JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – Whether taken from their homes in the middle of the night or from the streets during protests, hundreds of people have been arrested in the weeks after Myanmar’s military coup, leading to human rights groups and experts fear a considerable expansion in the number of political prisoners in the country.
As of Tuesday, some 696 people, including monks, writers, activists, politicians and others, had been arrested in connection with the coup, according to the Association for Assistance for Political Prisoners, or AAPP, a Myanmar-based organization.
Many of those arrested were charged using a legacy of laws, some dating from the British colonial era and others instituted under previous military regimes, that have been used against critics by all governments, including the one led by the National League to the Aung San Suu Kyi Democracy. party, which was overthrown in the coup of February 1.
“The National League for Democracy was comfortable leaving repressive laws on the books because in some cases they felt they could take advantage of those laws on their own,” said Ronan Lee, visiting scholar with the Queen Mary University International State Crime Initiative. From london. .
“It is now clear that some of those laws will now be used as weapons against democracy activists in a way that perhaps the National League for Democracy did not foresee,” Lee said.
As the military continues to use and amend old laws to suppress dissidents, new laws are also being introduced, indicating the military’s intention to continue arresting protesters.
The hundreds arrested since the coup join the already hundreds of political prisoners in the country who were incarcerated both under the previous junta and under the National League for Democracy, or NLD.
“Now we have seen not only a new generation of political prisoners, but also the reorientation of former political prisoners,” said Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
During the NLD rule, journalists, critics of the army and the government, and others, were charged under the laws of the colonial era. According to the AAPP, Myanmar had more than 700 political prisoners as of January 31, and hundreds were charged during the NLD’s time in power.
Many of the repressive laws used against dissidents date back to the country’s colonial days.
After more than 120 years of British colonial rule, Myanmar, then called Burma, became an independent republic in 1948. Although it is no longer a British territory, the country retained many of its colonial-era laws, which were “designed by nature to be repressive and silence political opponents, ”said Nick Cheeseman, a member of the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University.
In 1962, the military seized control of the country through a coup and it remained under the junta’s rule for decades. Under the junta, people were regularly jailed for speaking out against the military. Those arrested were often sent to prison for years, and torture, which included beatings, water, and deprivation of food and sleep, was common, according to the AAPP. Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 years during a 21-year period during this time.
Before the democratic reforms finally took place, a period during which Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, her political party agreed to participate in the 2012 by-elections and press censorship was eased, Amnesty International estimated that Myanmar had more than 1,000 political prisoners. “One of the highest populations in the world.”
In the years after Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010, an amnesty for prisoners led to the release of thousands of prisoners, including some 200 political prisoners, while others remained incarcerated.
For many observers, this signaled hope for further reforms, a view that was reinforced when Suu Kyi’s party took power after a landslide victory in the 2015 elections.
But hope quickly faded in the years that followed, as repressive laws remained on the books and political prisoners remained without official recognition.
The lack of repeal of strict penal codes left some free speech activist groups and other groups in Myanmar, but “it didn’t really affect the number of people in the West who interacted with Aung San Suu Kyi” or his government, Lee said, the academic.
“What the military is trying to do is use the laws to add some legitimacy to their illegitimate seizure of power and the NLD gave them the opportunity to do that while leaving the old laws intact,” Lee said. “But there is also no doubt that if these laws did not work for the military, they would still find other ways to arrest people.”
Since this month’s coup, the military has also amended old penal codes and proposed new laws that experts say could be used as additional tools to crack down on dissidents.
For example, amendments made on February 14 to the sections of the country’s Penal Code on high treason state that people can be sentenced to “up to 20 years for planning to hinder the success of the defense or the application of the law.”
A controversial proposed cybersecurity law calls for the removal of online comments that are considered disinformation or misinformation that may cause “hate” or disrupt stability, and any comments that may violate any existing law. Those found to be breaking the law can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.
The legal changes “are a textbook example of an army trying to suppress dissent,” said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and founder of the AAPP. “The wording of these amendments literally puts anyone in jail.”
With the continued crackdown on anti-coup protesters, including arrests by plainclothes policemen in the middle of the night, prominent pro-democracy activists told The Associated Press that they have begun staying in safe houses to avoid arrest. Other detainees have had no contact with their families and their location is unknown.
“The conditions (for the prisoners) is something that worries us very much,” said Maung, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “We expect the worst, which is that people are being mistreated and possibly even tortured, because that is what used to happen.”