Fears grow for hundreds of students arrested in Myanmar protests

Detained protesters are now thought to be in Insein prison, but have been unable to see lawyers or their families.

Hundreds of students were detained in protests on March 3 and taken to Insein Prison. Families and lawyers are still trying to make contact with them [Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

Yangon, Myanmar – Muhammed Salim’s friend is well-known at school for being a passionate football player and a strong public speaker. The 20-year-old often channelled his oratorical gifts into activism, even before the Myanmar military seized power on February 1.

He organised events for causes as small as condemning government plans to cut trees on campus and as big as protesting against then-State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to defend the military from allegations of genocide against the Rohingya.

“He’s brave,” Salim said.

Like many other young, politically active Yangon residents, Salim’s friend threw himself more fully into activism after the coup. But on March 3, he was among some 400 student protesters rounded up by police in Tamwe township in the largest mass arrest incident since the military takeover.

There has been no word from the students since then. Salim does not want to name his friend for fear it will worsen his situation. Al Jazeera has verified his name to a list of detainees maintained by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group that has been monitoring arrests since the coup.

“There were about 20 police in front of us. We made a defensive line and requested that they open the road. Then their reinforcements came and they started to destroy our force,” said Aung*, another protester on the front lines that day.

He said police attacked, using stun grenades and tear gas first. “At first, we tried to neutralise the tear gas grenade, but we weren’t able to any more because they kept throwing more and more. Then they shot us with rubber bullets continuously,” he said.

Hundreds of students were among those detained on March 3. Many were taken to Insein prison but families and lawyers have not been able to see them [Nyein Chan Naing/EPA]

Aung and Salim, who are both 19, were wounded by rubber-coated bullets during the crackdown but managed to escape arrest. They saw others kettled into a side street as they tried to flee, blocked by police on both sides. “I saw they forced the students to line up with their hands behind their head like a prisoner after arrest,” Salim said.

The remaining protesters attempted to reassemble and demand the release of their fellow students, “but they shot us again,” Aung said. “They said they will free the students in a few days but it’s been a week and our students are still imprisoned.”

No access to families, lawyers

That day was also the bloodiest since mass protests and civil disobedience against the coup began, with the United Nations putting the estimated death toll at 38. But having heard nothing from the detained students for days, their families and friends are growing increasingly concerned about their welfare.

“I’m just really worried about my friends right now,” said 19-year-old Hnin*, whose boyfriend was among the hundreds detained on March 3.

She asked that a pseudonym be used, telling Al Jazeera that she feared speaking to the press could result in retaliation against her boyfriend and other friends.

Like the other protesters, her boyfriend has not been heard from since his arrest and has not been able to see a lawyer.

“We are trying to speak out because there isn’t much media exposure for these kids,” Hnin said. But most families have been hesitant. “They have heard word that the students who are well known … they are going to be detained longer. There are also underaged kids and a lot of girls too,” she said.

People attend the funeral of Angel a 19-year-old protester also known as Kyal Sin who was shot in the head as Myanmar forces opened fire to disperse an anti-coup demonstration in Mandalay, Myanmar, March 4, 2021. [Stringer/Reuters]

On March 8, the AAPP said there had been 518 confirmed cases of women being arrested or charged, with the actual number “likely to be higher”.

Young female protesters have also been among those killed by security forces. Kyal Sin and Mya Thwe Thwe Khine were just 19 when they were shot in the head by police. They have since become icons of the protest movement.

Police informed the arrested students’ families that they  had been taken to Insein Prison, an infamous facility in Yangon that has long been used to house and torture political prisoners. Many activists were sent to the prison in the aftermath of the 1988 uprisings against the previous military dictatorship.

Survivors of the prison from that era frequently relate stories of physical and psychological abuse, overcrowding, poor hygiene, inadequate food. Some did not make it out at all.

Salim said he has been unable to visit the prison due to a wounded leg, but members of the detained students’ families had travelled to the jail every day, bringing food and waiting “with hope”. They have not yet been allowed to see their loved ones.

Legal protections

The generals have repeatedly tried to portray the young protesters as being easily manipulated and influenced without being fully cognizant about the coup.

“Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a confrontation path where they will suffer the loss of life,” said a particularly threatening message in state media on February 22.

