Protests persist across Myanmar despite ongoing arrests, torture and killings by junta

Protests persist across Myanmar despite ongoing arrests, torture and killings by junta
Protests in Yangon on 16 July (Photo Credit: @PyaeS77 on Twitter)

Protests have continued in Myanmar, more than five months after the Myanmar military junta 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 20th July 2021, 922 individuals have been confirmed killed by the military and a total of 5,315 people are currently in detention.

The military junta has also continued its attacks against ethic armed organisations and the People’s Defence Forces (PDF) in various regions including in Kayah and Mon states, Kachin and Shan, Chin and Rakhine states, leaving at least 230,000 civilians displaced as of 24th June 2021. The People's Defence Forces formed by the underground National Unity Government and aimed to protect civilians from security forces has been mobilised against the junta.

On 19th June 2021, the UN General Assembly issued a resolution condemning the coup and demanding that the military “immediately stop all violence against peaceful demonstrators”. However, it stopped short of calling for a global arms embargo against Myanmar’s military, even as it took the rare step of urging member states to “prevent the flow of arms” into the country. It was approved by 119 countries, with 36 abstaining including China, Myanmar’s main ally. Only one country, Belarus, voted against it. It was sponsored by some 60 countries. Human rights groups have continued to call on the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo.

On 26th June 2021, Pramila Patten, the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, described an “extremely concerning” pattern of sexual violence by Myanmar’s military. Patten focused particularly on reports of sexual violence against women in detention centres.

On 7th July 2021, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, called for the urgent formation of an “Emergency Coalition for the People of Myanmar” to stop what he described as the military junta’s “reign of terror” in the country. He added: “It could reduce the junta’s ability to attack its citizens, save the lives of those in acute crisis, and gain political leverage so that the crisis in Myanmar might come to a just and permanent conclusion”. Andrews highlighted the extreme human rights abuses committed by the junta, which he described as crimes against humanity.

Various countries have continued to impose sanctions on the military junta. On 21st June 2021, the EU implemented new sanctions on top officials in Myanmar's ruling military junta, including travel bans and asset freezes on eight officials, and also targeted four "economic entities" tied to the Myanmar military. The UK also added three Myanmar economic entities to its sanctions list including a state-owned pearl firm and a timber company.

The United States also imposed fresh sanctions on 3rd July 2021, on 22 individuals including four Myanmar government ministers. The sanctions target Myanmar’s minister of information Chit Naing, minister for investment Aung Naing Oo, labour and immigration minister Myint Kyaing, and Thet Thet Khine, the minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement. Three members of the powerful State Administrative Council were also hit with sanctions, as were 15 spouses and adult children of officials.

On 8th June 2021, Japan's lower house adopted a resolution condemning the coup and urging the country to return to democracy. The resolution, adopted in a House of Representatives plenary session, described the military coup as an "act to trample on efforts and expectations for democratisation" and called on the Japanese government to "make full use of all diplomatic resources and every effort to realize" the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. However, the country has yet to impose sanctions.

Human rights groups have continued to criticise ASEAN for its failure to address the human rights violations in Myanmar and for shielding the Myanmar military from international pressure and accountability. On 4th June 2021, a high-level delegation comprised of ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi and Erywan Pehin Yusof, the second minister for foreign affairs for Brunei, the current chair of ASEAN, met with coup leader and head of the Myanmar military authorities but reported little tangible progress. ASEAN members also tried to block a UN General Assembly draft resolution calling for a global arms embargo on the junta.

In a positive development, the Human Rights Council (HRC) postponed the adoption of the outcomes of Myanmar’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This came after 414 Myanmar and international civil society organisations urged the HRC to postpone the session and reject the Myanmar military junta representatives at the UN Offices in Geneva and recognise the National Unity Government (NUG).

Over the last month, the junta has targeted artists, medical workers, lawyers, LGBTIQ activists and their families, youths and others. Some have been sentenced for ‘incitement’ (Section 505a) and ‘unlawful assembly’ (Section 145) while others have been tortured or killed by the junta with impunity. Nearly half of the 87 journalists arrested by Myanmar’s junta in the five months since it staged a coup remain in detention. An investigation by the rights group Global Witness found that Facebook is promoting content that incites violence against Myanmar’s coup protesters and amplifies junta misinformation.

