Myanmar: Attacks on civic space continue unabated in the second year of the illegal coup

Two years ago, on 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military junta seized power in an illegal coup. The junta arrested the civilian leaders of the national and state governments and unleashed a deadly crackdown against a mass ‘civil disobedience movement’ opposing the coup.

Serious human rights violations documented in the first year of the coup have persisted. They include the arbitrary arrest and prosecution of human rights defenders and activists, the ongoing use of torture and ill-treatment as well as death sentences and executions. Civil society has been virtually wiped out, politicians jailed, while journalists continue to be targeted. The junta has also increased its crackdown on online dissent and all forms of protests with protesters facing long jail sentences.

The junta has carried out indiscriminate ground and air attacks that have resulted in numerous civilian deaths. Fighting since the coup has displaced over one million people internally, with another 70,000 refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries. In Rakhine State, new restrictions on movement and aid have affected ethnic Rohingya camps and villages.

The five-point consensus agreement decided by ASEAN leaders in Jakarta in April 2021 has seen no tangible progress. The UN has continued to document and raise concerns – including of crimes against humanity and war crimes – and several  countries have imposed sanctions, but this has yet to have a major impact on halting the violations committed by the junta.

The junta leader Min Aung Hlaing has announced plans to lift the state of emergency and to conduct elections in August 2023. The plan has been heavily criticised by the international community. Human rights groups have highlighted how the junta’s illegal election will not resolve the worsening crisis, but ‘add more violence and suffering to an already devastating situation’. Concerns have also been raised that the elections  are aimed at legitimising the junta’s rule and will further undermine the implementation of the five point consensus.

The following are some of the civil and political rights violations the CIVICUS Monitor has documented in Myanmar - which is rated as ‘repressed’  - in the second year of the coup:

Human rights defenders and activists jailed on fabricated charges 

Over the last year, civil society has documented the ongoing criminalisation of human rights defenders, lawyers, students, artists, medical workers and other activists by secret military tribunals including in the country’s most notorious Insein Prison. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP), as of 30 December 2022, a total of 13,217 individuals were currently under detention. Many were arrested on fabricated charges and convicted in unfair trials - including for terrorism, incitement and sedition - and given harsh sentences including the death penalty. The courts appear to take orders from top divisional military commanders, reducing the chances of successfully appealing a decision.  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.

Man Zar Myay Mon, a land and environmental rights defender, was sentenced to two years in prison in March 2022. He became a leading figure of peaceful anti-coup protests and in March 2021 was charged with “incitement” under Article 505(a) of the Penal Code. In August 2022, Ko Wai Moe Naing, a prominent anti-junta protest leader in Monywa, Sagaing Region was found guilty of committing multiple counts of ‘incitement’ under section 505(A) of the Penal Code, which has been routinely used by the military junta to target critics of the regime. Following the conviction, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.

Thae Su Naing, a member of Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), was sentenced under Section 52 (A) of the Counter-Terrorism Law to seven years in prison by Meiktila Court in Mandalay region on 30 August 2022. The 24-year-old teacher was a former chairwoman of the Meiktila University Students’ Union and taught in the local township. On 14 December 2022, prominent Myanmar LGBTQI+ activist Sue Sha Shinn Thant was sentenced to 22 years in prison by a junta court in Mandalay for allegedly violating Section 505 (b) of Myanmar’s Penal code for inciting sedition against the State, and Section 50 (j) of the Counter Terrorism Law. 

While there have been some releases of political prisoners, human rights groups have noted that this was a tactic by the junta to ease the international pressure, and some were re-arrested after they were released.

Lawyers arrested, interrogated and beaten

There have been continued reports of the arrest and detention of lawyers in recent months. According to reports as of July 2022, the junta has arrested at least 42 lawyers since the illegal coup. On 29 June 2022, lawyer U Tin Win Aung, who had defended prominent Monywa protest leader Ko Wai Moe Naing, was arrested at Obo Prison along with lawyers U Thuta and Daw Thae Su Naing, who were defending other clients. The lawyers had been attending trials in a special court in the prison. Tin Win Aung suffered multiple injuries in the interrogation that followed his arrest, including a broken arm. Fellow lawyers U Thuta and Thae Su Naing were also beaten during interrogation.

Torture or other ill-treatment of detainees

There has been ongoing reports of torture and ill-treatment of activists in detention. A report published by the AAPP in March 2022 highlights systematic violations faced by prisoners in detention including torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment. The report found that around a hundred pro-democracy activists had been tortured to death in interrogation centres, most within 48 hours of arrest. Violence against detained political prisoners begins from the moment they are arrested, and 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.

In August 2022, Amnesty International published a briefing showing how prison officials kicked and slapped detainees, and also beat them with rifle butts, electrical wires and branches of a palm tree. Detainees also allege they were psychologically tortured with death and rape threats to force confessions or extract information about anti-coup activities. Interrogators also committed sexual and gender-based crimes. In October 2022, RFA Burmese reported that at least 145 people have died while being interrogated by authorities.

