JAKARTA – Whether taken from their homes in the middle of the night or grabbed off the streets during protests, hundreds of people have been arrested in the weeks since Myanmar’s military coup, leading human rights groups and experts to fear a sizable expansion in the number of political prisoners in the country.
As of Tuesday, some 696 people — including monks, writers, activists, politicians and others — had been arrested in relation to the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, or AAPP, a Myanmar-based organization.
Many of those arrested were charged using a legacy of laws — some dating back to British colonial times and others instituted under previous military regimes — that have been used against critics by every government, including the one led by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, which was ousted in the Feb. 1 coup.
“The National League for Democracy was comfortable leaving repressive laws on the books because in some instances they felt they might be able to take advantage of those laws themselves,” said Ronan Lee, a visiting scholar at Queen Mary University of London’s International State Crime Initiative.
“It’s now clear that some of those laws are now going to be weaponized against democracy campaigners in a way that maybe the National League for Democracy didn’t foresee,” Lee said.
While the military continues to use and amend old laws to crack down on dissidents, new laws are being introduced as well, signaling the military's intent to continue arresting protesters.
The hundreds arrested since the coup join the already hundreds of political prisoners in the country who were imprisoned both under the previous junta and the National League for Democracy, or NLD.
“We have now seen not just a new generation of political prisoners, but also the retargeting of former political prisoners,” said Manny Maung, a Myanmar researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.