Myanmar Begins Trials for Journalists as Protesters Defy, Evade Crackdown by Troops

The first group of six out of the nearly 40 media workers detained covering protests against Myanmar’s ruling junta appeared in video conference trials Friday, while protesters in major cities defied a tightening crackdown that has seen 73 people killed so far, lawyers and witnesses said.

Of the 37 journalists detained during nearly six weeks of anti-junta protests in the wake of the Feb. 1 coup, 22 have been released.  Six of the 15 still in custody appeared in several township court video trials Friday to face charges under Article 505(a) of the Penal Code, for defamation and incitement for their reporting on the anti-military protests, lawyers said.

Those who appeared on Friday were Kay Zun Nway from Myanmar Now, Thein Zaw from the Associated Press, Ye Myo Khant from Myanmar Pressphoto Agency, Aung Ye Ko from 7Day News, freelance reporters Banyar Oo and Thint Myat Zaw, and Hein Pyae Zaw of Zeegwet Journal.

All had their pre-trial extension period extended until trials at the end of this month, lawyers said.

“After the initial hearing, the two accused were allowed to have a video-chat with a member of their families online,” said Myint Aung, a High Court lawyer who is defending Kay Zun Nway and Aung Ye Ko.

“They were also allowed to retrieve their belongings after providing proof of ownership. We were told we could apply for bail at the next hearing,” the lawyer added. Aung Ye Ko is to appear again in court on March 24 and Kay Zun Nway on March 25, he said.

Thein Zaw from AP, Hein Pyay Zaw from Zeegwet Journal and another reporter had their first video hearing at Kamayut court today – also on 505(a) charges, which carry up to three years in prison.

“We submitted an application to transfer power of attorney from the accused to the defense team,” said Cho Cho Lin, Hein Pyay Zaw’s defense lawyer.

“A member of the family of the accused and the representing lawyer were allowed into the courtroom,’ the lawyer said. “The hearing was on video and I saw three of them — my client, Thein Zaw and Yan Myo Aung.”

02_Candlelight-protest-near-Hledan-Junction_Yangon_MMS.jpgPolice crack down on protesters in Yangon’s North Dagon Township, March 12, 2021. Credit: RFA

Detentions and media bans

A report from AP on the trial of photographer Thein Zaw said Thein Zaw had not been seen by his lawyer or any of his family members since his arrest on Feb. 27 in Yangon.

AP quoted Thein Zaw’s lawyer, Tin Zar Oo, as saying said his family has been dropping off food and supplies for him at Insein Prison, where visits are not allowed because of coronavirus concerns.

A diplomat from the US embassy was seen in the court.

Still in detention are Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporters Aung Kyaw and Min Nyo, Ye Yint Tun of Than Daw Sint News, Kyaw Nay Min of the Choon Journal, freelance reporter Pyay Phyo, Kamayut Media chief editor Nathan Maung and co-founder Hanthar Nyein. It is not known where they are being held and what charges they are facing.

On Monday, the military council officially banned independent media outlets Mizzima, DVB, 7Day News, Myanmar Now, and Khit Thit News following earlier raids on the offices of Mizzima and Myanmar Now. Security forces raided the offices of Khit Thit Media and Kamayut Media on Tuesday.

The military regime has sued The Irrawaddy, an independent online news media outlet, under Article 505(a) for a Feb. 20 video showing the police asking for 13 million kyats (US$9,200) from relatives to release striking doctors who they detained at an anti-regime protest, the news outlet said.

“The Irrawaddy published the video, featuring the civilians’ voices. Military-run Myanma Radio and Television claimed The Irrawaddy’s report was false,” the media outlet said in its report on the lawsuit.

After nearly six weeks of protests, increasingly met by violence that has killed 73 protesters and others since the Feb. 1 military takeover, anti-coup protesters carried on in several towns and cities across the country of 54 million people, witnesses said, causing several injuries and leading to many arrests.

Security-forces-destroyed-public-properties-during-night-time-threatening-in-Mandalay-on-Mar-11_KMNW-(2).jpgSecurity forces destroy property to scare protesters and supporters in Mandalay, March 11, 2021. Credit: RFA

Scary cat and mouse chases

In Yangon’s Taungthugone Ward, security forces injured three protesters and arrested ten other demonstrators.  

“Police and soldiers chased down protesters into small lanes to make the arrests,” a witness told RFA.

“They used sound bombs and rubber bullets to scare people and there were some who got hit on the back and one who got hit in the face,” he witness said.

“They fired 7 or 8 sound bombs. We had to hide inside the house for over an hour.”

In Yangon’s South Okkalapa, security forces used teargas and sound bombs to disperse protesters and burned posters and blankets, arresting several roadside venders. Witnesses in the city’s Sangyaung district saw cat-and-mouse chases of protesters in small lanes and alleys by troops, who used gunfire to disperse protesters. There were no reports of casualties or arrests.

In Mandalay, a man was wounded in the arm by police gunfire and three youths got arrested, as troops patrolled parts of the city around midnight shooting guns and firing slingshots to intimidate the residents.

Myanmar doctors, who have played a key role in the nationwide civil disobedience movement and staged work strikes against the regime, on Friday rejected claims made by the military that two young female protesters gunned down at demonstrations were shot by someone other than soldiers.

02_Candlelight-protest-near-Hledan-Junction_Yangon_MMS.jpgProtesters stage a candlelight protest at Yangon’s Hledon Junction, March 11, 2021. Credit: RFA

‘Serving up blatant lies’

At a news conference in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw Thursday, regime spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun claimed that the “bullets that killed a young woman in Naypyidaw and another young woman in Mandalay were not the kind of ammunition used by our security forces.”

“It was found that they were not shot from the front where the security forces were or at the back if she had turned around. It looked like they were shot from the side or from beneath at close quarters,” said Zaw Min Tun.

He was referring to the first protester to die in the anti-junta demonstrations, a 20-year-old female grocery story worker named Mya Thwe Thwe Khaing, who was shot in the head in the capital Naypyidaw Feb. 9 and died 10 days later. Also slain in protests was Ma Kyal Sin, a 19-year-old ethnic Chinese woman who was shot in the head on March 3 and became a focus of national anger after troops disturbed her grave to remove her body.

The doctors who attended to the wounds of the deceased rejected the military junta’s statements.

“They are just serving up blatant lies. There are no third parties using guns,” said a doctor who treated Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In both cases of Mya Thwe Thwe Khine and Ma Kyal Sin, the bullets came from the front. We can see it clearly on the recorded videos. They fell down as they turned back. It is so obvious that the bullets came from the security force,” the doctor said.

Maung Maung Swe, a member of the upper house of parliament who was on the funeral committee for Ma Kyal Sin, said the military “may deny it was their bullet that killed the woman, but the people do not have guns. They are the ones who were shooting.”

“All the video files taken that day showed it was the military who was shooting at protesters,” Maung Maung Swe added.

 “They are just lying. I don’t need to say anything else because we all know they are liars.”

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

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