Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi appeared in court online on Tuesday to face new charges brought against her by the military regime, as growing numbers of government employees refused to go to work in defiance of the junta, whose spokesman said the detained 75-year-old leader is “in good health.”
After the Feb. 1 coup that deposed the democratically elected government, Aung San Suu Kyi initially was charged with possession of illegally imported walkie-talkie radios found in her home in Naypyidaw, an offense that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
On Tuesday, police filed a second charge against her for allegedly violating laws on public gatherings amid COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, attorney Khin Maung Zaw told reporters after the hearing.
“The charges are now different from the earlier ones,” he said.
In addition to the case on the initial charge for possession of the walkie-talkies, Aung San Suu Kyi has been hit with a new charge under Section 25 Natural Disaster Management Law, which pertains to the willful violation of Myanmar’s COVID-related restrictions on public gatherings and carries a penalty of imprisonment up to three years and a fine, said Khin Maung Zaw
“We will take care of both cases,” he said, adding that Aung San Suu Kyi’s next court appearance by video will be on March 1.
The new charge against Aung San Suu Kyi prompted a comment from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who tweeted: “New charges against Aung San Suu Kyi fabricated by the Myanmar military are a clear violation of her human rights. We stand with the people of Myanmar and will ensure those responsible for this coup are held to account.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won the Nov. 8 vote in a landslide deemed free and fair by the international community. But the military and its proxy party accused election officials of fraud, and after their claims were rejected, soldiers staged a coup on Feb. 1, arresting her and some 170 others, mostly politicians.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has not been seen in public since the coup, is “in good health,” Major General Zaw Min Tun, the junta spokesman, told reporters at the military regime’s first press conference since Feb. 1 coup, where he attempted to defend the legality of the coup.
“The commander-in-chief can take over state power in accordance with the constitution if an emergency situation arises by insurrection or threats by force leading to disintegration of the union and the unity of the national races or endangers endangered,” said Zaw Min Tun.
“The Tatmadaw has issued several statements following the coup, and you can see all the explanations about the legality in those statements,” Zaw Min Tun said, using the Burmese name for the Myanmar military.
He blamed protesters for incidents of violence and shootings, saying security forces have fired only rubber bullets at protesters who attack them by throwing rocks or other items.
“We didn’t put restrictions on everything. There are restrictions only on certain situations,” Zaw Min Tun said. “Police and other security personnel are carrying out their responsibilities in accordance with their manuals.”
‘Just for propaganda’
The junta’s first news conference since the coup after 10 days of large and noisy street protests across the country, drew largely negative reviews.
“These news conferences are just for propaganda, and I do not believe in them or their news agencies,” said Sai Tun Aye, a central executive committee member of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy party.
Soe Nyunt Lwin, Shan state’s planning and finance minister, said, “It was the same policies all along. Accusations against the people, the kinds of replies that are unacceptable to the people, the same usual things as before. We were very disappointed.”
Political analyst Than Soe Naing said the regime has showed on state TV only videos of protesters who attacked police, rather than the nonviolent and well-organized demonstrations that have prevailed in every major city.
“Despite the nationwide peaceful protests by hundreds of thousands of people, they showed only some episodes where a few people were throwing rocks at the police,” he said. “It is so ridiculous that the peaceful protesters were accused of being violent perpetrators. The real violent perpetrators are the security forces.”
The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, issued a statement saying he feared a clash between more aggressive troops and expanding protest crowds was growing more likely.
"I am terrified that given the confluence of these two developments - planned mass protests and troops converging - we could be on the precipice of the military committing even greater crimes against the people of Myanmar," he said.
"Today I am issuing an urgent call on all governments, individuals and entities that may have influence on Myanmar military authorities to use that influence to convince the junta that rallies planned for Wednesday must be allowed to proceed without detentions or violence. Continued repression of the people of Myanmar’s basic liberties and human rights must end immediately," said Andrews.
Meanwhile, the regime is amending a cyber law to control anti-military comments on social media, in a move that will suppress freedom of the press and freedom of expression, analysts and legal experts said. They said the law’s harsher punishments for violators were unjust and violated personal freedom.
