Myanmar’s military is tightening its crackdown on the former civilian government, with the arrest of a senior leader from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
Win Htein was taken from his Yangon home early on Friday. He told the BBC he was arrested under sedition laws.
Ms Suu Kyi and other leaders have been detained since the military launched its coup on Monday, plunging the South East Asian country into uncertainty.
Their whereabouts remain unknown.
The military overthrew Ms Suu Kyi’s government after it claimed a November election won by the NLD was fraudulent, though the country’s election commission said there was no evidence to back up these allegations.
The move has been met with global outrage.
In his latest statement, US President Joe Biden on Thursday called on the military to”relinquish power” and release detained officials and activists.
The US had already threatened severe sanctions on Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
However, the military is seemingly undeterred by the disapproval, continuing down its path of consolidating power and appointing new ministers in the capital Naypyitaw, said the BBC’s South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head.
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In a pre-dawn phone call with BBC Burmese, Win Htein said he was being taken to the capital of Nay Pyi Taw by members of the police and the military.
He said he was being detained under sedition laws — which carry a maximum punishment of life imprisonment — although he was not told the exact charge.
“They don’t like what I’ve been talking about. They are afraid of what I’m saying,” he said.
The 79-year-old patron of the NLD and strong supporter of Ms Suu Kyi has given several interviews since the coup criticising the military and its leader Min Aung Hlaing.
Earlier this week he told local news magazine Frontier that the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar’s armed forces, would “go into disrepute because of the coup”.
“Staging a coup at the moment shows they are not wise and narrow minded,” he said. “I experienced the coup of General Ne Win in 1962… Myanmar’s economy suffered for 26 years after his coup.”
Myanmar has remained mostly calm in the aftermath of the coup.
However, seventy MPs are holding an insurgent parliament, to replicate the parliamentary session that was supposed to take place this week.
A civil disobedience movement is also gaining momentum.
Residents in some cities including Yangon have conducted nightly protests from their homes, where they have been banging pots and pans and singing revolutionary songs.
Some healthcare workers, teachers and civil servants have either organised small protests or gone on strike, while others have continued to work wearing symbols of defiance such as a red ribbon.
A small street protest took place in front of a university in Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay on Thursday, with reports of four arrests.
Many have also turned online to protest the coup. The military has since temporarily banned Facebook, which is widely used across the country.
Since the ban began on Thursday, many Burmese citizens have appeared to have flocked to other social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
Twitter declined comment when asked by the BBC if it had seen a spike in new users or tweets from Myanmar.
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On Thursday US President Joe Biden said they would work with partners to “support restoration of democracy and the rule of law, and impose consequences on those responsible”.
“The Burmese military should relinquish power they have seized, release the advocates and activists and officials they have detained, lift the restrictions on telecommunications, and refrain from violence,” he said.
Mr Biden had earlier warned that the US was considering re-imposing sanctions.
The United Nations Security Council also released a statement on Thursday stressing “the need to uphold democratic institutions and processes, refrain from violence, and fully respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.”
The UN has not condemned the coup outright, but in doing so it has brought China and Russia behind a call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues, in what our correspondent has described as a rare show of international unity.
Myanmar at a glance
Myanmar is a country of 54 million people in South East Asia which shares borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Laos.
It was ruled by an oppressive military government from 1962 to 2011, leading to international condemnation and sanctions.
Aung San Suu Kyi spent years campaigning for democratic reforms. A gradual liberalisation began in 2010, though the military still retained considerable influence.
A government led by Ms Suu Kyi came to power after free elections in 2015. But a deadly military crackdown two years later on Rohingya Muslims sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to Bangladesh and triggered a rift between Ms Suu Kyi and the international community.
She has remained popular at home and her party won again by a landslide in the November 2020 election. But the military have now stepped in to take control once more.
It is widely said that, in Myanmar, Facebook is the internet, so when the military asked for it to be blocked for the sake of “stability” it sent a shockwave through the country.
