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Two Years On, Myanmar’s Junta Refuses to Loosen Its Grip
New law aims to crush political opponents amid worsening repression
By: Michael Hart
February 1st marked two years since Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government and placed its de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest. She has since been sentenced to 33 years in jail, having been convicted in secret military trials on a raft of spurious charges. The guilty verdicts were clearly designed to end the participation of the 77-year-old veteran in electoral politics, while new legislation, approved in January, appears crafted to ensure that no opposition party can emerge as a contender to the ruling junta.
National elections due by August will also likely be delayed, after junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing (pictured, above) announced last week that Myanmar’s state of emergency, imposed at the outset of the coup, will remain in place for at least another six months. The junta is doing all it can to avoid another reckoning with voters – however stage-managed – after the election in November 2020 delivered a landslide victory for the NLD. And with no intention of loosening its grip on power, the junta is increasingly turning to repression.
The junta’s repressive rule
In the two years since the army seized power, at least 2,900 anti-coup activists have been killed by regime forces while 17,000 have been arrested, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Arrest raids often take place during the night and without a warrant, with soldiers ransacking houses and beating the occupants before dragging away the accused. Once in detention, those captured face torture and mistreatment. Amnesty International has worked to document the experiences of detainees since the coup, revealing harrowing testimonies of officials beating victims with branches, rifle butts, and electrical wires. Many anti-coup activists have reportedly died during interrogation—the total is hard to verify as many are held incommunicado without legal recourse.
In a warning to anti-regime protesters, last July Myanmar carried out its first executions in decades, hanging four men including a former NLD lawmaker and a high-profile democracy activist. Phyo Zeya Thaw, a member of parliament from 2016 until the coup, was convicted in a closed military court on vague offenses related to explosives and financing terrorism, while veteran campaigner Kyaw Min Yu was found guilty over alleged social media posts inciting unrest. Responsibility for their brutal killings goes right to the top—as according to the law in Myanmar, executions by the state can only proceed with government approval. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing used these show trails, in which proceedings were rushed and the defendants had no right of appeal, to send a message to those opposing his regime.
On the second anniversary of the coup, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that military atrocities in Myanmar were worsening and amounted to “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” As post-coup violence has intensified, the army has used indiscriminate weapons to target insurgent groups, bombing ethnic minority areas in the states of Kachin, Karen, and Shan with little regard for civilians. Activists have accused the military of adopting its favored “scorched earth” tactics—used extensively in previous years to target the Rohingya in Rakhine state—nationwide, burning entire villages to the ground. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that 1 million people have been displaced, with 70,000 refugees fleeing across international borders.
To make matters worse, the junta has blocked humanitarian aid to conflict-hit regions, resulting in food and water shortages and increased risk of disease and severe malnutrition. This suffering takes place largely out of view of the world’s media, with journalists targeted in the post-coup crackdown. “Press freedom conditions in Myanmar have deteriorated drastically,” reports Shawn Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), referencing the junta’s “targeted harassment, imprisonment, and killing of journalists.” Most journalists sentenced for their work were convicted, according to the CPJ, under ill-defined laws penalizing “incitement” and “false news,” while others were charged under the Unlawful Associations Act or counter-terror legislation.
Political opponents silenced
The courts have also been used to silence the NLD leadership. After the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with a growing list of offenses, ranging from corruption to breaking COVID-19 public health rules and the illegal importation of walkie-talkies. She has been convicted via a string of closed court hearings, the last of which added seven years to her total sentence. Her jail time now exceeds three decades, while former president Win Myint was sentenced to 173 years under anti-terrorism laws. Amnesty International has labeled the charges against senior NLD figures “farcical” and condemned the trials as “politically motivated” and “completely lacking in anything resembling transparency.”
Rank and file members of the NLD are also being tracked down. The party says at least 1,232 of its members and officials have been arrested since the coup and 84 have been killed. Twenty-five died either during interrogation or in prison, while 59 were murdered outside of custody by the military, police, or junta-backed Pyusawhti militias, forcing NLD members to live in constant fear of reprisal.
The NLD has not been formally dissolved, yet it is clear from the new law governing political parties, announced in January, that neither the NLD, nor members of the exiled National Unity Government (NUG), will be able to run in future elections. The legislation bans parties and candidates deemed to have ties to armed insurgent groups or organizations designated by the state as “committing acts of terrorism.” This rules out the NUG due to its network of People’s Defense Forces (PDFs). Parties with links to rebel groups representing ethnic minorities in border areas will also not be permitted to run.
The NLD—as an existing political party—faces being “automatically invalidated” unless the election commission overseen by the junta grants it registration within two months of the new law entering into force. Parties are not allowed to appeal against decisions on registration—effectively giving the junta full power over who can contest elections. When the next poll takes place, it is likely that only the military-backed Unity Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and other proxies will be on the ballot—perhaps alongside a few hand-picked, smaller opposition parties that will not pose a threat.
Failed international response
The response of Myanmar’s neighbors to the junta’s repression has been severely lacking. The five-point consensus, adopted by Association of Southeast East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders following the coup, has made no difference. Its calls for dialogue among all parties and an end to conflict have been ignored by the junta. The bloc’s diplomacy, based on non-interference and consensus, has not been bold enough to provoke action, while the key ASEAN member states are divided. Malaysia and Indonesia have publicly criticized the junta, while Thailand—with its own army-backed regime—and Cambodia—under the longtime authoritarian rule of Hun Sen—have taken a much softer approach.
A coordinated response has also been absent at the international level. Economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, and a handful of other Western nations have had minimal impact, with the junta able to count on key allies Russia and China for support. A UN Security Council resolution adopted in December—tellingly, the first on Myanmar since the 2021 coup—called for an “immediate end to all forms of violence” and expressed “deep concern.” That will be of little help for those at the mercy of the regime. The UN’s Special Rapporteur for Myanmar, Tom Andrews, recently reflected on their sentiment: “[it] will not stop the illegal Myanmar junta from attacking and destroying the lives of the 54 million people being held hostage in Myanmar. What is required is action.”
Michael Hart has researched for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), and is publications consultant at the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. He blogs at Asia Conflict Watch.