War Zone of Hunger and Fear in Yangon as Myanmar’s Last Independent Newspaper is Shut Down

An intensified crackdown has made a war zone out of suburbs of Myanmar’s largest city, which were put under martial law early this week, with soldiers shooting protesters on sight and workers facing starvation, witnesses and aid workers said Wednesday as the regime pulled the plug on the country’s last independent newspaper.

Security personnel have started an intimidation campaign in six of Yangon’s satellite townships — North Okkalapa, North Dagon, South Dagon, Dagon Seikkan, Hlaingthaya, and Shwepyitha — where martial law was declared March 14, and internet service and Wi-Fi have been blocked, witnesses said.

Police and soldiers are opening fire randomly in residential areas and at individual residences, clearing areas street by street, and beating and arresting all suspects, while thousands of people are fleeing the violence and shortages of food and drinking water, local residents said.

“Police and soldiers even stop and search motorbike riders and bicyclists,” said one township resident who did not provide his name. “If they find anything that looks like a weapon, like slingshots, they will make an arrest.”

Another resident said that when security forces stopped cars and motorbikes in one area of the township, they asked drivers to pay bribes to get their confiscated vehicles back.

“A lot of people in our street came back on foot this morning because their cars were seized,” he said.

With phone service cut off in the area, RFA could not confirm reports on social media that said police took away some people and forced them to serve as porters.

Drinking water and food are growing scarce in Hlaingthaya township because of transportation disruptions, residents said. Tens of thousands of migrant workers from other parts of Myanmar are leaving the area — a major factory zone where dozens of Chinese-funded factories were destroyed this week in a clash that killed more than 50 protesters — to return to their homes.

A Myanmar anti-coup protester uses a fire extinguisher to provide cover for others as security forces approach their encampment in Yangon, , March 17, 2021. Credit: Associated Press

‘People cannot gather in groups’

Protesters in North Dagon, South Dagon, North Okkalapa, Dagon Seikkan, and Shweypyitha townships refrained from rallying on Wednesday because police and soldiers begin shooting the moment they see any group of people, residents said.

“They are no more protests on the streets at all. People cannot gather in groups,” said a Shweypyitha resident. “Protesters are all lying low because of the brutal violence the other day. Military vehicles are moving around and nobody can be seen on the streets, though we have heard frequent gunfire since around 7 p.m.”

A North Dagon resident said that soldiers fired randomly about 9:30 a.m. in one of the township wards, including shooting into houses and forcing people to take cover.

“There were many military trucks driving around and shooting at random,” he said. “I don’t know whether anyone was hit or not.”

Myanmar researcher Manny Maung at Human Rights Watch said that the situation has become so bad in Hlaingthaya township that residents cannot leave or enter the area because security forces have closed all the roads.

“The military coup has intensified the hardships [of migrant workers] as more and more factories have closed,” he said. “The people are short of cash and the stores have run out of groceries. I was informed that there is widespread starvation, and some people are living on only one meal a day.”

Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist and researcher based in Germany, compared the martial law declaration and subsequent crackdown in Hlaingthaya township to the military’s clearance operation in northern Rakhine state in 2017, which left thousands of Muslims dead and forced more than 740,000 to flee to Bangladesh.

“It is the same light infantry division that executed the operation in Rakhine state,” he said, adding that he received information that soldiers have tried to destroy evidence of their violent acts and the bodies of people killed in the crackdown.

But he said he could not verify the reports with mobile internet service now shut down.

RFA could not reach military regime spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun for comment.

A Myanmar anti-junta protester with a makeshift shield watches smoke rise from debris set on fire to prevent security forces from approaching along a main road in Yangon, March 17, 2021. Credit: Associated Press

‘Huge loss for freedom of information’

In a major blow to the free flow of information during the crisis, Myanmar’s last privately owned independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, stopped publishing Wednesday — putting an end to a brief eight-year period in which independent journalism was allowed after decades of military rule since 1962.

Private newspapers had not been permitted since a military coup in 1962, but they reemerged in 2013 after the lifting of the ban on independent media as part of the country’s now-aborted transition to elected, civilian rule.

“The paper has to stop publishing because of difficulties in getting news stories during the martial law period and for the safety of its reporters,” said a Standard Time Daily staffer who didn’t want to be named for safety reasons.

In early March, the military government banned 7Day News, Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Myanmar Now, and Khit Thit Media from publishing, broadcasting, and transmitting messages via social media.

Myint Kyaw, a former member of the Myanmar Press Council, called the regime’s forced shutdowns of newspapers “a huge loss for freedom of information.”

“The news reports have given encouragement to the people and more support to the protests,” he said. “That’s why they are intimidated by the news media. That’s why they have cut off internet service.”

Sithu Aung Myint, a Yangon journalist, said the closure of independent newspapers has created a news blackout under which the junta is “putting pressure on the media to cover up the unlawful crimes committed by the military council.”

“The news media have become a target because they [the military] have committed all these unlawful military crimes, and they don’t want them to be recorded,” he said. “Now without the news media, they will do anything they want to.”

Authorities have arrested nearly 40 journalists since the Feb. 1, charging some of them with defamation and incitement, while releasing others. There has been no further information about some of those still being detained.

A journalist in Yangon said that some reporters and editors now are working secrecy.

“The problem is we can be arrested by the military, and at the same time we are afraid of people who think we are informers because we have cameras,” he said.

The Standard Time Daily, 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times were the most popular news publication in the country.

The Myanmar Times ceased publication on Feb. 21. Though The Voice stopped publishing on Feb. 24, it is still presenting news reports on its Facebook pages.

Myanmar Buddhist monks display placards during a protest march supporting the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a shadow parliament formed by lawmakers elected in the November 2020 vote, in Mandalay, March 17, 2021. Credit: Associated Press

Religious council wants end to violence

In a sign of impatience with the six-week-old coup, Myanmar’s highest Buddhist council has urged authorities to stop the killings and brutal crackdowns on peaceful civilians and said it would halt its normal operations until the country’s situation was back to normal.

The government-appointed State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee in comments on Tuesday also called for an end to arrests and torture and the holding of a national dialogue to find a solution to the political crisis.

In an effort to build a coalition of opponents of the military regime, the Committee Representing Phyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a shadow parliament formed by lawmakers elected in the November 2020 vote that the junta claims was marred by fraud, announced the removal of all ethnic armed forces from a list of groups deemed illegal organizations and terrorists.

The gesture toward ethnic minority regions followed the junta’s announcement that the Arakan Army was no longer an official terrorist group.

In the statement published on the CRPH’s Facebook page, the lawmakers also condemned the arrests and detentions of civilians under the Section 17(1) of Unlawful Associations Act for allegedly having links to ethnic armies, calling such arrests illegal.

The CRPH previously said it was in talks with the ethnic armies to oppose the current military dictatorship.

Protests continued in several cities despite the crackdown, with five protesters killed Wednesday in Yangon and the town of Kalay in northwestern Sagaing region.

The number of deaths since the coup began on Feb. 1 now totals 186, according to an RFA tally.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a watchdog group, said that as of Wednesday, 2,191 people had been arrested, charged, or sentenced in relation to the military coup, with 1,872 still being held or with outstanding warrants.

Human rights groups denounced the intensified crackdowns, with Nickey Diamond of Fortify Rights saying that the military regime has “stooped so low, committing all kinds of human rights violations just to hold onto power.”

“They are using extreme violence to instill fear among the population, but the people are not afraid to defy them, and that’s why they are stepping up the violence,” he told RFA,

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane, Ye Kaung Myint Maung, and Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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