Activists sentenced to death and executed 

As noted above, the junta has handed down death sentences against activists. According to the UN as of December 2022, 139 individuals have been sentenced to capital punishment since 1 February 2021

On 23 July 2022 the junta executed four men in the country’s first death sentences carried out in over 30 years. The men put to death were Phyo Zeya Thaw, a rapper and former lawmaker from the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and Kyaw Min Yu, known as “Ko Jimmy,” a prominent democracy activist (pictured above). He was one of the leaders of the 88 Generation Students Group, veterans of the 1988 popular uprising against military rule. The other two were Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw. All those executed were convicted after closed trials that violated international standards.

In November 2022, the junta handed death sentences to ten people, including seven university students all members of the Dagon University Students’ Union, for allegedly being involved in a shooting that killed a former military officer. The seven had taken part in anti-regime protests and participated in the resistance against the junta’s rule. Their executions were scheduled for 7 December 2022 but postponed indefinitely by the junta due to international pressure.

Attack on civil society organisations

In the first year following the illegal coup, most civil society organisations were forced to reduce or suspend their operations or close their offices. Important documents and files had to be moved to safer places in different locations, and civil society leaders fearing their lives had to go into hiding or leave the country.

Over the last year, the situation has continued to worsen. In August 2022, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published a report stating that the military takeover has ‘taken a severe toll on civil society organisations and trade unions’ and how the “targeted persecution” of these groups, including arbitrary arrests, detentions, acts of violence, raids on homes and offices, seizure of equipment, threatening phone calls, interrogations and surveillance, have substantially limited their ability to operate. The UN agency said the risks extended to both organisations that had been banned since the coup and those not officially included on the blacklist, with authorities often arresting leaders under the pretext of “causing fear, spreading false news or agitating”.

In October 2022, the junta enacted the Organization Registration Law that makes registration compulsory for both national and international NGOs. Under the new law, which repealed the 2014 Association Registration Law, organisations that fail to comply will face punishments including jail terms of up to five years. The New rules have raised alarm among the UN and aid workers as it will impact humanitarian assistance to millions of displaced people. The International Commission on Jurists (ICJ) has stated that the law will further shackle the functioning of civil society in the country and isnon-compliant with international human rights law and standards

Jailing of politicians

Politicians and lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have been criminalised since the coup with many sentenced to long prison terms. The country’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced for multiple charges through the year, in a series of closed trials, with no access for media or the public, and a gag order on her lawyers from revealing information about the proceedings. In April 2022 she was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to five years in jail. In August, she was sentenced to another six years on corruption charges while in September she was again found guilty of electoral fraud and sentenced to three years in jail with hard labour.  In October, she was convicted  on two more corruption charges, with two three-year sentences to be served concurrently, adding to previous convictions while in  December, a military court sentenced Suu Kyi  for corruption to a further seven years in prison, taking her overall jail time to 33 years.

Imprisonment and killing of journalists

The junta has systematically targeted journalists since the coup. Many have been charged for violating section 505(a) of the penal code, which makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that “cause fear” or spread “false news.” In December 2022, The Committee to Protect Journalists said that the junta “has doubled down on its repression of journalists” and that in its second year in power the junta handed down harsh prison sentences in a bid to silence and eliminate the country’s few remaining independent media outlets. CPJ found that at least 42 journalists were imprisoned in Myanmar for their reporting as of 1 December 2022, a repressive 40 percent rise on the number recorded by CPJ on the same date in 2021. At least 4 have been killed.

Crackdown on online dissent

Activists have also been targeted for posts on social media critical of the junta. According to a report from January to the end of November 2022, 817 people were arrested or prosecuted for posting in support of the National Unity Government (NUG), the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) and People’s Defense Forces (PDFs) on social media platforms.

Protesters arrested and criminalised

Protests have persisted across the country despite the threat of arrest, torture and deadly attacks against protesters. Between 13 and 15 June 2022, at least 40 people who took part in anti-coup flash mob protests in Yangon were arrested. Some were arrested while military troops were checking overnight guest registrations in some townships. In July 2022, The junta arrested eight protesters in Kachin’s Hpakant Township. They were returning home after attending a public protest. On 2nd August 2022, multiple arrests were made in Yangon following calls for a public show of support for Myanmar’s resistance movement in the wake of the execution of four activists.

Many protesters have been given long sentences. A student leader who took part in anti-junta protests in Magway region was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a court in Kayin State on 1 December 2022 under Section 49(a) of the Counter-Terrorism law. Kaung Set Naing was the student leader of Magway city’s Medical University when the junta seized power. On 20 December 2022, Lu Phan Kar, a published poet,  who led anti-regime protests in Ayeyarwady region’s Pathein city, was sentenced to two years in prison for ‘incitement’ against the military. Lu Phan Kar is who began leading anti-junta demonstrations in Ayeyarwady region following the coup. He was previously sentenced for sedition and treason.

