Junta extends student prison terms as a ‘weapon’ of power

The military junta in Myanmar is adding new charges and extending prison terms of those students convicted for their resistance to military rule after the February 2021 coup, as a tactic to curb opposition, according to student unions in Myanmar.

Thousands of students, who have been at the forefront of protests following the coup, have been detained. Among those who have been tried, some face the death penalty while others have been handed life sentences.

Those with lesser terms face the ongoing prospect of having their sentence increased.

Htoo Wai Lin, a second-year psychology student at Dagon University, arrested in June 2021 while fleeing to a house in Tharkayta Township, was held in detention for over a year without a fair trial.

He was first sentenced in August 2022 to three years in prison for opposing the military dictatorship. A month later, on 16 September, he was sentenced to another 10 years on charges of incitement, for his anti-coup activities, according to Dagon University Students’ Union (DUSU).

Last month a special court inside Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison added two years to the sentence of prominent student leader Wai Yan Phyo Moe, a vice-president of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), according to his family.

The latest sentence, which will bring the total time Wai Yan Phyo Moe has to spend behind bars to seven years and two months, relates to an incitement charge laid against him for his political activities prior to last year’s coup, a family member told Myanmar Now.

Sentencing as a weapon

Almost all the students arrested at the start of military rule were charged under Section 505-A of the Penal Code, which criminalises comments that “cause fear” or “spread false news”, and which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Later, additional charges were brought, with no opportunity given for students to have a fair trial or to appoint a lawyer, DUSU said on its social media page.

“The military is afraid that if they release the students, it might be a threat to them one day and the students might fight back. That’s why the additional charges are added,” Min Han Htet, a spokesperson at the Alliance of Students’ Unions Yangon as well as a president of DUSU, told University World News.

The military is using whatever power they can to control people by sentencing as much as they can, said Win Lwin Oo, deputy executive chairman of Thanlyin Technological University Students’ Union. He told University World News the military has used sentencing again and again as a weapon to stay in power.

The tactic was prominently used in August 2022 when a Myanmar court convicted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on additional corruption charges, adding six years to her earlier 11-year prison sentence in a trial held behind closed doors. Her lawyers were barred from revealing information about the court proceedings. She denied all the charges.

Last month, Australian academic Sean Turnell, an economic advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, was handed a three-year sentence by a Myanmar court in a closed hearing. Turnell, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, was first detained on 6 February 2021, just days after the coup, and later charged with violating Myanmar’s official secrets act, which he denies. He had already spent 20 months in jail before his sentence was handed down.

Students targeted

According to data from civil society organisation Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), more than a thousand students have been detained since the coup, though the actual numbers are likely much higher.

They have been charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law Section 52(a); Penal Code Section 124-A, which criminalises any attempt to “excite disaffection towards the government”; Section 505-A, which criminalises comments that “cause fear” or “spread false news”; the Electronic Transactions Law Section 33(a), which allows the government agencies to access personal data in criminal investigations; 49(a) or 52(a) of the Anti-Terrorism Law, and other existing laws.

ABFSU reported that the former chair of Meiktila University Students’ Union, Ma Thae Su Naing (aka Ma Ju), was sentenced by a Meiktila court to seven years in prison under Section 52(a) on 29 August.

Former ABFSU chairman Soe Thuya Kyaw was also sentenced to eight years in Mandalay’s Obo Prison under Section 52(a) and Section 505-A on 27 June, and there are additional charges pending, ABFSU said.

Similarly, third-year law student Sithu Aung Tin, who is a member of Dagon University Law Student’s Union, was sentenced to 10 years under Section 124-A and Section 505-A by a military tribunal on 3 November last year.

Death penalty

A total of 126 people, including two children, have been sentenced to death, and a total of 2,336 people, pro-democracy activists and other civilians have been killed through military crackdowns following pro-democracy movements, according to figures verified by AAPP.

“Since the coup, a total of 12,569 people are currently under detention and 1,503 are serving sentences. There are a total of 84 post-coup death row prisoners as of 3 October 2022. 121 people have been sentenced in absentia, of whom 42 have been sentenced to death,” AAPP said.

A leader of pro-democracy group 88 Generation Students, Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, was executed on 28 July 2022, along with three other pro-democracy activists. He was charged under Section 49(a) of the Anti-Terrorism Law and sentenced to death by the military tribunal on 21 January 2022 for helping and abetting the pro-democracy People’s Defence Force (PDF).

