Myanmar Releases Some 600 Detainees as Junta Evicts Protesting Civil Servants From State Housing

Myanmar Releases Some 600 Detainees as Junta Evicts Protesting Civil Servants From State Housing A Myanmar protester gets a hug after being released from jail. Those who were freed said they were warned by a military official they would face state defamation charges if caught again, March 24, 2021.

Myanmar’s military junta released hundreds of prisoners detained in weeks of anti-coup demonstrations Wednesday in a rare conciliatory gesture from the hardline regime that has killed more than 250 civilians at protests since it deposed the elected government on Feb. 1, witnesses said.

More than 400 people detained during the recent protests -- mostly students from the largest city Yangon streamed out of the city’s Insein Prison today and were put on buses and returned to their homes in outlying townships of the commercial center and former capital.

“Yangon Region military council member Col. Win Htein told us before the release that the military is temporarily holding state power only for a year and that it will be returned to the winning political party, any party, in the elections to be held next year,” said a student from Tamwe after his release.

“Most of us were students and they said that we were released as a sign of leniency from the Tatmadaw and that if we get caught again, we will be charged under Section 505(a) and sent to prison,” he said, referring to defamation charges that have been widely used against government critics even before the coup.

A total of 628 people were freed, said the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an NGO. At least 286 people have been killed in the crackdown, including 12 on Wednesday, and more than 2,000 remain in custody or face outstanding charges, the AAPP said in a daily report.

In a change of tack by the protest movement on Wednesday, junta opponents in Yangon, Mandalay and other cities observed a “Day of Silence” protest against the military, closing markets, shops and offices and staying indoors in a silent protest against the military.

“Police and the military have used lethal force against us and it’s almost impossible to march on the streets. So we decided to hold a silent protest against military dictatorship, closing down markets and shops and all activities,” said a resident of Mandalay.

“Nobody left their homes, shops and shopping centers closed and no cars or people were seen on the roads, demonstrating the general public’s solidarity against dictatorship,” the AAPP said in its daily update.

The internet shutdown by the military in some cities and towns left people in some cities unaware of silent protest and they went about their daily activities.

Downtown Mandalay seen on Silence Day of Protest on 03-24-2021 by CJ.jpg
Markets, shops and offices in Mandalay were closed in observance of the “Day of Silence," March 24, 2021. Credit: Citizen Journalist

Government housing vacated

Government employees living in government housing estates in Yangon and Mandalay are under pressure by authorities to vacate their homes as punishment for joining the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement CDM). Some are being told to quit the movement if they want to stay in their government houses.

Mandalay police pasted notices on roadside lampposts on Sunday urging CDM workers in the city’s Mya Nandar staff housing estate, home to 2,000 people from 200 families of different government ministries, to get back to work on Monday or move out of the staff housing or face forced eviction.

“They put up the notices on March 21 and some families have moved out since that day. But more than a third or nearly half have not left yet,” said an employee of the education ministry. “Some people have nowhere to go and some people decided to return to work. It is a ploy to break up the CDM.”

Employees of Myanma Railways Department in Mandalay who have joined the CDM have also moved out of their government quarters where about 1,000 people live after government pressure. 

“We have now moved out to places provided by well-wishers. We are now all spread out in different parts of the city,” said a railway worker, who declined to be identified for safety reasons.

“We hope to carry on with the CDM until we succeed. If we do not succeed, we will have to find our own means for survival,” he added

Railways department employees in Yangon had also faced the same fate and families had moved out on March 10.

“Some people like my father have returned to their villages to avoid being arrested, but young people like me are staying behind to carry on with the protests,” said a youth in Yangon.

“Some people have moved out to where they have relatives, but there are some who don’t have anywhere to go and we are helping them out,” said a supporter of the CDM.

“We rented out apartments for some of these people,” he added.

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CPRH), a shadow government of legislators elected in the November 2020 election that the Feb. 1 coup annulled on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, said it is raising cash and providing other kinds of support to thousands of government employees who had taken part in the movement in the seven weeks since the coup.

Downtown Yangon seen on Silence Day of Protest on 03-24-2021 by CJ.jpg
Streets were deserted in downtown Yangon for the “Day of Silence” protest, March 24, 2021.

Pressure on media

Human Rights Watch warned that Sunday's junta order order declaring the CRPH and “its affiliated committees” to be an unlawful association posed a threat to activists, journalists and others because the British colonial era law "criminalizes almost any contact with or support of the group."

In a statement from Bangkok, HRW noted that the law was often used in the 1990s to "arbitrarily detain political activists" and has been used to arrest ethnic minority civilians in conflict zones, as well as peace ctivists and journalists.

“The Unlawful Associations Act has an unsavory history of being used to prosecute political activists and journalists reporting on opposition groups,” said Linda Lakhdhir, HRW's Asia legal advisor. “By making the CRPH illegal, Myanmar’s junta is raising the stakes not only for its members, but for anyone supporting, writing on, or even just contacting the group.”

Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun, the military junta spokesman, said in Naypyidaw Wednesday that reporters who defied an order not to contact the CPRH would be charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, he said.

The regime has detained 45 journalists since Feb. 1, with 28 released and two out on bail.

“Their laws refer to ‘supporting and assisting’ illegal organizations, but newsmen do not have this kind of intention. We newsmen only want to get the news out,” said Myint Kyaw, a veteran journalist and former secretary of the Myanmar Press Council.

The legal provision, he said, “had been used in the past to make arrests of journalists whenever they wanted, but now they are saying openly they will use it for a news blackout of events happening in the country.”

This is going back to the days of the former military government,” added Myint Kyaw.

Information has gotten increasingly hard to obtain since the junta shut down wireless internet connections and imposed a partial shutdown of domestic internet service.

“We have no plans to reopen the Internet connections because the main cause of these recent violent protests stems from all kinds of agitation online,” said Zaw Min Tun at Wednesday’s news conference.

“We have found all the instigations were coming from social media and the Internet. And so we will have to keep these restrictions till a certain time.”

Security forces have been making arrests at night time taking advantage of the internet shut down, witnesses said.

However some people are still using Thailand-based PSI satellite dishes to watch independent Mizzima and DVB television channels – prompting moves by police and soldiers to remove satellite dishes in some areas.

“Armed police and soldiers entered our streets in groups and checked the houses to see if we had any satellite dishes,” said a woman from the suburbs of Yangon.

“In Thidakwin Ward, they forcefully removed a dish from a house and detained the house owner. He was released unharmed after a few hours,” she said. “Now we have removed our satellite dish and cannot watch these TV channels anymore.”

“This is a very serious human rights violation and the entire world is watching. The main reason of the Internet shutdown is to prevent the world seeing the evidence of their atrocities and we condemn this action,” said activist Nickey Diamond of the Southeast Asia-based watchdog group Fortify Rights

In Geneva on Wednesday, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed a resolution on Myanmar by consensus voicing alarm at the "disproportionate use of force" since last month's coup, calling for Myanmar's military to restore civilian rule and immediately release deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun and Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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