Myanmar junta chokes information flow as protests intensify

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YANGON, March 19 (AP): Two more journalists were detained in Myanmar on Friday, part of the junta’s intensifying efforts to choke off information about resistance to last month’s coup.

Mizzima News reported that one of its former reporters, Than Htike Aung, and Aung Thura, a journalist from the BBC’s Burmese-language service, were detained by men who appeared to be plainclothes security agents outside a court in the capital of Naypyidaw. The journalists were there to cover legal proceedings against Win Htein, a detained senior official from the National League for Democracy, the party that ran the country before the takeover.

The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule. In the face of persistent strikes and protests against the takeover, the junta has responded with an increasingly violent crackdown and efforts to severely limit information reaching the outside world. Security forces have fired on crowds, killing hundreds, internet access has been severely restricted, private newspapers have been barred from publishing, and protesters, journalists and politicians have been arrested in large numbers.

About 40 journalists have been arrested since the Feb 1 coup, with roughly half still in detention, including Thein Zaw of The Associated Press.

A statement from the BBC said it is “extremely concerned” that Aung Thura had been taken away by unidentified men.

“The BBC takes the safety of its entire staff in Myanmar very seriously and we are doing everything we can to find Aung Thura,” the organization said, adding that he was an accredited journalist with many years of reporting experience. It called on the authorities “to help locate him and confirm that he is safe.” The reporters were taken into custody a day after Kyi Toe, a spokesman for the National League for Democracy, was arrested, according to a Facebook post by Phyo Zeya Thaw, a party official.

Kyi Toe had been a major source of information in the early days following the Feb 1 coup, after the ousted civilian government’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior officials were detained. The takeover came the same day that newly elected lawmakers were supposed to take their seats in Parliament.

Amid a crackdown on the press, no privately owned newspapers were published this past week for the first time in eight years, following bans and voluntary suspensions. The military government also has banned at least five local news organizations from disseminating information on any platform, but its orders were mostly ignored.

Restrictions on the internet have also been in place since shortly after the coup, including a blockage of mobile internet access. Broadband Wi-Fi service remains available, though spotty.

Despite a crackdown that has killed more than 200 demonstrators so far, protesters were back in the streets Friday morning in several cities and towns. Some rallies proceeded without violence, but in Aungban town in eastern Shan state, online Tachileik News Agency reported that at least seven people were injured when security forces sought to break up their march using tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.

Eleven News, a major media group in Myanmar, reported on Twitter that seven people had been killed in Aungban, but that death toll could not immediately be confirmed, though photos of at least one of the victims were posted on social media.

The Independent Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported that as of Thursday, it had verified 224 killings linked to the coup’s aftermath, more than half of them in Yangon, the biggest city. It said 2,258 people have been arrested or charged, with 1,938 still detained or evading arrest.

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