Before July, the last execution in the country had been that of student leader Salai Tin Maung Oo in 1988, for his involvement in student movements and labour strikes against military rule during the student-led 1988 uprising opposing the military rule of then General Ne Win.

“These executions – the first in Myanmar in decades – are cruel violations of the rights to life, liberty and security of a person, and fair trial guarantees. For the military to widen its killing will only deepen its entanglement in the crisis it has itself created,” said Michelle Bachelet, then UN high commissioner for human rights in a press release on 25 July, the day the execution of Ko Jimmy and the three others was announced.

Ko Jimmy had already spent more than 20 years in prison for political activism before his arrest in Yangon in October last year. He was 19 years old when he was imprisoned for 15 years in the 1988 uprising as a student activist. Later, he was imprisoned for another five years along with the 88 Generation Students Group for his role in the fuel price hikes protest in August 2007.

Most of the more recent death sentences have been imposed in Hlaing Tharyar, Shwe Yi Thar, Okkalar, North Dagon, South Dagon and Eastern Dagon (Seikkan) townships in Yangon after the junta imposed martial law in 11 townships in Yangon and Mandalay in the political turmoil immediately following the February 2021 coup. Military forces killed at least 120 civilians during anti-coup protests in March 2021.

More executions to come

“The military council is forming military tribunals to investigate 23 categories of crimes that they have announced in the townships of Yangon where martial law was declared in March last year. The heaviest punishments are being imposed for those crimes,” DUSU said on its social media page, adding that many more students and civilians are being unjustly charged, with more executions to come.

More than 40 Dagon University students have been arrested since the coup and half have already received lengthy prison terms, including life imprisonment and the death penalty, said Min Han Htet.

Min Han Htet, president of Dagon University Students’ Union , said second-year Dagon University chemistry student Saung Lay Pyae (aka Zu Zu) was sentenced to death on 17 March by a military junta tribunal.

She was accused of killing high school teacher Hla Hla Than, who was shot dead in a taxi in North Okkalapa township while on her way to No 2 Basic Education High School in East Dagon Township, according to local news outlets.

After appealing the death sentence in June, Zu Zu’s sentence was reduced to life imprisonment, Min Han Htet added.

“We heard her health is a little better than before,” he said.

Dagon student Naing Aung (aka Snake) and 13 other young activists were arrested along with Zu Zu and received death penalties and life sentences from military junta tribunals on 17 March. “Two students are from Dagon University and some others are from other universities,” Min Han Htet said.

Prison transfers

In April, more than 130 political prisoners, including student activists, were transferred without notice to different detention centres. Similarly, hundreds of political detainees, including student activists, were transferred from Yangon’s Insein Prison to Thayet Prison in Magway region during the first weeks of July and August, according to Yangon University of Education Students’ Union.

“One of the tools to oppress the students by the prison authorities … is to torture mentally, not only the students inside the prison but also their family members who are outside,” said Win Lwin Oo. “They may think it will tire out the family members and the revolutionary thinking, and reduce the desire to oppose the military.”

Former chairperson of East Yangon University Students’ Union, Aung Khant Kyaw, was transferred to Tharyarwady Prison in central Myanmar’s Bago region from Insein on 7 August. A family member said the family was not given any prior notice of the transfer, which made it difficult to communicate, the student union said.

“Such a sudden transfer of political prisoners … without any notification to the families is to demoralise and destroy the morale of the victims and their family members. It is also considered to be a plan to control prison activities,” Min Han Htet told University World News.

Yangon University of Economics Student’s Union (YUESU) – Ywar Thar Gyi – announced on social media that 250 political prisoners, including YUESU treasurer May Myat Noe Oo, were transferred to Tharyarwady Prison from Insein on 24 September, a Saturday. May Myat Noe Oo was sentenced to six years hard labour, charged with two counts under Section 505-A in March this year.

“As usual, families are not informed in advance. Moving the political prisoners only on Saturdays is considered to be a pre-emptive plan to prevent families from following and investigating because Sunday is a prison holiday,” YUESU said.

ABFSU pointed to maltreatment in prisons such as Obo Prison in Mandalay and said some political prisoners who went on a hunger strike to protest the four July executions were beaten and placed in solitary confinement. Some were being denied medical treatment.

Naung Htet Aung, a former chairperson of the Yangon University of Education Students’ Union, was badly beaten by prison authorities according to ABFSU.

An ABFSU member said in August that Naung Htet Aung “lost three teeth and was also beaten on his head and shoulders. We have learned that political prisoners … are being denied medical treatment, so we are working for them to be able to receive medical treatment.”