The ineffective regional and international response

Human rights groups have continued to criticise Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for its ineffectiveness in seriously addressing the human rights violations in Myanmar.

In August 2022, following the execution of four activists (see above), the human rights groups urged ASEAN to step up pressure on the military junta including imposing targeted sanctions and travel bans on junta leader Min Aung Hlaing and other officials and publicly engage and recognise the National Unity Government of Myanmar (NUG). However, there has been a lack of action.

special ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat on 27 October 2022 decided to persist with the failed peace plan. The ministers emphasised the need to ensure the time-bound implementation of a five-point consensus agreed to with the Burmese junta in April 2021.

In a rare move, in November 2022, Southeast Asian heads of governments issued a warning to Myanmar to make measurable progress on the peace plan or risk being barred from the bloc's meetings. The leaders concluded a need for "concrete, practical and measurable indicators with a specific timeline." To stave off pressure from ASEAN, Myanmar has organised prisoner releases.

At the UN Level, in March 2022, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights  said in a new report in 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. In March 2022, The Human Rights Council adopted by consensus 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.

In June 2022, Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar released a report which found that the military junta has brutally attacked and killed children and systematically abused their human rights. The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, said in August 2022 that crimes against humanity continue to be systematically committed in Myanmar, with ongoing conflicts severely impacting women and children

In December 2022, the UN General Assembly’s credentials committee deferred action on the military’s request to take over the country’s seat at the UN. While the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution on 21st December 2022, denouncing the Myanmar military’s rights violations since the coup. The landmark resolution was passed with 12 yes votes and 3 abstentions. The Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, however, affirmed that ‘’expressing deep concern’ and demanding that certain actions be taken without any use of the Security Council’s Chapter VII authority, will not stop the illegal Myanmar junta from attacking and destroying the lives of the 54 million people being held hostage in Myanmar.

Some countries have continued to increase sanctions on the junta over the year. In February 2022, the European Union adopted a fourth round of sanctions. The new listings target 22 persons and 4 entities, including government ministers, a member of junta and members of the Union Election Commission, as well as high-ranking members of the military. The restrictive measures come in addition to the withholding of EU financial assistance directly going to the government and the freezing of all EU assistance that may be seen as legitimising the junta.

In November 2022, the British government announced sanctions on the Office of the Chief of Military and Security Affairs; The 33rd Light Infantry Division (33 LID) of the Myanmar Army and the 99 Light Infantry Division (99 LID) of the Myanmar Army because of its responsibility for the use of torture, including sexual violence, against human rights and democracy activists who are illegally detained in Myanmar. In December 2022, Canada imposed sanctions on Myanmar military jet fuel suppliers, designating Asia Sun Group, a Myanmar conglomerate. Asia Sun Group is a local partner of the Myanmar military and is involved in procuring, storing and distributing jet fuel. On 20 December, both houses of the United States (US) legislature passed the Burma Act to provide non-military aid to the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) and its affiliate organisations, including the National Unity Consultative Council, the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) and ethnic armed organisations (EAO). The Burma Act also authorises measures to prevent the military regime from acquiring weapons and expands sanctions against junta businesses.

Recommendations to ASEAN and the international community:

  • Call upon the junta to release all individuals arbitrarily detained, human rights defenders, journalists, protesters, politicians and civil society members and refrain from using violence, halt arbitrary arrests against protesters and call for the total lifting of the broad ban on gatherings, which violates the rights to peaceful assembly under international law;
  • Call on the junta to immediately end and prevent further crimes under international law and other human rights violations, including all forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;     
  • Denounce and reject the proposed elections by the junta, which only further legitimise the crimes the military has committed and will prolong the suffering of the people of Myanmar under the junta;
  • Raise concerns publicly in multilateral fora including the upcoming Human Rights Council, and renew the Human Rights Council resolution on the situation of human rights in Myanmar to maintain the crucial UN Special Rapporteur mandate;
  • Refrain from any attempt to further legitimise the junta and instead engage with the National Unity Government (NUG) as the legitimate government of Myanmar, including in multilateral fora such as the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly;
  • Urge the Security Council to immediately impose a comprehensive arms embargo on Myanmar, refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court and impose targeted financial sanctions against senior officials suspected of responsibility for crimes under international law and serious violations;
  • Exercise universal and other forms of jurisdiction to investigate any person who may reasonably be suspected of committing crimes against humanity, war crimes or other crimes under international law;
  • Immediately suspend the direct and indirect supply, sale, and transfer, including transit, and brokering of aviation fuel to the junta and impose targeted sanctions against individuals and entities involved in the aviation fuel supply chain;
  • Take proactive steps in providing humanitarian assistance, particularly in ethnic and ceasefire areas;
  • Provide material and diplomatic support to civil society, journalists and activists at risk and support multilateral initiatives which ensure international scrutiny on Myanmar and further accountability and justice for crimes under international law.

 Civic space in Myanmar is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor



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