As Myanmar’s military seized control in a coup on 1 February, many Burmese watched events unfold on Facebook in real-time. It’s the primary source of information and news, where businesses operate and how authorities disseminate vital information.
Its ubiquity has meant it plays an outsized role in what information is amplified and its real-world impact.
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Up until the mid-2000s most people did not have access to the internet or mobile phones under the military-run government.
A sim card could cost hundreds of dollars with the state-owned telecommunications firm, MPT, so mobile penetration was one of the lowest in the world.
The country started to liberalise in 2011 and by 2014 two telecommunications companies had been given permission to enter the country, Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Oredoo.
It was the first time many Burmese had access to any kind of telecommunications and led to a rapid adoption of mobile phones as prices plummeted.
“Myanmar came online more or less overnight and almost all at once,” says Richard Horsey, an independent political analyst based in the biggest city Yangon.
Entering the country in 2010, Facebook initially allowed its app to be used without incurring data charges, so it gained rapid popularity. It would come pre-loaded on phones bought at mobile shops and was a cultural fit.
“During the years of censorship, if you wanted to know what was going on you had to go down to the tea shop and chat with people. When Facebook came along it gelled with that way of doing things — a digital tea shop,” Mr Horsey says.
It is now used by more half of the country’s population of 54 million people, the company says.
Why has it been controversial?
In 2012 communal violence broke out in Rakhine state between the Buddhist majority and minority Rohingya Muslims.
And there were fears that social media — namely Facebook — had the ability to amplify those existing tensions resulting in violence.
As an example, in 2014 an extremist and anti-Muslim monk, Ashin Wirathu, shared a post alleging that a Buddhist girl had been raped by Muslim men. It went viral on Facebook.
Days later a mob descended on those accused of being involved and two people died in the ensuing violence. A police investigation later found that the monk’s accusation had been completely fabricated.
UN human rights investigators have since concluded that hate speech on Facebook played a key role in fomenting violence in Myanmar. The company admitted it had failed to prevent its platform being used to “incite offline violence” in Myanmar.
“Facebook was complicit in a genocide. There were already signs and strong calls for Facebook to handle the incitement of violence on the platform but their inaction really contributed to the fanning of violence in Myanmar,” says Rin Fujimatsu from research and advocacy group Progressive Voice.
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Since then the platform has taken some steps to actively remove hate speech and ban military officials.
In 2018, Facebook banned Min Aung Hlaing, the leader of Myanmar’s armed forces and the man who led the coup this week. It also banned the army’s television channel Myawaddy from its platform.
So why is it being blocked now?
The military has asked internet providers to block the platform to ensure stability.
That throws into question the impact on the civil disobedience campaign against the coup, businesses and also the dissemination of public health advice on Covid-19 which happens largely on Facebook.
“It’s really a violation of people’s right to information and expression as well as freedom of speech — this is really crucial at a time when information is necessary to keep themselves safe from the pandemic,” says Ms Fujimatsu.
People are now scrambling to find alternatives. Other social media and messaging platforms have seen a surge in users in Myanmar including Twitter, Signal and offline messaging app Bridgefy after the military temporarily disrupted internet access.
Facebook has said: “We urge authorities to restore connectivity so that people in Myanmar can communicate with family and friends and access important information”.
It has also said it is now treating the current situation in Myanmar as an emergency and is actively removing content that praises or supports the coup.
The platform is a key factor in the civil disobedience campaign. Many users have changed their profile pictures to show support for the political party of deposed civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
And given its history in the country, there is a sentiment that Facebook has an obligation to protect human rights and freedom of expression there.
So might this chip away at Facebook’s importance? Observers think it’s unlikely.
“People have also seen how easy it is to crack down on Facebook and how fragile communication is especially under the current military coup, so they will diversify where they get their information and how they communicate with each other in order to show their defiance,” says Ms Fujimatsu.
But ultimately she and others believe Facebook is too integrated into the daily lives of people of Myanmar for people to move away from it.