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Experts fear new wave of political prisoners in Myanmar

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) – Whether they were abducted from their homes in the middle of the night or abducted from the streets during protests, hundreds of people were arrested in the weeks following the military coup of Myanmar, which has led rights groups to increase 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 to Political Prisoners, or AAPP, a Myanmar-based organization.

Many of those arrested have been charged using a legacy of laws – some dating from British colonial times and others instituted under previous military regimes – which have been used against criticism by all governments, including the one led by Aung San Suu Kyi National League for Democracy. party, which was ousted in the February 1 coup.

“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 themselves,” said Ronan Lee, visiting scholar at the International State Crime Initiative of Queen Mary University of London. .

“It is now clear that some of these laws are now going to be used as a weapon 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 clamp down on dissidents, new laws are also being introduced, signaling 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 jailed both under the previous junta and under the National League for Democracy, or NLD.

“We have now seen not only a new generation of political prisoners, but also the retargeting of former political prisoners,” said Manny Maung, Burmese researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

During the reign of the NLD, journalists, military and government critics, and others were charged under colonial-era laws. Myanmar had more than 700 political prisoners as of January 31, according to the AAPP, with hundreds indicted during the NLD’s tenure.

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 no longer a British territory, the country has retained many of its colonial-era laws, which were “designed by nature to be repressive and repressive.” silence political opponents, ”said Nick Cheeseman, researcher in the Department of Political and Social Change at Australian National University.

In 1962, the military took control of the country in a coup, and it remained under junta rule for decades. Under the junta, people were regularly imprisoned for denouncing the military. Those arrested were often sent to jail for years, and torture – including beatings, waterboarding, and deprivation of food and sleep – was common, according to the AAPP. Suu Kyi was under house arrest for 15 years out of a 21-year period during this period.

Before democratic reforms finally took place – a period during which Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, her political party agreed to run in the 2012 by-elections and press censorship was relaxed – Amnesty International estimated that Myanmar had more than 1,000 political prisoners. “One of the highest of these populations in the world.”

In the years since Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010, a prisoner amnesty freed thousands of detainees, including some 200 political prisoners, while others remained in prison.

For many observers, this meant hope for further reform, a point of view reinforced when Suu Kyi’s party seized power after a landslide victory in the 2015 election.

But hope quickly faded in the years that followed, as repressive laws remained largely on the books and political prisoners remained without official recognition.

The lack of repeal of harsh criminal codes has shocked some free speech and other activist groups in Myanmar, but “has not really affected the number of people in the West who have interacted with Aung San Suu Kyi “or his government,” said Lee, the researcher.

“What the military is trying to do is use the laws to add some legitimacy to their illegitimate takeover and the NLD has given them the opportunity to do that by leaving the old laws intact,” he said. said Lee. “But there is no doubt that if these laws didn’t work for the military, they would still find other ways to arrest people.

Since this month’s coup, the military has also changed old penal codes and proposed new laws that experts say could be used as additional tools to crack down on dissidents.

For example, the February 14 amendments to the country’s Criminal Code sections on high treason stipulate that people can be sentenced to “up to 20 years for planning to impede the success of the defense or the forces of the United Nations. ‘order”.

A controversial cybersecurity bill calls for the elimination of online comments deemed to be misinformation or disinformation that could cause “hatred” or disrupt stability, as well as any comments that could violate any existing law. Those found to break the law can be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

The legal changes “are a classic example of a military attempt to suppress dissent,” said Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and founder of the AAPP. “The wording of these amendments exposes virtually anyone to imprisonment.”

With the continued crackdown on anti-coup protesters – including arrests by plainclothes police in the middle of the night – prominent pro-democracy activists told The Associated Press they had started staying in safe places to avoid being arrested. Others who were arrested have had no contact with their families and their whereabouts remain unknown.

“The conditions (for the prisoners) are something that really worries us,” said Maung, the Human Rights Watch researcher. “We expect the worst, that people are mistreated and maybe even tortured, because that’s what’s happening.”

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