Military tribunals hand down harshest sentences to young adults for opposing junta

An RFA tally indicates that 103 civilians have been sentenced to death.
Prison guards man the gates as people wait for detainees to be released from Insein Prison on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 19, 2021, after authorities let out thousands of people jailed for protesting against the February 2021 coup that ousted the civilian government.

Many of the 175 activists sentenced to death or long prison terms by the Myanmar junta’s secret military courts operating inside the country’s most notorious prison are between the ages of 23 and 27 — an apparent effort to undercut the youth activism driving the resistance to the country’s military rulers — according to data compiled by RFA.

Military tribunals inside Insein Prison in the outskirts of Yangon have sentenced most of the young adults held there, many of whom are university students, to the harshest possible punishments since the junta overthrew the elected government in a February 2021 coup, said the families and colleagues of the detainees.

The RFA tally shows that in all, 103 civilians have been sentenced to death and 72 others have received long jail terms, including life in prison, for allegedly leading anti-junta protest leaders and having ties to terrorist groups.

Across the country, the junta has arrested nearly 13,000 people since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based rights group. Insein, the most prominent and notorious detention center of Myanmar’s 56 penitentiaries, has been the primary destination for many.

Min Han Htet of the Dagon University Students' Union said authorities arrested and tried 35 students from his university, seven of whom were sentenced to 10 years in jail, life imprisonment or death.

“They are trying to make people realize that if you go out on the streets and protest against them, you could get a death penalty or jail sentences of 10 years or more,” he said. “They hope that parents or elders will become frightened and stop their children or family members from joining the protests.”

But most young people will not be deterred by the possibility of arrests and harsh sentences, he said.

Saung Le Pyae, a chemistry student at Dagon University, was accused of assassinating a high school teacher in Yangon’s North Okkalapa township and sentenced to death on March 17. Another student, Naing Aung, received a life sentence the same day in connection with the alleged shooting death of a ward administrative official in Hlaingthaya township, according to their families and activists.

The mother of 23-year-old Wai Yan Phyo Moe, the vice chairman of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions who was sentenced to five years and one month in prison, said she was worried about all the young detainees.

“They have joined the protests of their own will because they could not stand this kind of oppression,” she told RFA. “When they were outside before the arrests, we worried. Once inside the prison, we still have to worry what might happen next. The military did whatever they wanted because there has been no such thing as a rule of law after the military takeover.”

When the Wai Yan Phyo Moe’s mother saw him in Insein prison in February, she said he looked like he had been severely beaten. But he told her that his injuries were not serious, she said.

No leniency

Khin Maung Myint, a veteran lawyer who has represented many detainees, said the judiciary is now under the full control of the military council, whose courts are handing down an unprecedented level of maximum sentences to detained protesters.

“They never consider leniency or take into consideration all the salient facts surrounding the cases,” he said.

The relatives of prisoners who have been tried by the courts at Insein say the courts appear to take orders from top divisional military commanders. That reduces the chances of successfully appealing a decision, given that the highest authority in the military tribunal system is the chairman of the State Administration Council, the formal name of the junta-run government under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Myanmar’s Supreme Court, though the highest civilian court in the country, cannot intervene in cases tried by military tribunals under the Defense Services Act of 1959.

A junta spokesman said that the military tribunals are not inflating jail sentences but are issuing rulings based on the charges brought against defendants.

“Nothing is done outside the law,” said military council spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun. “If they committed a crime, they will be punished accordingly. No one can erase their guilt and their convictions. No one can trump up the charges. According to the laws, judges can only decide whether or not to impose the maximum or minimum sentences.”

Aung Myo Min, who is human rights minister in the cabinet of Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government, said the junta’s hatred for protesters and others who oppose its rule has been clearly visible in military tribunal verdicts.

“The military is acting on the basis of hatred and oppression against all the people who oppose it,” he told RFA. “This hatred is more reflected in the courts’ proceedings and verdicts. There is a tendency to retaliate without any fair judgment against those who oppose them.”

The military council declared martial law on March 15 in six townships in Yangon region — Haingthaya, Shwepyitha, South Dagon, North Dagon, Dagon Seikkan and North Okkalapa — where there is strong popular opposition to the junta. All cases in the townships are being tried by military tribunals.

Of the 45 cases being tried by Yangon region military tribunals, more than 20 are being tried in in Insein Prison, according to RFA’s tally.

Most of the young adults who have received severe punishments in the past 13 months have been prosecuted have been prosecuted under Section 302 of the Penal Code, pertaining to murder, and under the country’s Counterterrorism Law.

In August 2021, Min Aung Hlaing signed an amendment to the Counterterrorism Law, introducing harsher penalties for supporting anti-junta activities.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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