When dozens of police officers and soldiers raided the home of a university student in Myanmar who was leading protests against the Feb. 1 military coup, he wasn’t there. So they arrested his mother instead.
“The district chief called me and said that I should turn myself in or they wouldn’t release my mother,” said the student. Hoping her detention would be short because she was innocent, he did not yield. Days later, she was released. Authorities never issued a formal explanation for her detention.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the student and three other protesters and their family members interviewed for this story in order to ensure their safety.
The student’s mother is among at least 85 “hostages” taken by Myanmar’s security forces since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a human-rights organization that has been documenting arrests and rights abuses in the country. Family members and friends have been arbitrarily detained in place of activists, journalists, striking public servants and others wanted for arrest, apparently to coerce them into surrendering to authorities and to instill widespread fear. The hostages include the wife and 20-day-old baby of a protest leader in Mon State and the 90-year-old grandmother of an activist in Yangon, whose mother was beaten and sentenced to three years for sedition. Some hostages have been released, but dozens remain in detention.
They are among more than 6,200 people arrested since the coup, of whom more than 5,000 are still in custody, according to the AAPP.
“When the military turned to violence against anti-coup demonstrations, the world saw it as brutality. Children shot in the head, elderly women beaten on the streets for no reason, peaceful activists being burned alive and tortured to death,” U Bo Kyi, joint secretary of the AAPP, told The Globe. “Taking hostages to create a climate of fear is totally in line with their brutal thinking. If the coup doesn’t end, Burma will see many more hostages taken and many more disappearances.”
The university student whose mother was arrested has been staying at friends’ houses since he began protesting in February. He hasn’t slept at home since March, for his own protection and his family’s.
“I was shocked and sad when I heard my mother was arrested because of me. Later, I tried to ease my mind by reminding myself that I am standing for justice,” he said. “I don’t mind if they harm me, but I don’t want them to harm my family members. It hit me hard.”
The Globe also spoke with an elderly man who was arrested when authorities could not find his son, a protest leader who had been in hiding since joining the anti-coup movement two months earlier. Before his arrest, the father had often noticed strangers wandering around his home. “My relatives said that I should hide in a safe place, but I decided not to because I have no place to go,” he said. “I decided to face whatever happens to me on my son’s behalf.”
At the police station, he was shown photographs of his son and asked about his whereabouts, according to the father’s account. “When I was in custody, a police officer kept repeating that my son’s action was high treason, and I felt agony,” he said. Hours later, after telling police he had advised his son not to protest but that the young man had disobeyed him, he was released.
“Since then, my mind has never been free,” said the father, who now doesn’t even dare turn on the lights after dark. “I feel terribly insecure all the time, like they might come again to arrest me.”
Some family members of people wanted by authorities have fled their homes, including the wife and two children of human-rights activist Thet Swe Win. “On Feb. 6, the military came to my house and looked for me, but I wasn’t there, so they interrogated all of my family members,” said Thet Swe Win, who hasn’t been to his home in Yangon since shortly after Myanmar’s military spokesperson said on Jan. 26 that a coup couldn’t be ruled out if its claims of vote-rigging in November’s elections, which the military-backed party badly lost, were not addressed. “[Security forces] threatened my family that they were looking to arrest me and my wife should inform them if I got home.”
In March, the military charged him with committing actions “likely to cause fear or alarm in the public” and broadcast his photo on the nightly televised list of those wanted for arrest. His wife and children came home one day in April to find the lock broken, their belongings out of place and their family photos missing.
“Since then, I connected with all of my networks for how to protect my family … they snuck my family out of the country,” said Thet Swe Win, who has taken refuge in an area under the control of an armed ethnic organization.
Being separated from his family and seeing the risks they have faced have been emotionally trying. “It was a big dilemma for me, whether I should follow with them … I would feel selfish if I left the country and left all the suffering people behind,” he said, adding that he has channelled those conflicting feelings toward his fight for a peaceful, harmonious and democratic society. “This is a big driving force for me, to make a better future and a better country for my children.”
For the wife of a well-known artist, the moment to leave her home in Yangon with her two children came when her husband was charged with sedition shortly after he produced a song about the junta gunning down nonviolent protesters.
“I didn’t feel safe. Because of my husband, my kids might be threatened or wanted … so I decided to leave,” she said. Now living in an undisclosed “safe zone,” her children are still traumatized when they see anyone in uniform. “They asked why we have to be afraid of our own government. It should protect the country,” she said. “We are homesick … But there is no choice for us.”
In other cases, the families of people wanted by the regime live in constant fear inside their own homes. “Since my colleague was arrested in March, I have moved around from place to place,” said a nurse in Kayah State who is among hundreds of thousands of civil servants refusing to work under the regime. “Authorities have been asking my neighbour about my whereabouts since April, so [my family, four younger siblings and an aunt] only stay inside and make it look like nobody’s at home.”
She said they keep the lights off at night and even avoid using their mobile phones; they go out the back door, early in the morning, when their neighbours are still sleeping. Yet, despite the risks to herself and her family, the nurse does not intend to back down. “I have to do this for my future and my siblings’ future,” she said.
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