Myanmar: Civic space regresses further after three years of sustained junta repression

Myanmar 3 year coup anniversary

A model of Insein prison, where thousands of political prisoners have been detained, is seen at the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) office in Mae Sot, Thailand. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Three years on from the Feb 2021 coup, the assault on civic space by the junta has persisted. In 2023, the CIVICUS Monitor documented the ongoing criminalization of activists and protesters, the silencing of journalists and increasing control of the media, the targeting of lawyers and torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners. Our organisation has also documented digital repression by the junta, the blocking of humanitarian workers and continued violations against the Rohingya.  As a result of this, Myanmar’s civic space rating was downgraded from ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor in March 2023.

Criminalisation of activists

Myanmar criminalisation of activistsOver the year, the CIVICUS Monitor continued to document the criminalization of activists for terrorism, incitement and high treason.

In February 2023, a military court sentenced Ko Hein Htet aka Ko Po Po, a student activist of the North Okkalapa students’ union, to life in prison for ‘incitement’ and terrorism.   In the same month former student leader and democracy activist Ko Lin Htet Naing, aka Ko James was given an additional five years in prison for terrorism. On 22 March, a court inside Insein Prison sentenced Ko Kaung Sett Paing, a member of Yangon’s North Okkalapa students’ union, to life imprisonment for ‘incitement’. He was then sentenced to death on 25 April for terrorism.

In April 2023, the junta sentenced jailed protest leader Ko Wai Moe Naing (pictured above) to an additional 20 years in prison on trumped up charges of robbery, rioting and carrying a deadly weapon in a crowd. On 19 May 2023, he was sentenced to another 20 years’ imprisonment for committing high treason.

In April 2023, Kachin Baptist leader Reverend Hkalam Samson was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of terrorism, unlawful association and inciting opposition to the military regime. In May 2023, a court in Insein Prison sentenced student activist Banyar Soe Htet to an additional 10 years in prison for funding terrorism , meaning he is set to serve a total of 84 years.

In June 2023, the junta sentenced a male LGBTQI+ activist to 10 years in prison for terrorism. Justin Min Hein was the president of the LGBTQ Union in the country’s central Mandalay region,   and was a leader of several anti-junta activities. In July 2023, the Eastern Yangon District Court sentenced a student activist, Nyan Win Htet to a further five years in prison for alleged terrorism.

In October 2023, the Monywa Prison Court sentenced human rights defender Man Zar Myay Mon to 11 years in prison, on three counts under the Counter-Terrorism Law. He is an environmental and land rights defender, a leading figure of peaceful anti-coup protests in Chaung-U Township, Sagaing Region, following the military coup.

Arrest and jailing of protesters

Myanmar arrest and jailing of activistsProtesters continued to mobilise over the year despite the restrictive environment. Some faced arrests and prosecution for their activism.

In March 2023, a junta court sentenced 13 youth activists to three years of hard labour in prison each for “incitement” after they organised a flash protest in September 2022 against military rule that authorities broke up by ploughing into them with vehicles.

According to Burma Coup Watch, the junta arrested at least 165 people throughout the country for allegedly joining the “Flower Strike” to celebrate State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s 78th birthday on 19 June 2023. Among those arrested  are  women who were wearing flowers.

On 8 August 2023, civilians across Myanmar commemorated the 35th anniversary of the pro-democracy uprising as they held protests against the ruling military junta. Protesters gathered in Yangon, Sagaing, Mandalay and Tanintharyi regions holding red umbrellas, putting up posters with anti-regime slogans, and burning mock-ups of the newly issued 20,000-kyat note to mark the anniversary of “8888.” Three protesters were arrested in Sagaing Region’s Monywa Township when the junta opened fire on six young activists commemorating the anniversary.

Silencing of journalists and increasing control of the media

Myanmar silencing of journalistsJournalists and media outlets have continued to be targeted by the junta. Kyaw Min Swe (picture above), the editor-in-chief of The Voice Weekly magazine was charged in April 2023 with ‘incitement’. In June 2023, the junta revoked the Ayeyarwaddy Times’ media license for allegedly breaching Article 8 of the Publishing Act, which bans disseminating information that “disrupts public peace and tranquility”.

In June 2023, the Western Yangon District Court sentenced Thaung Win, The Irrawaddy’s publisher, to five years in prison under Article 124-A of the penal code, which covers penalties for the crime of sedition. In September 2023, a military tribunal sentenced photojournalist Sai Zaw Thaike of independent news outlet Myanmar Now to 20 years in prison with hard labour over his coverage of the aftermath of a deadly cyclone after convicting him on various charges, including sedition. Sai Zaw Thaike was provided with no legal representation throughout his detention. There were no court hearings or other proceedings held inside the Insein Prison compound before his conviction.

On 30 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. On 11 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. 

In November 2023, the junta took control of the authority in charge of overseeing television and radio media. It also amended the law without discussion to take control of the Broadcasting Council, the authority in charge of overseeing television and radio media.

Lawyers targeted

In June 2023, Human Rights Watch published a report  highlighting a  pattern of harassment, surveillance, arrests, and in some cases torture, of lawyers since the coup, particularly those taking on political cases.

At least 32 lawyers have been arrested and placed in pre-trial detention with little evidence supporting the charges against them. Many have been charged with incitement and terrorism in summary trials that do not meet international fair trial standards.

