Myanmar’s junta cracks down on online critics, death toll edges up to 550

Friends and relatives mourn over the body of a 32-year-old who died from gunshot wounds in Yangon yesterday. (AP pic)

YANGON: Attempts by Myanmar’s military to end dissent are turning to the virtual world with internet blocks and arrest warrants for online critics as big rallies become rare in the face of relentless repression by the security forces.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group said on Saturday the security forces have killed 550 people, 46 of them children, since the military overthrew an elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb 1. There were two deaths on Friday.

Despite the repression, opponents of the coup march every day in cities and towns across the country, often holding what they call “guerrilla rallies”, small, quick shows of defiance before security forces can respond.

People also gather at night for candle-lit vigils but the huge rallies that drew tens of thousands in the early days of defiance have largely stopped in big cities.

The authorities, who had already shut down mobile data in a bid to stifle opposition, ordered internet providers from Friday to cut wireless broadband, depriving most customers of access.

Authorities also issued warrants for 18 show business celebrities including social media influencers and two journalists under a law against material intended to cause a member of the armed forces to mutiny or disregard their duty, state media reported late on Friday.

All of them are known to oppose military rule and one, actress Paing Phyoe Thu, said she would not be cowed.

“Whether a warrant has been issued or not, as long as I’m alive I’ll oppose the military dictatorship who are bullying and killing people. The revolution must prevail,” she said on Facebook.

Paing Phyoe Thu regularly attended rallies in the main city of Yangon in the weeks after the coup. Her husband, film director, Na Gyi, has been wanted by the authorities under the same law since February.

Her whereabouts were not immediately known and it was not clear how she was able to post her message. Social media users in Myanmar did not appear to be connected early on Saturday.

The charge can carry a prison term of three years.

State broadcaster MRTV announced the warrants with screenshots and links to each of their Facebook profiles.

While the military have banned social media platforms like Facebook, the junta has continued to use social media to track critics and promote its message.

MRTV maintains a YouTube channel and shares links to its broadcasts on Twitter, both of which are officially banned.

‘Inhuman actions’

The US condemned the internet shutdown.

“We hope this won’t silence the voices of the people,” a State Department spokeswoman, Jalina Porter, told a briefing

Porter said the shutdown would also have consequences for people who use the internet to benefit from online health programmes.

The security forces have arrested numerous suspected opponents of the coup.

Myanmar Now new portal reported on Friday that five women who spoke to a visiting CNN news crew on the streets of Yangon this week had been taken away by security men.

Separately, one person was shot and wounded in a raid in the second city of Mandalay on Friday night, the Mizzima news service said.

The coup has also rekindled old wars with autonomy-seeking ethnic minority forces in the north and the east.

Myanmar’s oldest insurgent group, the Karen National Union (KNU), has seen the first military airstrikes on its forces in more than 20 years since announcing its support for the pro-democracy movement.

The KNU said more than 12,000 villagers had fled from their homes because of the air strikes and it called for an international embargo on arms sales to the military.

“Their inhuman actions against unarmed civilians have caused the death of many people including children and students,” the group said in a statement.

Media has reported that about 20 people were killed in airstrikes in KNU territory in recent days, including nearly a dozen at a gold mine run by the group.

The KNU signed a ceasefire with the government in 2012 to end their 60-year insurgency.

Fighting has also flared in the north between the army and ethnic Kachin insurgents.

The turmoil has sent several thousand refugees fleeing into Thailand and India.