Peaceful Assembly

Ongoing protests across Myanmar

Protests that drew hundreds of thousands onto the streets in February and March 2021 have given way to more smaller rallies or flash mobs in the face of a brutal crackdown that has seen security forces use semi-automatic weapons on protesters. Below we highlight some of the recent protests:

On 3rd July 2021, protesters marked the birthday of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing by burning his portrait and staging mock funerals. Anti-coup demonstrators posted pictures on social media of a traditional noodle soup dish called mohinga, which is often served at funerals in Myanmar. In Mandalay, the country's second-largest city, some activists burnt pictures of the junta leader and set fire to fake coffins at mock funerals.

Protesters hit the streets across Myanmar on 7th July to mark the anniversary of 1962 student protests against the country's first junta. Around one hundred protesters moved quickly through the commercial capital Yangon. "Let's root out the fascist army," they chanted, as some let off smoke bombs in orange and blue. "Keep the spirit of July 7 and fight the military dictatorship." Two minutes later they had gone,  scattering quickly down side streets or jumping into waiting cars. Dozens also gathered in the second city of Mandalay holding signs, and in the central Sagaing region protesters burned an army flag, images on local media showed.

On 19th July 2021, anti-coup protesters held demonstrations to coincide with a public holiday to commemorate slain independence heroes, including the father of the country's detained elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Drivers in Yangon blared their horns at 10:37 a.m., a tradition marking the time the independence leaders were killed. In Monywa, west of the city of Mandalay, anti-junta demonstrators held a march where they chanted "Martyrs never die. We are going to wash our feet with the blood of war dogs", in a reference to soldiers, photographs on social media showed. In Meiktila in central Myanmar, protesters held a banner in front of the Martyrs' Day memorial paying tribute to four other "martyrs" who had died in their district during recent demonstrations against the coup.

On 25th June 2021, it was reported that at least 64 Myanmar citizens detained in protests against the military coup have been sentenced to death by junta courts, with the condemned list including two boys below the age of 18. 20 were sentenced in North Okkalapa, 18 in South Dagon, five in Shwepyithar, seven in Hlaing Thar Yar, and 14 in Shwe Paukkan Myothit. According to Human Rights Watch, the sentences were handed down by military tribunals for murder charges under penal code sections 302, 396, and 397 following unjust trials.

Association

As previously documented, since the coup in February 2021, thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. Many activists are facing baseless charges and there have been reports of torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, and of deaths in custody. These violations have continued over the last month.

Filmmaker arrested by junta

On 5th June 2021, rising filmmaker Ma Aeint disappeared without trace after being arrested by authorities in Myanmar. Her family has no knowledge of her whereabouts or formal explanation for her sudden detention.

Ma Aeint was a producer and co-writer on “Money Has Four Legs,” which appeared in the New Currents competition at the Busan International Film festival in 2020. She was picked up by authorities in Yangon shortly after leaving her home around midday. The next day, family members in Myanmar were informed of her arrest. They were told that she is being housed at an undisclosed place of interrogation. There has been no communication with her since her disappearance. Media and civil society have come under direct attack since the coup.

Medical workers arrested, attacked and killed

On 7th July 2021, the Associated Press reported that security forces have been arresting, attacking and killing medical workers, dubbing them enemies of the state. The military has issued arrest warrants for 400 doctors and 180 nurses, with photos of their faces plastered all over state media like “Wanted” posters.

They are charged with supporting and taking part in the “civil disobedience” movement. At least 157 healthcare workers have been arrested, 32 wounded and 12 killed since 1st February, according to Insecurity Insight, which analyses conflicts around the globe. In recent weeks, arrest warrants have increasingly been issued for nurses.

Myanmar’s medics and their advocates argue that these assaults violate international law, which makes it illegal to attack health workers and patients or deny them care based on their political affiliations.

Family members of activists targeted

According to a VOA report on 9th July, the Myanmar’s junta have been arresting family members of dissidents in an effort to pressure the dissidents to turn themselves in. Family members of activists, politicians and officials involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement, they say, have been arrested and imprisoned. Some, they say, were beaten and tortured by security forces for failing to provide information about dissidents who have evaded arrest.