It was originally reported last week that the junta was working on a new cybersecurity bill after information was leaked online, but so far it is amending the Electronic Transaction Law, which was enacted in 2004 and was used to crack down on activists, political dissidents, and independent media during 2007 Saffron Revolution, a Buddhist monk-led democracy movement.
More than 200 civilian society groups and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a labor union, said that changes to the law will be a setback for digital marketing developments.
“In 2004, they used these laws to file charges against politicians,” said Htike Htike Aung, executive director of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO). “Then later, they reduced the jail sentences to monetary fines. Now in the current law, they’ve reinstated the jail sentences. This means you can get jailed for writing something online.”
Nay Phone Latt, who was charged under the law after the Saffron Revolution, said that the changes broaden the scope of punishable offenses under the law.
“The anti-military movements are now going on not only outside, but also online, and this law is to suppress all the online movements,” he said. “They have tried to block Facebook, and very soon they will try to block anything that will let the world know what is happening here just like in China.”
Aung Myo Min, executive director Equality Myanmar, called the revamped act a “very dangerous law especially when there are political movements going on.”
“It will cover everyone who writes online any anti-military stuff or urges government employees not to go to work,” he said. “It’s just meant to suppress those writing posts online.”
High Court lawyer Kyee Myint agreed.
“They added the amendments so that the military will get the upper hand,” he said. “They are now adding new laws to have more control on online writings.”
Railway workers join protests
Despite the regime’s violent crackdowns and tightening grip on power, protesters and campaigners defied the dusk-to-dawn curfew and continued to rally against the junta and appealed to government employees to participate in the civil disobedience movement.
Military and police forces increased their presence in several locations.
In some cities, railway employees who joined the civil disobedience movement showed their opposition to the military government by lying down on tracks and blocking trains from leaving Insein railway station in Yangon.
“We, the staff from the railway engine factory unit of Myanmar Railways, are now protesting as part of the civil disobedience movement,” said a worker at the scene.
“The trains that are still operational will no longer be our responsibility,” he added. “In case of mechanical failure or accidents, we will have no responsibility. The top three officials who forced the trains to keep running will be responsible.”
More than 30 Buddhist monks protested against the military regime by walking from Nga Htat Gyi pagoda in Yangon to the city’s United Nations office.
In Hpa-an, capital of southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin state, more than 3,000 people protested in front of Myanmar Economic Bank office to appeal to workers to join the civil disobedience movement. They dispersed after the police and military soldiers arrived at the scene.
In Mawlamyine, capital of neighboring Mon State, more than 10,000 people demonstrated against the military regime. A train scheduled to leave for Yangon was canceled after protestors blocked the track to prevent it from departing.
Heavy security patrolled the area near Myanmar Economic Bank office in Myanmar’s central city of Mandalay, where the security forces tried to disperse crowds on Monday by firing guns.
In Pathein of Ayeyarwady region, more than 50,000 people marched in the city in protest against the regime, as police tried to stop them but made no arrests.
Tens of thousands of people protested in the towns of Myitkyina of Kachin State, Loikaw and Demoso in Kayah state, and Lashio in northern Shan State.
Authorities have arrested more than 426 people since Feb. 1, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Video of beating goes viral
Meanwhile, a video of police officers beating an unarmed disabled protester in Mandalay on Monday has gone viral online. He was beaten in the head while police arrested nine men protesting near a roundabout in Pyigyitagon township.
“All the protesters fled the scene when the police came in, but he could not run away since he limps and is partially hearing impaired,” said a witness at the scene. “He was caught by the police and beaten, but I didn’t hear that they arrested him.”
The same day, police also cracked down on protestors outside a Myanmar Economic Bank branch in Mandalay’s Myae Tharzan township, with officers using gunfire to try to disperse crowds and attacking reporters with batons and slingshots.
Police arrested 20 people, but later released them after they signed statement saying that they were not aware of the curfew and ban on public assemblies and pledged that they would not participate in other protests.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.