A Myanmar anti-riot police officer aims a tear gas launcher to disperse protesters during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on March 3 when hundreds were detained and dozens killed [Lynn Bo Bo/EPA]

On March 9, coup leader Min Aung Hlaing even suggested that “some young people involved in protests were on drugs,” although he did not provide any evidence to substantiate his statement.

In the same speech, the army chief also said “arrangements are being made to release some” of the detained protesters. But a few days later, state media announced leaders of the so-called “riot” had been charged under section 505A, which carries a three-year prison sentence.

Far from scaling back mass arrests, security forces carried out a similar roundup on March 10, detaining more than 100 protesters.

“They have been saying they will release the kids and then they won’t again,” Hnin said, saying officials have given “ridiculous” excuses for not letting the protesters out.

Authorities said “the unrest nearby and the roadblocks are making them unable to transport the students to police stations to be released,” she explained. The protesters have been unable to make contact with family members or with their lawyers, a situation rights activists say is a clear violation of their legal protections.

“The illegal military group did not abide by any law,” said Bo Kyi, a joint secretary for AAPP, who himself served time in Insein beginning in 1990.

“They put the students, youth and protesters in prisons and some are in unknown places. All detainees are innocent before they are sentenced. However, none of the detainees got protection by law and they could not contact family members to explain why they were arrested or even where they are,” Bo Kyi said, adding the approach violates “all domestic and international laws”.

Prison officials, wearing face masks as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19, outside Insein in April last year when prisoners were released as part of an annual amnesty [File: Sai Aung Main/ AFP]

Bo Kyi says AAPP has also seen evidence that some detainees have been beaten after their arrests, and could face further abuse in prison.

Videos and photographs of police beatings have gone viral on social media, underscoring the difficulty facing the military in hiding its abuses in the modern age.

One clip showed police attacking three volunteer medics, repeatedly kicking them in the head and striking them with batons and rifle butts. Another showed a police officer kicking an already incapacitated detainee in the head, with a second officer then dragging his limp body. Local media later reported that the man in the video died of his injuries. Al Jazeera has not been able to independently verify the content of these videos

“What is happening in Burma is not just a gross human rights violation. It’s a crime against humanity,” Bo Kyi said.

While the biggest roundup occurred on March 3, hundreds of others have been arrested since the takeover. As of March 11, AAPP estimated that more than 1,700 people were still in detention over their involvement in protests against the coup.

Beatings, bullets

The most high-profile detainees are Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD) which won November’s election in a landslide. The military has refused to recognise the result. Both are facing charges for supposedly violating COVID-19 restrictions and for incitement, while Suu Kyi is facing additional charges for allegedly illegally importing walkie-talkies.

Like many of the youth protesters, they have not been heard from since their arrests on February 1.

A 23-year-old front-line protester Zaw* said one of his close friends was arrested on March 2, after being shot with rubber-coated bullets and beaten by police, and was also taken to Insein.

“I was with him on the front line on the day he got arrested. I really thought I wouldn’t get out alive. We got sandwiched,” he said, referring to the same kettling tactic used by police in Tamwe. Most scrambled to take shelter in nearby homes and shops, as sympathetic members of the public opened their doors to them.

Protests against the February 1 coup have been going on for weeks and the security forces have increasingly used force, including live bullets, to break up the demonstrations [Kaung Zaw/EPA]

In a video viewed by Al Jazeera, the detainee was seen surrounded by more than 10 officers who viciously beat him with batons and kicked him repeatedly while he huddled on the ground. The 21-year-old is an aspiring abstract artist and alternative musician, who was trying to save money to attend art school abroad.

“Last time his dad had contact with him was at the military hospital, where they removed the bullet in his thigh,” Zaw said. “Then he was sent to Insein and we’ve lost contact with him since.”

Later, police informed the family that he had also been charged under 505A of the Penal Code. As far as the family knows, he has not been allowed to see a lawyer.

Zaw described his detained friend as a “small guy with the biggest heart I’ve ever known”.

“He always said ‘If I had to risk my life for the people beside me, I’d do it in a heartbeat. You all have too much to lose. Look at me, I have nothing’.”

Source: Al Jazeera