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Myanmar jailed more writers in 2021 than any other country, says rights group

Exclusive: Junta Detained At Least 26 Intellectuals Last Year As It Sought To Suppress Opposition

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Soldiers stand next to military vehicles in the Myanmar capital, Naypyidaw, as people gather to protest against the military coup in February 2021. Photograph: Reuters

Myanmar jailed more writers and public intellectuals in crackdowns last year than any other country, according to a freedom of expression advocacy group.

PEN America’s annual census of detained writers, the Freedom to Write Index, found Myanmar’s junta detained at least 26 writers in 2021 as it sought to suppress opposition after seizing power from the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

According to PEN’s study, in total, Myanmar detains the third-highest number of writers and public intellectuals globally (26), behind only Saudi Arabia (29) and China (85). Many of those held in Saudi Arabia and China are serving long-term sentences and had been arrested in previous years.

Across the world, at least 277 writers in 36 countries were jailed last year in connection with their writing or for exercising free expression, PEN said.

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the director of PEN America’s “free expression at risk” programmes, described the figures as intolerably high. “In Myanmar and in countries across the globe, writers and public intellectuals are being imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of exercising their freedom of expression and, in many cases, for using the power of the written word to fight back against authoritarianism,” she said.

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After the coup in Myanmar in February 2021, many poets and authors used their writing to express outrage and grief at military atrocities and inspire dissent.

Of the 26 detained in Myanmar in 2021, the majority are held in prisons but have not yet been charged, according to PEN.

Many have continued to write while in hiding or temporary exile, sharing work on Facebook or private apps where they feel it is safe to do so, said Karlekar. Others have been forced to self-censor due to the security risks. Reports of mistreatment and torture in Myanmar’s detention facilities are widespread.

The writers represent only a fraction of those imprisoned by Myanmar’s junta, which has arrested those suspected of opposing its rule – from student protesters to teachers and doctors who have refused to work in junta-controlled facilities. More than 10,183 people are in detention, according to estimates by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Burma, an advocacy group that tracks arrests and killings.

The Freedom to Write Index is based on PEN’s internal research as well as news reports, data from other rights groups and information provided by the relatives of people who are detained. The index includes any instance where a writer was targeted because of their work, and jailed for more than 48 hours during 2021.

PEN’s report raised particular concern about the oppression of writers in Iran, where 21 people were imprisoned, and pointed to a deteriorating situation in Belarus, where many writers were arrested during crackdowns in 2020 and 10 were detained last year.

One in five of those detained globally were serving sentences of 10 or more years in prison, it said. Four writers and academics who were recorded in PEN’s 2021 Index died in custody. This includes the Iranian poet and film-maker Baktash Abtin who died of Covid in January 2022.