Myanmar’s Democracy Veterans Once Again Political Prisoners


Bangkok, Feb 6 (AFP/APP): Carrying just a small bag, Mya Aye was escorted from his home in the dead of the night by Myanmar soldiers just as an internet blackout shrouded the country and a dawn coup ousted its civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military takeover stunned the world and brought a decade-long democratic experiment to a shuddering halt, but for the lifelong democracy activist and other veteran critics of the country’s generals, this week’s events were all too familiar.

“He prepared a little backpack by the door with clothes and toothpaste,” said Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, the daughter of Mya Aye, of her father’s contingency plan in the event that whispered rumours of an imminent putsch proved true. “He was arrested twice before so it’s something he is used to.”

Mya Aye is one of the leaders of the 88 Generation, a veteran pro-democracy group that came of age during an uprising against junta rule in 1988. That protest culminated in a brutal crackdown that saw thousands gunned down by soldiers and the rise of Suu Kyi as the national avatar of resistance to military rule. Now 54, Mya Aye has been in and out of prison for his activism ever since. He is among more than a dozen activists and pro-democracy figures who have been detained by the new regime this week, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

The Yangon-based monitoring group says more than 130 officials and lawmakers have also been nabbed, with other arrest reports yet to be confirmed. It is unclear whether more detentions will follow, but news of the arrests has already cast a pall of fear over the country.

“Activists and independent journalists have fled their homes and are now in hiding after receiving tip-offs that… they could be arrested at any time,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

Going backwards

Before the generals loosened their grip on the country in 2011, Myanmar had been ruled by the military for 49 consecutive years. Its tentative move to democracy and opening to the outside world meant a sudden flood of cheap SIM cards, giving an information-hungry people access to mobile internet at the same time as decades-old censorship laws were relaxed.

But by Saturday, Myanmar had been plunged into its second internet shutdown of the week, almost completely halting the frenetic flow of news out of the country. Relatives of prominent dissidents are also scared to fall afoul of the new military administration, making it difficult to confirm other rumoured arrests. For the nephew of Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, a filmmaker previously jailed for criticising Myanmar’s military-drafted constitution, it is clear his uncle was nabbed the night of the coup because of his high standing with the public.

“I think they arrested all dissidents who could share the right information to the public,” said Khaung Satt Naing, adding that authorities refuse to share his uncle’s whereabouts. Po Po, the wife of a former prominent student union leader who was detained on Monday, said she had not heard from her husband and was worried about his health. But she told AFP she fully supported Min Thway Thit’s championing of the democratic cause.

“A military coup means we’re going backwards… I want to call for the immediate release of (all) who are currently arrested,” she said.

Not the life we want

Her calls have been echoed by the international community, including US President Joe Biden who have demanded the generals “relinquish power”. Wai Hnin Pwint Thon — herself an activist with the Burma Campaign UK lobby group — says Western countries need to impose new targeted sanctions to military-linked institutions and businesses. She says she does not want other Myanmar people to live through the imprisonment of their loved ones.

“The first time I saw my dad was when I was four years old through iron bars at Insein prison,” said the 32-year-old, who still has no idea about her father’s current whereabouts. “The next generation (could) live through this again,” she added. “Children will go see their parents behind bars — this is not the life we want.”

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