Myanmar’s already dire human rights situation is deteriorating and the junta should release all political prisoners, the UN chief said on Wednesday, as a leading local media outlet revealed that one of its reporters had been imprisoned for 20 years for covering the aftermath of a cyclone.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “deeply concerned about the deteriorating political, humanitarian and human rights situation in Myanmar, including Rakhine State, and the fate of the massive number of refugees living in desperate conditions”.
Speaking during the final days of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, Guterres reiterated his “urgent appeal to Myanmar’s military authorities to listen to the aspirations of his people, to release all political prisoners and to open dialogue”. leads to a return to a democratic regime.
Since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup in 2021, the country has been rocked by violence and instability and plunged into economic chaos. Fighting between junta troops and People’s Defense Forces (PDF) resistance groups is taking place almost daily across the country.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in the junta’s airstrikes and ground attacks, according to monitoring groups, and many more – including journalists, activists and anyone accused of dissent – have been arrested.
On Wednesday, independent local media Myanmar Now said one of its photojournalists had been sentenced to 20 years in prison with hard labor by a military court on a series of charges including sedition.
Sai Zaw Thaike was in western Rakhine State to report on the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Mocha, which killed more than 140 people and caused widespread damage. He was arrested by junta soldiers in Sittwe, the state capital, on May 23, Myanmar Now reported.
“All of Sai Zaw Thaike’s colleagues at Myanmar Now and I are deeply saddened to learn of his long sentence,” the media’s editor, Swe Win, said in a statement.
“His conviction is yet another indication that freedom of the press has been completely snuffed out under the military junta, and shows the high price independent journalists in Myanmar have to pay for their professional work. »
In the aftermath of the cyclone, Myanmar’s junta suspended humanitarian access to parts of Rakhine state, where more than a million people were in dire need of assistance, the UN humanitarian office said at the time. UN.
The decision to suspend aid access in the already impoverished state has crippled the humanitarian response to Cyclone Mocha and crippled lifesaving aid distributions to communities affected by the storm.
Myanmar Now said that although Sai Zaw Thaike’s initial charges included disinformation, incitement and sedition, it was unclear what he was convicted of.
Sai Zaw Thaike was denied access to a lawyer during his detention and no hearing was held. The verdict took place in a closed-door military compound at the notorious Insein prison in Yangon, according to the outlet.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was the longest prison sentence ever handed down to a journalist since the February 2021 coup.
“Myanmar authorities’ farcical 20-year prison sentence against Myanmar Now journalist Sai Zaw Thaike on patently false charges is an outrage and should be immediately overturned,” said Shawn Crispin, High Representative from CPJ for Southeast Asia, in a statement.
“Myanmar’s junta must stop imprisoning members of the press just for doing their job as reporters. »
CNN could not immediately reach the Burmese junta.
According to data from the Detained Journalist Group, more than 150 journalists have been arrested and four media workers have lost their lives since the coup, Myanmar Now reported.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s most high-profile prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains imprisoned and faces decades without freedom as her health deteriorates.
Reuters reported that the junta had refused an outside doctor’s request to consult the ousted state councilor, citing a source familiar with the matter and the shadow government.
A source told CNN that Suu Kyi suffered from gingivitis, gum inflammation and toothache, but has since recovered. The timeline of his illness and recovery is unknown.
The deputy spokesman for the UN secretary-general, Farhan Haq, on Wednesday called for Suu Kyi’s release, saying that “everyone in detention should be able to have access to health care, it is a fundamental right”.
Leaders of ASEAN member states met this week in Jakarta and the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Myanmar was high on the agenda. This is the second consecutive year that Myanmar has not been invited to the regional summit following the coup.
But the bloc has been criticized for its failure to convince Myanmar’s military leaders to end violence and human rights abuses in the country and for a five-point consensus agreed by ASEAN leaders and Myanmar junta leader Major General Min Aung Hlaing in 2021. the roadmap to peace has failed.
ASEAN leaders said they were “seriously concerned about the lack of substantial progress in its implementation”, but maintained that the consensus “remains ASEAN’s main benchmark for resolving the political crisis in Myanmar”, According to the President’s statement.
Myanmar was supposed to hold ASEAN’s annual rotating presidency in 2026, but regional leaders have said the Philippines will take on the role instead.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, who also attended the summit, said the United States would continue to press the Myanmar regime “to end the horrific violence, to release all people unjustly detained and restore Myanmar’s path to inclusive democracy”.