Myanmar junta warns public not to hide fugitive protesters

By: AFP      Published: 12:02 PM, 14 Feb, 2021
Myanmar junta warns public not to hide fugitive protesters

Myanmar's new military regime warned the public not to harbour fugitive political activists on Sunday after issuing arrest warrants for veteran democracy campaigners supporting massive nationwide anti-coup protests. 

Much of the country has been in an uproar since last week when soldiers detained Aung San Suu Kyi and ousted her government, ending a decade-old fledgling democracy after generations of junta rule. 

Security forces have stepped up arrests of doctors and others joining a civil disobedience movement that has seen huge crowds throng streets across big urban centres and isolated villages in mountainous frontier communities. 

Police are now hunting seven people who have lent vocal support to the protests, including some of the country's most famous democracy activists. 

"If you find any fugitives mentioned above or if you have information about them, report to the nearest police station," said a notice in state media on Sunday. 

"Those who receive them will (face) action in accordance with the law."

Among the list of fugitives was Min Ko Naing, who spent more than a decade in prison for helping lead protests against an earlier dictatorship in 1988 while a university student.

"They are arresting the people at night and we have to be careful," he said in a video published Saturday to Facebook, skirting a junta ban on the platform, hours before his arrest warrant was issued.

"They could crack down forcefully and we will have to be prepared."

The 1988 protests vaulted Suu Kyi to the top of Myanmar's democracy movement, and the Nobel laureate spent years under house arrest as a prisoner of the generals. 

She has not been seen in public since she was detained on February 1 alongside top aides.

Nearly 400 others have been arrested in the days since including many of Suu Kyi's top political allies, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners monitoring group.

Military leader Min Aung Hlaing suspended requiring warrants for home searches and limiting detentions without court orders to 24 hours as part of several legal manoeuvres issued on Saturday. 

People in some urban neighbourhoods have begun forming neighbourhood watch brigades to monitor their communities overnight -- defying a junta curfew -- and prevent the arrests of residents participating in the civil disobedience movement. 

Crowds returned to the streets of Yangon on Sunday, with hundreds massing on an intersection near the commercial capital's famed Shwedagon pagoda. 

A day earlier, Buddhist monks gathered outside the city's US embassy and chanted the Metta Sutta, a prayer that urges protection from harm. 

"We wanted them to know most citizens in Myanmar are against the military," said Vicittalankara, one of the participants.

- 'Media ethics' -

The country's new military leadership has so far been unmoved by a torrent of international condemnation. 

An emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council on Friday called for the new regime to release all "arbitrarily detained" people and for the military to hand power back to Suu Kyi's administration.

Solidarity protests have been staged in neighbouring Thailand, home to a large community of Myanmar migrant workers, as well as the United States, Japan and Australia. 

But traditional allies of the country's armed forces, including Russia and China, have dissociated themselves from what they have described as interference in Myanmar's "internal affairs".

The junta insists it took power lawfully and has instructed journalists in the country not to refer to itself as a government that took power in a coup. 

"We inform... journalists and news media organizations not to write to cause public unrest," said a notice sent by the information ministry to the country's foreign correspondents' club late Saturday. 

It also instructed reporters to follow "news media ethics" while reporting events in the country.

Aim at military coup

Otherworldly forces are displeased with the generals behind Myanmar's coup, according to the ornately dressed spirit mediums joining street protests to denounce the country's sudden turn back to army rule.

A group of the clairvoyants this week marched alongside civil servants, garment factory workers and students in the commercial capital Yangon to call for the release of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi. 

They channel the 37 great "nats" -- or deities -- venerated in Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country where animist worship and superstitious beliefs are part of everyday life for some.

"Nats do not want military rule," insisted Achaintan Man Gay Oo, 48. "They also want the release of Mother Suu."

It has become apparent to the mediums that the spirits are "unhappy" with the sudden end to Myanmar's nascent democracy, the 48-year-old told AFP.

"Their withered faces show the hints of their dissatisfaction," she added.

The presence of Achaintan Man Gay Oo and other mediums among anti-coup protesters may seem little more than a curiosity from outside the country.

But Myanmar's military top brass have at times clamped down on spiritual practices led by popular soothsayers, mediums and sorcerers.

During the British colonial era and the half-century of junta rule that followed, the mediums channelled "weikza" -- semi-divine Buddhist wizard-saints -- to fight their oppressors.

Most of these sects were disbanded or pushed underground by the generals, even while reportedly paying heed to their own spiritual counsel.

Than Shwe, Myanmar's feared former dictator, is rumoured to have been a regular client of a famous deaf mystic who also read the fortune of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

One popular young sorcerer boasting a large following on Facebook was whisked away at night by police this week after participating in the Yangon protests.

Linn Nhyo Taryar had prayed for the fall of the new junta, his godfather and magic mentor Tin Htut told AFP. 

- 'Myanmar will have many changes ' -

The bespectacled 25-year-old now faces a two-year jail sentence under a colonial-era incitement law.

"I do not like party politics or dictatorship... but I let my children do what they believe in," Tin Htut said, angered that his protege was refused bail.

All videos posted by Linn Nhyo Taryar since the coup have been removed from Facebook.

But his followers say he might have foreseen the fall of Myanmar's democracy, pointing at a prediction he had published on the last day of 2020.

"The highest organisations in Myanmar will have many changes," he wrote.

"Internationally, Myanmar news will be at the top for good and bad things." 

The spirits are not to be underestimated, Achaintan Man Gay Oo said, adding that she feels protected despite junta warnings of action against protesters

"I have no worries at all for their crackdown," she said. "If it happens, I'm ready to give my life."