On the morning of February 1, Myat Thida Htun and hundreds of others were waiting to be sworn in as members of parliament in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw when the military took control of the country.
The re-elected Upper House legislator had already heard rumours that a coup was in the making, so she was not completely caught off-guard when the military seized power, shut off the internet, and confined her and her colleagues to their guest houses.
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But the abrupt end to the country’s democratic experiment still came as a shock, as did the repression that followed.
The political repression in Myanmar following the coup draws attention to the “dramatic rise” in the number of opposition MPs detained across Southeast Asia, according to a report released on Thursday by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
“The coup in Myanmar is the most dramatic example of a wider trend of closing democratic space in the region,” APHR said.
On that same day, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, leaders of Myat Thin Htun’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party were also ordered detained alongside 18 other MPs.
Myat Thida Htun eventually made her way back to her home in Mon State. But it was vastly different to what it had been only a few days earlier. The roads were lined with tanks, her local NLD office was boarded up and guarded by soldiers.
She became increasingly worried when her close friends and other contacts warned her that she was being targeted by the generals for arrest. As more MPs were caught in the dragnet, Myat Thida Htun was forced to go into hiding.
As of November 2021, at least 90 MPs remained in detention or under house arrest, all from the NLD, which won a landslide in the November 2020 elections. Dozens remain in hiding with some joining the parallel government set up by civilian politicians.
Raid in Pabedan
Khin Maung Latt, a former Upper House MP representing a seat in Rakhine State, also fell victim to the coup.
Although he did not seek re-election for his seat, he was actively involved in the November 2020 elections as the campaign manager for Sithu Maung, one of only two Muslim candidates fielded by the NLD, who won a seat representing Pabedan, a township located at the heart of the country’s commercial capital, Yangon.
One night, more than two months into the coup, security forces came to the home of Khin Maung Latt’s adoptive family in Pabedan. Residents in the area later identified the men as belonging to a unit of the military that has a reputation for human rights abuses.
Reports said that the men were originally looking for Maung Maung, a lawyer who was more senior in the NLD. But when they could not find Maung Maung, they went into Khin Maung Latt’s residence instead and dragged him out.
Ko Tun Kyi believes Khin Maung Latt was then taken to Yangon City Hall, one of the first buildings to be commandeered after the coup.
The next day, Khin Maung Latt turned up dead at a military hospital. His family was told that he had suffered a heart attack. But his body showed signs of multiple wounds and had already been cut open and sewn up following a supposed autopsy.
Although Khin Maung Latt’s case was not specifically investigated in the APHR report, the group of Southeast Asian parliamentarians said that the military’s seizure of power through an illegal coup “plunged Myanmar into another human rights crisis”.
“As peaceful protests against military rule swept the country, the junta responded with a vicious and bloody crackdown, killing more than 1,200 people, forcibly disappearing at least 100, arresting thousands, and displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians.”
The report also noted that often, security forces even targeted family members, including children, of MPs in an effort to force those in hiding to surrender.
At the same time, the detained MPs have been denied access to lawyers “in violation of international fair trial standards”, the report said.
“With torture rife in detention, lawmakers and others detained are at serious risk of torture or other ill-treatment, as has been recently highlighted in media reports on the use of torture,” the group warned. “The lack of adequate medical care in Myanmar, in particular in prisons, is also an enormous concern, with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading without an adequate government response.”
Risks in other parts of ASEAN
While the situation in Myanmar dominated global headlines, members of parliaments and Congressional institutions in other parts of Southeast Asia were also “at risk”, notably in Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand the report said.
In Malaysia, the government of former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in January was accused of using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to impose a state of emergency, which allowed the suspension of parliament for more than seven months.
“The suspension violated international human rights and democratic standards, and prevented parliamentary oversight at a time when transparent political representation and actions were critically needed,” the report said.
Opposition politicians were among those targeted in “a growing crackdown on dissent” in Malaysia, with at least 10 lawmakers interrogated or charged for expressing criticism related to human rights abuses or the suspension of parliament.
In the Philippines, disinformation campaigns, threats and so-called “red-tagging” – where critics, including opposition legislators, are accused of being communists – “rose alarmingly” ahead of the May 2022 general elections.
Opposition Senator Leila de Lima, the most vocal opponent of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, has also been in detention for nearly five years over what independent political observers called wrongful drug trafficking charges. The non-bailable cases against her are still pending in the lower courts.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, the government of former military general and current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup in 2014, continued to level “trumped-up criminal cases” against opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) lawmakers.
The party, then known as Future Forward, turned in a stunning performance in the 2019 elections in a shock to the Thai establishment.
“As in other countries in Southeast Asia, opposition MPs were the target of widespread abuse online, often through highly coordinated ‘information operations’ orchestrated by state-affiliated actors. Much of this abuse included highly misogynistic elements,” the report said.
APHR also said that it is “deeply concerned” about the situation in Cambodia.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled an effective one-party state since the main opposition party was arbitrarily disbanded in 2017,” it said.
In 2021, authorities “relied on a politicised judiciary” to continue to level “baseless charges” against former opposition lawmakers and members of the opposition, including several exiled Cambodian leaders, including Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua.
Earlier this year, Rainsy was sentenced to 25 years in absentia for an alleged plot to overthrow Hun Sen’s government. Human Rights Watch called the decision a “mockery of justice”.
“Across Southeast Asia, parliamentarians are increasingly at risk. Lawmakers who use their mandates to defend human rights or to hold power to account have for years been targeted through trumped-up criminal charges, threats and harassment, physical violence, and detention,” the report said.