Lawyers arbitrarily arrested

Human Rights Watch reported on 2nd July 2021, that Myanmar’s security forces had recently arbitrarily arrested at least six lawyers defending political prisoners, violating both the lawyers’ rights and those of their clients. At least three of the lawyers were arrested while attending court:

On 24th May 2021, security forces arrested Thein Hlaing Tun, a lawyer defending the deposed Naypyitaw council head Dr Myo Aung, after a court hearing in the case in Naypyitaw.On 27th May, security forces arrested Ayar Linn Htut while she was defending a political prisoner at Hinthada District Court, in Ayeyarwady Region.On 2nd June, security forces arrested Thet Tun Oo as he tried to attend a trial for one of his clients in Myitkyina. Thet Tun Oo is defending more than 120 political prisoners in Kachin State.

The authorities have arrested other lawyers at home, on the street, or as they sought to leave the country. Security forces beat and arrested May Zun Ko, a lawyer providing pro bono legal services for detainees, as she walked down the street in Mandalay on 1st May. On 10th June security forces arrested Nilar and Hpone Myat Thu, part of the defence team for the deposed Kayin state chief minister, as they tried to leave the country after learning of outstanding warrants for their arrest.

Some of the lawyers have been charged with violating section 505A of the Penal Code, a new provision put in place by the junta that makes it a criminal offence to make comments that “cause fear,” spread “false news, [or] agitate directly or indirectly a criminal offence against a Government employee.” Violation of the section is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Youth activists tortured and sentenced

On 10th June 2021 it was reported that 32 youth who were arrested for opposing the military coup in March 2021 were sentenced to prison terms by the junta in a makeshift courtroom set up within a prison in Myeik. The young activists were tortured during the interrogation process in the Tanintharyi Region town, according to another dissident who was arrested with them and was among those released earlier. They were made to kneel and were beaten with belts, sticks, metal pipes and chains.

They were sentenced for incitement (Section 505a) and unlawful assembly (Section 145) and face two years in prison. Two of those sentenced faced a third violation as well, of Section 286, for the illegal possession of fireworks.

LGBTIQ community activists arrested, tortured or killed

At least 12 LGBTIQ community members have been killed by regime forces and another 73 arrested or charged since the coup for fighting against dictatorship and striving for equality, according to a report from the National Unity Government (NUG) on 1st July 2021.

LGBTIQ groups in Myanmar have actively participated in anti-regime protests since the start of the pro-democracy movement in February 2021. The most visible sign of their participation is the rainbow flags that have been waved among the crowds at anti-coup demonstrations nationwide. Many LGBTIQ people across Myanmar have faced severe human rights violations, with some killed, tortured or detained by the military junta.

Of the 73 LGBTIQ people arrested, 65 are still being detained. Another 28 are in hiding to avoid arrest, the report stated. The NUG report noted that transgender people who have been arrested have experienced different forms of sexual harassment while in police custody, or being held in detention by regime forces, because of their visible identity as LGBTIQ people.

Suu Kyi faced additional corruption charges

In June 2021, it was reported that Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi is facing additional charges of corruption including abusing her authority and accepting bribes, allegations her chief lawyer said were "absurd".

She has been held since the military seized power and is on trial in the capital, Naypyidaw, over charges that include illegal importation and possession of walkie-talkie radios in violation of the Export and Import Law and violating coronavirus protocols under Section 25 of the Natural Disaster Management Law. She is also accused of unspecified breaches of the Official Secrets Act and for ‘incitement’ under Section 505b of the criminal code. Her legal team rejects all the charges.

Torture of political prisoners

There have been ongoing reports of torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners. On 22nd June, Human Rights Watch reported that Myanmar’s military and police often hold detainees in custody for extended periods, in overcrowded and unhygienic interrogation centres and prisons. Those detained are frequently kept incommunicado, unable to contact relatives or legal counsel. The victims, among them a 17-year-old boy who spoke to Human Rights Watch, described beatings, burnings from lit cigarettes, prolonged stress positions, and gender-based violence.

Other sources interviewed said security forces often transported detainees to police precincts or military interrogation facilities, where they would be beaten and forced to stand, kneel, or lie in stress positions for hours.

Nathan Maung, 44, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Myanmar online news site Kamayut Media, was detained alongside co-founder and news producer Hanthar Nyein for more than three months in Myanmar. During that time, he said he endured two weeks in a secretive military-run interrogation centre in the country's biggest city, Yangon.

There, Nathan Maung, a US national, said they were beaten, denied water for two days and food for three. They were handcuffed and blindfolded nearly the entire two weeks they were there. This torture carried on for eight days, during which the detainees would be moved between the houses and cells. His colleague Hanthar Nyein bore the brunt of the torture because he was a Burmese national. He had to kneel down on the ground for two days. His skin was burnt with a cigarette.

