Myanmar: second NLD official dies in custody as junta cracks down on media

Rebecca Ratcliffe and agencies
·5 min read

A second official from Aung San Suu Kyi’s ousted party has died in custody, after the military junta widened its clampdown on the press, banning five independent media outlets.

Zaw Myat Linn of the National League for Democracy (NLD) died in detention after he was arrested early on Tuesday, Ba Myo Thein, an MP in the dissolved upper house, told Reuters.

Just days ago, Khin Maung Latt, 58, a local NLD chairman in Yangon, also died in detention. A party leader said pictures from the military hospital where he died showed he had a wound on the back of his head and bruises on his back.

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Zaw Myat Linn’s death followed an announcement by the state broadcaster, MRTV, that the junta had revoked the licences of five media outlets as it sought to clamp down on independent coverage of anti-coup protests.

Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7Day News have all been ordered to close, according to MRTV, which reported they were “no longer allowed to broadcast or write or give information by using any kind of media platform or using any media technology”.

The outlets have reported extensively on protests against the coup over recent weeks, as well as the brutal response by the security forces. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to call for the military to hand power back to the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Police and troops have responded with lethal force, killing more than 60 people. Rights experts warn the military has adopted a “shoot to kill” approach.

On Monday evening, before the junta announced it was to ban several media companies, soldiers and police raided the headquarters of Myanmar Now, seizing computers, part of the newsroom’s data server and other equipment.

The offices had been evacuated as a precautionary measure on 28 January as talk of a possible coup intensified and were empty at the time of the raid, a representative said.

Nearly 1,800 people have been detained during army crackdowns, including dozens of journalists. In one video shared last week, Kaung Myat Hlaing, a journalist working for DVB in the southern city of Myeik, filmed from his balcony as security forces surrounded his apartment, shouting for him to come down. What sounds like gunfire can be heard in the background. He calls out, urging his neighbours to help him. DVB later confirmed he had been detained.

Six journalists, including the Associated Press photojournalist Thein Zaw, have been charged with violating a public order law for covering the coup. They could be imprisoned for up to three years.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the army was “resorting to the tactics of its dictatorial past to suppress information”.

Under previous military rule, which lasted half a century, Myanmar’s media was among the most restricted in the world, and all books, news articles and cartoons had to be approved by state censors. Such requirements were dropped in 2012 as the country introduced a wave of reforms and moved towards a more democratic system – a transition that was abruptly ended when the military seized power on 1 February.

DVB said it was not surprised by the cancellation of its licence, and that it would continue broadcasting on satellite TV and online. “We worry for the safety of our reporters and our staff, but in the current uprising, the whole country has become the citizens’ journalists and there is no way for military authorities to shut the information flow,” the executive director, Aye Chan Naing, told Associated Press.

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Since the coup, protesters have flooded social media with footage from protests, and used Facebook Live to document military crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators. The junta attempted to block social media early in February, but many have evaded the restrictions by using virtual private networks (VPNs). At night, however, when the military conducts raids of homes, the junta routinely imposes a nationwide internet shutdown.

On Monday night, thousands turned out in defiance of an 8pm curfew to support 200 young protesters held by security forces, who had blocked off roads in Sanchaung township in the country’s largest city, Yangon.

Security officials, firing stun grenades and guns, went door-to-door in the area looking for protesters who were hiding in nearby buildings. Dozens of people were arrested, according to a rights advocacy group.

The siege followed a day of violence. Two protesters were shot dead in the northern city of Myitkyina, while a third protester was killed in the town of Pyapon in the Irrawaddy Delta region.

MRTV reported: “The government’s patience has run out and while trying to minimise casualties in stopping riots, most people seek complete stability [and] are calling for more effective measures against riots.”

Small protests were held in Yangon and other towns across Myanmar on Tuesday, but were quickly broken up by security forces using teargas and stun grenades. At least two people were wounded, one by a gunshot, in the town of Mohnyin in the north, local media said.

The US state department spokesperson, Ned Price, criticised the military’s crackdown, including against independent journalists, while Reuters reported thatthe EU was preparing to widen its sanctions to target army-run businesses.

Myanmar’s ambassador to Britain, Kyaw Zwar Minn, also voiced support for protesters, calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report