Lawyers also reported ill treatment or torture of detained colleagues. Inside special courts, lawyers and their clients face numerous problems, including being forbidden to privately communicate or discuss their cases prior to hearings. Lawyers said that junta officials frequently obstructed or prevented them from carrying out their professional duties, denying suspects their rights to due process and a fair trial.

Torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners

Myanmar torturePolitical prisoners continued to face harsh treatment in prisons. A report by AAPPB published in July 2023 highlighted that from the moment of their arrest they are subjected to interrogation which amounts to torture and inhumane treatment. It also found that even after their release, political prisoners are often left traumatised.

In August 2023, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that prison guards at  Thayarwady prison beat 31 political prisoners for marking the country’s Martyrs’ Day, with four having to be treated for their injuries in the prison hospital. In the same month at least 20 political prisoners in Mandalay Region’s Myingyan Prison were tortured while in solitary confinement. The prison authorities also used tasers to inflict further injuries on the prisoners.

In September 2023, Myanmar Now reported that authorities had been abusing political prisoners after moving them to Mandalay’s Obo Prison from facilities elsewhere in Myanmar. After they were transferred from Monywa Prison, located 80 miles west of Mandalay, 90 male and 11 female inmates were beaten and tortured. Prison authorities allegedly kicked inmates in the face while wearing army boots, shocked them with tasers and beat them with batons. At least 50 were left with lasting injuries.

Digital repression by the junta

Activists have also been targeted online for their activism. In March 2023, UN experts said that the military junta was orchestrating an online campaign of terror, and weaponising social media platforms to harass and incite violence against activists. Women have been targeted and severely harmed. They noted that women are often targets of so-called “doxxing”, the act of publishing private information, including names and addresses, about individuals without their consent. These attacks are frequently accompanied by calls for violence or arrest by junta forces. “Doxxed” women have also been accused of having sexual relations with Muslim men or supporting the Muslim population – a common ultranationalist, discriminatory and Islamophobic narrative in Myanmar.

Some activists have also been criminalised for their online expression. In June 2023, the junta arrested and prosecuted 50 people for allegedly posting anti-regime content on social media platforms. According to junta announcements, people had been prosecuted under antiterrorism laws for comments they made on Facebook, Telegram and TikTok.

Freedom House, 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.

Blocking of humanitarian workers

The junta obstructed humanitarian aid in May 2023 following Cyclone Mocha, putting thousands of lives at risk. According to HRW, junta authorities refused to authorise travel and visas for aid workers, release urgent supplies from customs and warehouses, or relax onerous and unnecessary restrictions on lifesaving assistance.

HRW interviewed aid workers and people in affected communities who described how the junta’s failed relief response has been deliberate. Many aid workers, local activists and villagers expressed the view that the junta used the cyclone response to legitimise and bolster its control.

On 8th June 2023, after weeks of appeals by humanitarian organisations for unrestricted access, the junta formalised its obstruction by issuing a blanket suspension of travel authorisations for aid groups in Rakhine State, reversing initial approvals granted in early June.

Rohingyas at risk

Human rights groups  said 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'.

Actions from the international community

UNSC RFAASEAN has continued to fail to address the human rights violations in Myanmar. The five-point consensus agreement decided by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders in Jakarta in April 2021 has seen no tangible progress in addressing the crisis and violations by the junta. In May 2023, civil society organisations, launched a position paper to call for a review and reframing of the five-Point Consensus and the bloc’s current approach.  In September 2023, ASEAN established a troika mechanism that would allow the immediate past, current and incoming ASEAN chairs to manage the crisis.

The UN on the other hand has done more to document violations and seek to hold the junta accountable. In March 2023, a report published by the UN Human Rights Office found that the junta has created a perpetual human rights crisis through the continuous use of violence, including the killing, arbitrary arrest, torture and enforced disappearance of anti-coup opponents. In April 2023, a resolution was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council by consensus that unequivocally condemned the junta’s continuing violence against civilians and the democratic resistance. However, the resolution failed to explicitly call for a comprehensive arms embargo;

In July 2023, Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Myanmar was in deadly freefall into even deeper violence. He highlighted how the voices of civil society and journalists are being strangled and that arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture continue unabated. In September 2023, Nicholas Koumjian, head of the investigation team of the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) said "the frequency and intensity of war crimes and crimes against humanity has only increased in recent months.” 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. 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.”.

A number of countries have also imposed sanctions. In February 2023, the European Union issued sanctions targeting the military and associates facilitating their crimes. In March 2023, The United States Treasury Department announced additional sanctions on Myanmar to prevent supplies of jet fuel from reaching the military in response to airstrikes on populated areas and other atrocities.

In June 2023, the US imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s defence ministry and two banks while in July 2023, the EU imposed a seventh round of restrictive measures against six individuals and one entity In August, the United States allowed for sanctions to be imposed on any foreign individual or entity determined to be operating in the jet fuel sector of Myanmar’s economy.

In October 2023, the US imposed a ban on financial transactions involving the Myanmar state-owned oil company, the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). 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.

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 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;     
  • 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 arms and aviation fuel to the junta and impose targeted sanctions against individuals and entities involved in the arms and aviation fuel supply chain;
  • Take proactive steps in providing humanitarian assistance, particularly in ethnic and ceasefire areas and condemn blockades by the junta;
  • 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 "Closed" by the CIVICUS Monitor



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