the country’s striking medical workers by opening lawsuits against 139 doctors under incitement laws for their refusal to work under its rule and supporting the Civil Disobedient Movement (CDM). They have been charged under Section 505(a) of the Penal Code.
  • On 20th April one of Myanmar’s most prominent anti-regime protest leaders escaped arrest after junta security forces failed to capture him at his home. Soldiers and police—some in plainclothes—arrived at Ko Tayzar San’s apartment in Mandalay and forcibly entered by smashing down the door.
  • The junta’s forces raided a monastery in Sagaing Region’s Yinmabin township on 25th April 2021 in search of a monk who has led anti-coup protests in the area.
  • On 8th May 2021, the military regime suspended at least 1,683 striking educators and administrative staff members at 15 universities from their duties for supporting the protest movement and going on strike.
  • 116 civil society organisations from Mandalay rejected collaboration with the regime after the junta-controlled government departments offered CSOs the opportunity to implement social development activities.
  • Prominent democracy activist Ko Mya Aye, who has spent more than three months behind bars since the coup, faces hate speech charges under Article 505(c) of the Penal Code for incitement, according to reports on 9th May 2021.
  • Three more people including a striking poet, Ko Zaw Tun, and a doctor were killed by junta troops during shootings and raids, and under torture in Sagaing and Yangon regions on 10th May 2021.
Military threatens monitoring group

On 26th April 2021, the Home Affairs Ministry of the ruling State Administration Council (SAC) accused the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a leading human rights monitoring group, of operating illegally because it was not registered as an organisation. The junta’s announcement threatened “severe action” against the group for causing “State service personnel and public panic” that will “incite the occurrence of more riots” and “harm State stability, rule of law and restoration of law and order.”

The junta’s efforts to target the AAPP are illustrated in the 115-page briefing paper, obtained by Human Rights Watch, that the junta leader, Min Aung Hlaing, presented to leaders at the ASEAN summit in Jakarta. Min Aung Hlaing claimed, without providing evidence, that the AAPP uses “data” that “appeared in fake and hoax news.” He added that the junta was “very upset” that “world media and international organisations restated” that information.

Responding to the allegations, AAPP Secretary-General Bo Kyi, a recipient of the Human Rights Watch Alison des Forges Defender Award in 2009, told The Irrawaddy magazine that: “I think it is just a political move as international governments, media and UN are referencing our data … The key issue is the violence they have committed, their killing and arrests. Instead of solving those problems, they are targeting a group like ours which is revealing the true events.”

The AAPP told Human Rights Watch that the military’s threats have forced them to close their office in Yangon and compelled their staff to go into hiding and work from undisclosed locations.