Myanmar Junta’s Political Prisoners Since Coup Now Number 10,000

The military junta that seized power in Myanmar 14 months ago is now detaining 10,000 political prisoners, a rights organization that monitors detentions said on Thursday. Many of the prisoners have been tortured and are being held in deplorable conditions, according to the group.

The regime’s crackdown has been so harsh that more political prisoners are now being held in Myanmar than were imprisoned in total throughout the half century of military rule that ended in 2010, said U Aung Myo Kyaw, a spokesman for the rights group, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

“We have the largest number of political prisoners in Myanmar’s history in barely a year,” he said.

Myanmar reached the grim milestone of 10,000 political prisoners held at a single time as the regime continues to imprison suspected opponents at a rate of about 20 people a day, according to A.A.P.P., which has closely tracked arrests since the coup on Feb. 1 last year.

That figure does not include the more than 3,000 political prisoners who were arrested and released, often after enduring brutal interrogations and many months in prison. Nearly 2,000 more opponents of the regime are evading arrest warrants, including many who have fled to the jungle to join an armed resistance against the junta.

While celebrating Armed Forces Day on Sunday, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of the coup, called opponents of the regime “terrorists” and vowed to “annihilate them to an end.” On the same holiday honoring the military a year ago, the security forces killed at least 114 protesters during its deadliest day since taking power.

Not long ago, Western countries had high hopes for democracy in Myanmar.

The military, which first seized power in 1962, began relaxing its grip more than a decade ago, allowing for democratic elections, the proliferation of cellphones and the embrace of social media.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, standing center, during Armed Forces Day on Sunday. He called opponents of the regime “terrorists” and vowed to “annihilate them to an end.”Credit…Nyein Chan Naing/EPA, via Shutterstock

The longtime democracy advocate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who had endured 15 years under house arrest, led her National League for Democracy party to a landslide election victory in 2015 and formed a civilian government in a power-sharing arrangement with the generals.

But after her party won a second landslide vote in 2020, the military seized full control, imprisoning Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, and at least 640 other officials and party leaders, according to the National League for Democracy.

After nationwide protests erupted, the security forces responded by shooting some protesters, arresting others and raiding the homes of suspected critics. The A.A.P.P. says at least 1,723 civilians have been killed.

President Biden and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong issued a joint statement in Washington on Tuesday calling on the Myanmar junta to release political prisoners, allow humanitarian access and begin restoring democracy.

“The United States and Singapore share deep concerns about the situation in Myanmar and the challenges it poses to regional stability,” the two leaders said. “We continue to call for an end to violence against civilians in Myanmar, the release of all political detainees, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and foreign detainees.”

Antony J. Blinken, the United States secretary of state, estimated in December that more than a million political prisoners are being held in more than 65 countries around the world.

“More individuals are being unjustly detained or convicted in sham trials with each passing day,” he said, citing the case of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to six years in prison in December and January and faces a dozen more counts. Mr. Blinken urged countries detaining political prisoners to free them.

While numbers are difficult to come by, North Korea probably holds the most political prisoners of any nation, with estimates of 120,000 or more. Many are imprisoned in a vast network of forced labor camps that has been expanded under its brutal ruler, Kim Jong-un. In Egypt, where the armed forces commander, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, seized power in 2013, human rights groups say the regime holds as many as 60,000 political prisoners.

In Southeast Asia, Myanmar has quickly outstripped the dismal records of its autocratic neighbors, including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

“Quite clearly, the number of people in detention in Myanmar is off the charts compared to anywhere else in the region,” he said. “There is no doubt that Myanmar has the worst human rights situation in Southeast Asia.”

Volunteer medics unloading the body of a student protestor who died after being shot during protests in Yangon in March 2021.Credit…The New York Times

Throughout the previous period of military rule in Myanmar from 1962 to 2010, A.A.P.P. estimates that the entire number of political prisoners totaled less than 10,000, and possibly as few as 7,000.

Understanding the Coup in Myanmar

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A military coup. Following a military coup on Feb. 1, 2021, unrest gripped Myanmar. Peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations gave way to insurgent uprisings against the Tatmadaw, the country’s military, which ousted the country’s civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi is a polarizing figure. The daughter of a hero of Myanmar’s independence, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi remains very popular at home. Internationally, her reputation has been tarnished by her recent cooperation with the same military generals who ousted her.

The coup ended a short span of quasi-democracy. In 2011, the Tatmadaw implemented parliamentary elections and other reforms. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi came to power as state councillor in 2016, becoming the country’s de facto head of government.

The coup was preceded by a contested election. In the Nov. 8 election, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 83 percent of the body’s available seats. The military, whose proxy party suffered a crushing defeat, refused to accept the results of the vote.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi faces years in prison. The ousted leader has been sentenced to a total of six years in prison so far, with many more charges pending against her. The U.N., foreign governments and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s defenders have described the charges as politically motivated.

The current regime, in addition to targeting elected officials and party leaders, has gone after journalists, doctors, human rights activists, teachers and celebrities.

Of those imprisoned since the coup, the rights group said, 890 have been convicted and sentenced, often to many years in prison. Of these, 52 have been sentenced to death, including U Phyo Zayar Thaw, a famous hip-hop artist and a member of Parliament, who was arrested in November with a stash of weapons and accused of leading attacks against the regime.

More than 9,100 prisoners are awaiting trial, many of them for more than a year. Sean Turnell, an Australian who was Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s economic adviser, is now being tried with her on a charge of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carries a sentence of up to 14 years.

The 10,000 figure does not include at least 103 others who have died in custody, many of them from torture during interrogation, A.A.P.P. said. For those who reach court, the trials are usually brief, with little opportunity to mount a defense.

U Khin Maung Myint, a former prison guard who became a lawyer and now represents defendants detained for opposing the coup, said the system guarantees their incarceration. Some of the accused are tried by military tribunals, where attorneys are barred from attending and defendants receive the maximum sentence, he said.

In civilian courts, defense attorneys are allowed to be present, but they are rarely allowed to cross-examine witnesses. All trials are closed to the public, the hearings are brief and everyone who goes on trial is found guilty, he said.

“No one has been acquitted at all,” Mr. Khin Maung Myint said. “As more and more people are arrested and convicted, there are more political prisoners in prisons than ever before.”

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