Myanmar’s elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, arrested by the military when it seized power in a coup on February 1, has been charged with breaking a colonial-era official secrets law, her lawyer said on Thursday, the most serious charge against the veteran democracy campaigner.
Myanmar has been rocked by protests since the army overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, citing unsubstantiated claims of fraud in last November’s election that her party won in a landslide.
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In a new measure to stifle communication about the turmoil, the generals ordered internet service providers to shut down wireless broadband services until further notice, Reuters news agency reported, citing telecoms sources.
Aung San Suu Kyi and other members of her National League for Democracy (NLD) have been detained since the coup and the military had earlier accused her of several minor offences including illegally importing six handheld radios and breaching coronavirus protocols. Her lawyers say the charges she faces are trumped up.
Her chief lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, told Reuters by telephone that Aung San Suu Kyi, three of her deposed cabinet ministers and her economic adviser, Sean Turnell, an Australian were charged a week ago in a Yangon court under the official secrets law, adding he learned of the new charge two days ago.
Those found guilty under the law can be jailed for as long as 14 years.
On Thursday, protesters again took to the streets of cities across Myanmar, defying a security force crackdown that has killed at least 536 people. Activists burned copies of a military-framed constitution in protest against Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab.
The demonstrations came as fighting intensified between Myanmar’s military and ethnic rebel groups in the country’s border areas – a development that a United Nations special envoy earlier said increased the “possibility of civil war at an unprecedented scale”.
DVB news reported that 20 soldiers were killed and four military trucks destroyed in clashes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Myanmar’s most powerful rebel groups. The fighting in the far north comes days after Myanmar military aircraft began bombing positions of another group, the Karen National Union (KNU) in the country’s east sending thousands of people fleeing to the Thai border.
Tanee Sangrat, spokesman for Thailand’s foreign ministry, told reporters that Bangkok was “gravely troubled” by the increasing casualties. In some of the strongest comments from Thai authorities yet, Sangrat also called for a de-escalation of the situation, an end to violence and the further release of detainees.
Thailand was working with Southeast Asian countries for a peaceful solution, he added.
Meanwhile, a group of deposed members of parliament, mostly from Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, have vowed to set up a federal democracy in a bid to address a longstanding demand from minority groups for autonomy. The Committee for Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) also announced on Wednesday the scrapping of a 2008 constitution drawn up by the military that enshrines its control over politics.
The military has long rejected the idea of a federal system, seeing itself as the guarantor of the country’s unity.
Social media posts showed copies of the constitution, or in some cases imitations, being burned at rallies and in homes during what one activist called a “constitution bonfire ceremony”.
“The new day begins here!” Dr Sasa, international envoy of the CRPH, said on Twitter, referring to what for now is a largely symbolic move.
Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw @CrphMyanmar, who has full democratic mandate from people of Myanmar through 2020 general election, has abolished 2008 constitution. In support of the action, people are burning down 2008 constitution books all over country. pic.twitter.com/WXFKEaEdkk
— Civil Disobedience Movement (@cvdom2021) April 1, 2021
Anti-coup protesters burn a paper copy of the 2008 Constitution in Yangon's Hlaing township today, following an announcement by the CRPH– a body representing some of Myanmar's elected lawmakers– that the Constitution has been abolished. #WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/k4JlsUoQeD
— Myanmar Now (@Myanmar_Now_Eng) April 1, 2021
Fires also broke out overnight and early on Thursday at two shopping centres in Yangon owned by military-controlled conglomerates, with photographs of the flames and smoke posted on social media.
In New York, the UN special envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener told a closed briefing of the 15-member UN Security Council that the military was not capable of managing the country, and warned the situation on the ground would only worsen.
The council must consider “potentially significant action” to reverse the course of events as “a bloodbath is imminent”, she said.
“This could happen under our watch,” she said in a virtual presentation obtained by media including the Associated Press, “and failure to prevent further escalation of atrocities will cost the world so much more in the longer term than investing now in prevention, especially by Myanmar’s neighbours and the wider region.”
The opposition of ethnic armed groups to “the military’s cruelty … (is) increasing the possibility of civil war at an unprecedented scale”, Schraner Burgener warned.
“Already-vulnerable groups requiring humanitarian assistance including ethnic minorities and the Rohingya people will suffer most,” she said, “but inevitably, the whole country is on the verge of spiralling into a failed state.”
The council’s statements have so far expressed concern and condemned violence against protesters, but dropped language calling the takeover a coup and threatening possible further action due to opposition by China, Russia, India and Vietnam.
The United States on Wednesday urged China, which has significant economic and strategic interests in Myanmar, to use its influence to hold accountable those responsible for the coup.
While Western countries have strongly condemned the military’s power grab, China has been more cautious and the government’s top diplomat Wang Yi called for stability during a meeting with his Singaporean counterpart on Wednesday.
“China welcomes and supports ASEAN’s adherence to the principle of non-interference … and the ‘ASEAN approach’ in playing a positive role in promoting the stability of the situation in Myanmar,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement after the meeting, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In a sign of stepped-up shuttle diplomacy, the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are also due to meet Wang Yi in China this week.
Myanmar joined ASEAN in 1997. The 10-member group operates under a convention of non-interference in each other’s affairs, but some countries – led by Indonesia – have been actively pushing diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis.
Still, the military has up to now appeared impervious to outside pressure.