Due to increased arrests, many prisons have become overcrowded and unsustainable. Women have started being put in facilities built for men, which have less than ideal standards. According to Human Rights Watch, a protestor who was detained had been physically harassed by the police, which brought forward her menstrual period due to stress.

The facility conditions were inadequate, having only two toilets with no doors or water. The female guards did not provide sanitary pads and when finally provided each inmate was given one. Even after her release, this protester was traumatised and was unable to open up about the situation. There have been many other reports of such dehumanising treatment, along with sexual violence, in these prisons.

Release of prisoners

On 30th June 2021, Myanmar authorities released more than 2,000 anti-coup protesters from prisons across the country, including local journalists jailed after reporting critically on the junta's bloody crackdown. Authorities did not give a reason for the mass release of prisoners, although this was a key demand of many human rights groups and global institutions monitoring the situation in Myanmar.

Among those released were 12 journalists charged with either spreading “false news” or agitating the public to commit sedition.They include journalist Kay Zon Nway of Myanmar Now, Ye Myo Khant, a 20-year-old photojournalist for the Myanmar Press Agency, Ko Aung Mya Than, a Reporter with Ayeyarwady Times, Ko Zin Thaw Naing, an Editor with Democracy Vision and Ko Banyar Oo and Ko Soe Yarzar Tun who are freelance journalists.

Expression

Journalists arrested and remain in detention

According to Radio Free Asia on 15th July 2021, nearly half of the 87 journalists arrested by Myanmar’s junta in the five months since it staged a coup remain in detention. 31 reporters were released prior to 30th June when the junta declared a general amnesty and freed 2,300 prisoners from the country’s jails, including another 14 journalists. In most cases, authorities charged reporters with defamation of the military, under Section 505 (a) of the country’s penal code. Other charges included alleged violations of the Telecommunications Act, the Immigration Act, the Unlawful Association Act, the Insubordination Act and the Natural Disaster Prevention Law.

At least 26 reporters are currently in hiding after authorities issued warrants for their arrest, while many others have been forced to stay with friends or family because junta forces have reportedly raided their homes.

  • On 3rd June 2021, a military court sentenced two journalists to two years in prison for their reporting. Aung Kyaw, 31, a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, and Zaw Zaw, 38, a freelance reporter for the online news agency Mizzima, were convicted by the court for violations under Section 505a of the penal code in Myeik, a city in southern Myanmar. The section makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that "cause fear," spread "false news" or incite government employees.
  • Aung Mya Than, a reporter for the Ayeyarwady Times, was arrested on 10th July at his home in Maubin following his reporting of a bombing by unidentified perpetrators in his home town. Than was one of 14 journalists released on 30th June from detention across Myanmar.
  • American citizen Nathan Maung, who has been detained in Myanmar since 9th March was released and deported to the United States on 15th June after charges against him were dropped. Nathan Maung is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Myanmar online news site Kamayut Media and had spent more than two months incarcerated in the country's notorious Insein Prison, north of Yangon.
  • Danny Fenster, a US journalist who was detained in Myanmar on 25th May, appeared at a special court in Yangon's Insein prison on 17th June. He had not been heard from in the 25 days since his detention. He has been charged under section 505a of Myanmar's penal code, which carries a potential three-year prison term.
Facebook promoting content inciting violence against protesters

In June 2021, an investigation by the rights group Global Witness found that Facebook is promoting content that incites violence against Myanmar’s coup protesters and amplifies junta misinformation, despite promising to clamp down on the misuse of its platform.

According to their study, Facebook’s recommendation algorithm continues to invite users to view content that breaches its own policies. After liking a Myanmar military fan page, which did not contain recent posts violating Facebook’s policies, the rights group found that Facebook suggested several pro-military pages that contained abusive content.

Global Witness said that its report demonstrated that self-regulation by Facebook was not working and called for Facebook’s recommendation algorithm to be subject to independent audit.

Facebook said in February 2021 that it would remove false claims of widespread fraud or foreign interference in Myanmar’s November election from its site. It also said it had banned military-controlled state and media entities and introduced a specific policy for Myanmar “to remove praise, support and advocacy of violence by Myanmar security forces and protestors”. Content that supported the arrests of civilians by the military and security forces in Myanmar would be removed under this policy. However, content identified by Global Witness has remained online for months, according to the rights group.