Myanmar’s military junta on Friday granted amnesty to more than 23,000 prisoners, emptying jail cells even as the regime showed signs it was preparing to muzzle the internet and ratchet up its crackdown on opponents.
Amnesty International described the mass release of prisoners and detainees awaiting trial as a "sideshow" to distract from the military's "daily trampling of human rights" since it ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's government on February 1st.
"It should only highlight the fact that the military has thrown hundreds of people in jail since the start of the coup for peacefully challenging their rule," said Ming Yu Hah, the group's deputy regional director for campaigns.
Since senior general Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's military chief, seized power, his regime has imprisoned dozens of civilian government officials and dissenters and ordered internet providers to block access to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
This week, it unveiled a draft cyber security law that would require providers of online services to store sensitive user data locally and hand it over at authorities' request. Alarm is growing in Myanmar among business and civil society groups over the proposed law, which they said would hurt the economy and further choke off the flow of information at a time of national crisis.
Facebook, which is used by almost 40 per cent of the population, said on Friday it was reducing access to a swath of military-run pages and profiles, and “treating the situation in Myanmar as an emergency”.
The social media company said it would take action against the pages, including the “True News Information Team”, a military propaganda outlet, and other pages which the company accused of spreading misinformation.
Facebook said it was “reducing the distribution” of the pages, meaning users would see significantly less of the content in their news feeds. The US company also suspended government agencies’ ability to send content removal requests by asking for accounts to be suspended or posts taken down.
The announcement came after the US imposed sanctions against Min Aung Hlaing and nine other figures it described as “perpetrators of the coup”, as well as three military-controlled companies, including the Myanmar Ruby Enterprise and Myanmar Imperial Jade Co.
Janet Yellen, the US treasury secretary, said the administration was prepared to take further action if Myanmar's military did not change course. "If there is more violence against peaceful protesters, the Burmese military will find that today's sanctions are just the first," she said.
Myanmar's dissenters have circumvented the blocks on social media sites by using virtual private networks to voice opposition to the coup and spread news about protests. Demonstrations were held in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, the eastern city of Mawlamyine and elsewhere for the seventh consecutive day on Friday.
Anti-China sentiment also flared across the country this week, with social media users alleging that the junta had enlisted Chinese support to implement the draft cyber security law or build an internet-blocking firewall. Protesters gathered on Friday outside the embassies of China and Russia, whose governments they accused of supporting the junta. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021