Nearly 20 celebrities have been arrested and more than 100 are in hiding after taking part in anti-coup protests against Myanmar’s military junta, which seized power from the country’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1, according to family members and lawyers.
Film actors, directors, composers, singers, artist, and models are among those who joined demonstrations in February and March, offering their support to the nation’s Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) after the coup, which the military claims was justified, citing unproven allegations of voter fraud during the country’s November 2020 elections.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party won an overwhelming majority in the ballot, but its leadership has since been placed under arrest.
Among 17 celebrities currently in detention, movie stars Pyay Ti Oo, Eindra Kyaw Zin, and May Toe Khing were charged Thursday under Section 505(a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which relates to “statements or rumors likely to cause members of the military to mutiny or fail in their duty,” according to their lawyers.
Model Paing Tagun and film actor Ye Taik were also arrested in April for joining the frontlines of protest marches and sit-ins and charged under 505(a). They are now being held in private cells at the country’s notorious Insein Prison.
State media on April 2 began publishing a series of photos and videos of artists accused of “inciting civil servants” to join the CDM and “inciting public outrage” on their social media accounts.
According to Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), in addition to Pyay Ti Oo, Eindra Kyaw Zin, and May Toe Khaing, film stars charged under 505(a) include Paing Tagun (also known as Sit Ko Paing), Ye Taik, Zin Waing, Thurein Lwin Lin Thit, Zarganar, Khin Min Khant, Po Po, Myo Thandar Tun, and Athen Cho Swe.
Film director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi and singer Saw Phoe Khwar were arrested and are currently held in Insein Prison, while actress Zhan Qi and director Kristina Qi—both U.S. citizens who had assisted the NLD with its election campaign, were arrested at Yangon Mingaladon Airport as they were about to leave for Thailand and placed under house arrest, the military said on April 22. Police did not provide arrest warrants at the time of their arrest, according to sources.
Arrest warrants have been issued for more than 100 artists, some of whom are in hiding and others who have since fled Myanmar or are taking refuge in remote regions under the control of the country’s ethnic armies.
Singer Novem Htoo, who is in hiding after being charged with defamation, said he would put aside his goals to join the fight against the military, regardless of where he ends up.
“It would be suffocating to live under a dictatorship—there would be very few opportunities,” he said.
“I support a federal system in which one can shape one’s own future through whatever opportunities become available. We must fight for it now … I believe it is better to revolt rather than live under a system where our dreams are crushed and nothing functions.”
A member of AAPP, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said that most authoritarian regimes would think twice about arresting and punishing their country’s most popular celebrities.
“But now [in Myanmar], not only artists but the whole country is in prison,” the source said.
“People are now in a situation where they live in fear, wondering when they might be arrested, killed or have their belongings looted.”
According to the latest numbers from AAPP, 831 people have been killed in clashes and more than 4,300 people arrested in Myanmar since the Feb. 1 coup. Authorities have issued arrest warrants for more than 1,800 people, the group said.
New death in Demawso
Meanwhile, another day of fighting in a key hotspot led to another death in Myanmar’s Kayah state, as junta troops laid siege to villages in the beleaguered township of Demawso, according to sources.
Residents said that the military fired more than 120 rounds of heavy artillery in the attack that began Thursday night and lasted into the following day, sending thousands of people fleeing into the jungle.
They said that a 40-year-old man from the Aung Mingalar ward of Demawso’s Ngwedaung village was killed when a shell exploded on his home on Thursday.
“Actually, there was no fighting last night. The military just fired heavy weapons randomly at the villages,” he said.
“I first thought there was a clash in the market but later I found out there wasn’t. They were just firing at us with heavy weapons.”
Nearly four months after the military coup, angry residents in Kayah state organized into the Karenni People’s Defense Force (KPDF). Fighting between the KPDF and the junta’s security forces began on May 22, in Demawso, when the KPDF killed three police officers and occupied security posts in the region. Aid groups estimate that some 40,000 people have been displaced by the violence since then.
Palan, an aid worker from Demawso, told RFA the dead man’s body was retrieved after the shelling stopped on Friday morning. He claimed that the junta’s 102nd and 427th Battalions were responsible for firing the artillery on the township.
The KPDF said that the military is sending additional troops and ammunition to Kayah state, and that nearly 500 soldiers had arrived at the airport in the capital Loikaw on Friday morning to provide reinforcement to bases in the region.
Refugee situation dire
According to aid groups, people displaced by the fighting are in serious need of food and medicine.
One refugee, who declined to be named, told RFA that the situation in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) had become dire.
“There are newborn babies. There are elderly people. The jungle environment puts a strain on the health conditions of the weak, and obtaining food is very difficult,” the refugee said.
“There are more than 500 refugee camps where I am now. Together with those in other camps, there must be tens of thousands [of IDPs]. We need food and medicine.”
RFA reported that two civilian youths were killed by military troops on Thursday while attempting to retrieve food for refugees displaced by clashes between the junta and KPDF in Demawso township.
Calls seeking comment on the situation in Kayah state from Deputy Information Minister of the Military Council, General Zaw Min Tun, went unanswered Friday.
Reported by Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.