Junta extends student prison terms as a ‘weapon’ of power

The military junta in Myanmar is adding new charges and extending prison terms of those students convicted for their resistance to military rule after the February 2021 coup, as a tactic to curb opposition, according to student unions in Myanmar.

Thousands of students, who have been at the forefront of protests following the coup, have been detained. Among those who have been tried, some face the death penalty while others have been handed life sentences.

Those with lesser terms face the ongoing prospect of having their sentence increased.

Htoo Wai Lin, a second-year psychology student at Dagon University, arrested in June 2021 while fleeing to a house in Tharkayta Township, was held in detention for over a year without a fair trial.

He was first sentenced in August 2022 to three years in prison for opposing the military dictatorship. A month later, on 16 September, he was sentenced to another 10 years on charges of incitement, for his anti-coup activities, according to Dagon University Students’ Union (DUSU).

Last month a special court inside Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison added two years to the sentence of prominent student leader Wai Yan Phyo Moe, a vice-president of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), according to his family.

The latest sentence, which will bring the total time Wai Yan Phyo Moe has to spend behind bars to seven years and two months, relates to an incitement charge laid against him for his political activities prior to last year’s coup, a family member told Myanmar Now.

Sentencing as a weapon

Almost all the students arrested at the start of military rule were charged under Section 505-A of the Penal Code, which criminalises comments that “cause fear” or “spread false news”, and which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Later, additional charges were brought, with no opportunity given for students to have a fair trial or to appoint a lawyer, DUSU said on its social media page.

“The military is afraid that if they release the students, it might be a threat to them one day and the students might fight back. That’s why the additional charges are added,” Min Han Htet, a spokesperson at the Alliance of Students’ Unions Yangon as well as a president of DUSU, told University World News.

The military is using whatever power they can to control people by sentencing as much as they can, said Win Lwin Oo, deputy executive chairman of Thanlyin Technological University Students’ Union. He told University World News the military has used sentencing again and again as a weapon to stay in power.

The tactic was prominently used in August 2022 when a Myanmar court convicted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on additional corruption charges, adding six years to her earlier 11-year prison sentence in a trial held behind closed doors. Her lawyers were barred from revealing information about the court proceedings. She denied all the charges.

Last month, Australian academic Sean Turnell, an economic advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, was handed a three-year sentence by a Myanmar court in a closed hearing. Turnell, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, was first detained on 6 February 2021, just days after the coup, and later charged with violating Myanmar’s official secrets act, which he denies. He had already spent 20 months in jail before his sentence was handed down.

Students targeted

According to data from civil society organisation Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), more than a thousand students have been detained since the coup, though the actual numbers are likely much higher.

They have been charged under the Counter-Terrorism Law Section 52(a); Penal Code Section 124-A, which criminalises any attempt to “excite disaffection towards the government”; Section 505-A, which criminalises comments that “cause fear” or “spread false news”; the Electronic Transactions Law Section 33(a), which allows the government agencies to access personal data in criminal investigations; 49(a) or 52(a) of the Anti-Terrorism Law, and other existing laws.

ABFSU reported that the former chair of Meiktila University Students’ Union, Ma Thae Su Naing (aka Ma Ju), was sentenced by a Meiktila court to seven years in prison under Section 52(a) on 29 August.

Former ABFSU chairman Soe Thuya Kyaw was also sentenced to eight years in Mandalay’s Obo Prison under Section 52(a) and Section 505-A on 27 June, and there are additional charges pending, ABFSU said.

Similarly, third-year law student Sithu Aung Tin, who is a member of Dagon University Law Student’s Union, was sentenced to 10 years under Section 124-A and Section 505-A by a military tribunal on 3 November last ye

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