Two years on: The dwindling freedoms following Myanmar’s military coup
This year’s planned elections in Myanmar were always going to be controversial. Then, last week, the military junta running the country announced new laws that will create even more barriers to democracy. Political parties must re-register within 60 days and register at least 100,000 members. Those the military-controlled government considers linked to terrorist groups or illegal will not be allowed to form.
Two years after the military coup in 2021, Burmese journalist Wai Moe recalls seeing military fighters in the city of Yangon.
“Many of my friends, they didn’t believe there would be a coup, but I already believed it,” he told Index.
On the morning of February 1, 2021, the phone rings. A friend told Moe that the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, had been arrested. That night, he recalled the military announcement that due to the emergency situation, power would be given to the Commander-in-Chief, General Min Aung Hlaing.
“I learned about the coup … I was very scared,” Moe said. “I thought: ‘They are going to arrest me.’
He was not arrested that day, but when he was offered the opportunity to flee the country on a chartered plane in April, he took it.
Moe is now in exile from Myanmar for the second time in his life. The first opportunity came after his release from a five-year term as a political prisoner in the mid-1990s. He said he was part of an underground organization that secretly studied politics and history.
He continues to talk to people in Myanmar, some of whom he describes as returning to normal life after the recent lifting of the curfew. They visit bars and nightclubs. “Day by day they are in control,” he said of the military, believing the curfew is a sign of this.
The changing face of the protest movement
“When the coup happened, it was initially a large-scale protest resistance,” Dan Anlezark, the deputy head of investigations at Myanmar Witness, told Index. This Burmese-led organization was founded in March 2021 in response to events that unfolded after the coup. The group identifies and verifies potential human rights violations to promote accountability in Myanmar, often using videos and testimonies posted on Facebook and other digital platforms.
After the protests came violent crackdowns.
Student Thu Thu Zin marched at the front of a small anti-coup protest in Mandalay on July 27, 2021, taking one side of the red Mya Taung Strike Front flag and chanting. According to the testimony verified by Myanmar Witness, the 25-year-old was shot and killed. There was nothing to suggest that Zin or the protesters were violent. Zin’s body was removed, sand was used to hide the blood and her body was placed in the back of a truck and taken away. Her family found out about her death when they saw pictures of her body on social media. The report concludes that the shooting can be attributed, with reasonable certainty, to the military.
“She became quite symbolic of the protest movement at the beginning, of that resistance and how powerfully it was met,” said Anlezark.
Since that time the landscape has changed.
“When the protesters saw exactly how much force they were being met with, those protests died down. If you’re met with a gun, and you know they’re prepared to use it, that’s not the most effective form of resistance,” he said. Any protests that still take place tend to be smaller and reactions to specific events.
Now there is an armed struggle for democracy as a network of civilian groups, called the People’s Defense Force, clashes with the military. Meanwhile, military junta vehicle convoys are deliberately burning down villages at an alarming rate, according to evidence seen by Myanmar Witness.
To put the horror of this situation into context, Anlezark explained that they were examining evidence of burned bodies that were found handcuffed.
“The why is always difficult to answer,” he said. “Looks like the towns have a link to say PDF [People’s Defence Force] operations or there is a PDF base nearby, or it is seen in the eyes of the SAC [State Administration Council] as a means of potential intimidation. Or just to scare the living daylights out of people.”
Erin Michalak has a background in forensic science and now works extensively with the weapons team at Myanmar Witness. She explained that an increase in unguided airstrikes comes hand in hand with the SAC having more aircraft at their disposal. Air assets were transferred from countries including Russia. For some areas in Myanmar, access by ground troops was difficult, but airstrikes made these places potential targets.
“Comments that I see and what I hear is that the airstrikes are almost a symptom of the SAC knowing that they are not winning or that they are not progressing as they would like in a ground war,” Anlezark said.
The disappearing Myanmar media
“On March 8, they banned all the private publications,” Moe told Index, explaining that any continuing news outlets are state-controlled. After five publications initially had their licenses revoked, the rest soon fell victim.
Some citizens turned to foreign radio, such as the BBC and Radio Free Asia, and accessed international news through VPNs, Moe explained. Facebook was banned in the early days of the coup, but it is still widely used to share information, as is the messaging app Telegram.
“If they [media] was pro-democracy or anti-regime, it was closed or there was a sense that there was going to be something negative that happened,” Michalak said. “And there are reports and allegations of journalists being detained and imprisoned in Myanmar – that’s harder to verify.”
In addition, she described evidence of some prisons operating without proper court systems and carrying out their own sentencing.
“It’s really hard to get an understanding of what’s really going on here,” she said. “But there is evidence that there has been a negative effect on journalism and freedom of speech in the country.”
In January this year, the military junta released hundreds of political prisoners to mark Myanmar’s 75th anniversary of independence. Although welcome news for those released, thousands remain behind bars, including former leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is likely to spend the rest of her life in prison and Htien Lin, an artist and index contributor who was arrested last August is .
“It seems to be very political, with international viewers noticing that they are releasing these prisoners,” Michalak said.
She described how most of the sentences were linked to freedom of speech and expression of dissent with the regime. Keeping high-profile figures longer would have been difficult for the military, she said.
Myanmar’s military administration has claimed it will hold a general election in August 2023, coinciding with the end of the state of emergency.
“We will be watching this very closely to identify voter coercion, withdrawal, fraud and violence, which will almost certainly occur against protesters and people trying to cast a democratic vote,” Anlezark said.
Moe does not see how any proposed elections can be free and fair.
“There is no room for media, no room for press freedom,” he said. “They’re just looking for legitimacy.”
In the run-up, the army is conducting a nationwide census, and the reasons for it are unclear. The information in the hands of the junta, Anlezark said, could become a target list. It may show who is still in the country, who should be and who may have disappeared to join the network of armed civilian groups that have training camps in the jungle. Daily allegations on Facebook claim that census officials are going from town to town checking their lists. Myanmar Witness monitors and collects the information.
As for the future of the country, from which he has been banned again, Moe said: “We have to find a way out of the crisis.”