Myanmar army hunts protest backers over social media comments

Protesters hold up signs calling for the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Feb 13, 2021.
Protesters hold up signs calling for the release of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon on Feb 13, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - Myanmar’s army is hunting for seven well-known supporters of protests against this month’s coup and they face charges over comments on social media that threaten national stability, the army said on Saturday (Feb 13).

Among those named was Min Ko Naing, a one-time leader of bloodily suppressed protests in 1988, who has made calls supporting the street demonstrations and a civil disobedience campaign.

All seven are opponents of the Feb 1 coup in which the military took over and elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi was detained. The majority are also supporters of her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

The announcement came on the eighth day of protests across the South-east Asian country against the coup, which halted an unsteady transition to democracy that began in 2011 and roused fears of a return to an earlier era of repression.

People should inform the police if they spot any of the seven people named and will be punished if they shelter them, the army’s True News information team said in a statement on its Facebook page on Saturday.

It said cases had been filed under section 505 (b) of the penal code – which was often used by previous juntas and imposes a sentence of up to two years for comments that could cause alarm or “threaten tranquility”.

“I am so proud to have a warrant issued along with Min Ko Naing. Catch me if you can,” said one of those named, NLD lobbyist Ei Pencilo, on her Facebook page, which has over 1.6 million followers.

Meanwhile, the junta on Saturday suspended laws constraining security forces from detaining suspects or searching private property without court approval.

A statement signed by military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing ordered the suspension of three sections of the laws “protecting the privacy and security of the citizens”, which had been introduced after Myanmar opened up from half a century of army rule.

The sections suspended include the requirement for a court order to detain prisoners beyond 24 hours and constraints on security forces’ ability to enter – and if need be damage - private property to search it or make arrests. The suspensions also frees authorities to spy on all communications.

Separately, the United Nations human rights office said on Friday (Feb 12) more than 350 people have been arrested in Myanmar since the coup.

Journalist Shwe Yee Win, who had reported on opposition to the coup in the western town of Pathein, was taken away by police and soldiers on Thursday and has not been heard from since, her TimeAyeyar news website and her mother said.

“I am really worried,” said Thein Thein, now looking after her daughter’s one-year-old child. “Her son is in trouble now since she was breastfeeding him. She didn’t even get chance to put on her shoes before they took her.” 

The government did not respond to requests for comment.

Families left in the dark

Anger in Myanmar has been fuelled by videos showing more arrests of government critics – including a doctor who was part of the civil disobedience movement. Some arrests have taken place during the hours of darkness.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a watchdog group for political prisoners, voiced concern.

“Family members are left with no knowledge of the charges, location, or condition of their loved ones. These are not isolated incidents, and night-time raids are targeting dissenting voices,” it said in a statement.

The army said it had seized power because of alleged fraud in a November election that Suu Kyi’s NLD won in a landslide.
The electoral commission had dismissed the army’s complaints.

Suu Kyi, for decades the standard bearer of the fight for democracy in Myanmar, faces charges of illegally importing and using six walkie-talkie radios.

NLD press officer Kyi Toe said on Facebook that she was healthy under house arrest in the capital Naypyitaw.

The 47-member UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Friday calling on Myanmar to release Suu Kyi and other detainees and to refrain from using violence ion protesters.

Thomas Andrews, the UN rights investigator for Myanmar, said the UN Security Council should consider imposing sanctions and arms embargoes on Myanmar.

The United States this week began imposing sanctions on the ruling generals and some businesses linked to them.

Airline staff, health workers, engineers and school teachers were among groups that joined the protest marches on Saturday and that have rallied to a civil disobedience campaign that has shut down a swath of government business.