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Myanmar minister says 'there is no torture' of protesters

Only State-run Media Report 'true' Facts, Maung Maung Ohn Claims

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In an online interview on Nov. 16, Myanmar Information Minister Maung Maung Ohn, claimed pro-democracy protesters are not subject to torture, calling such reports "fake news." (Source photo by AP) 

Myanmar's information minister, Maung Maung Ohn, has denied numerous media reports that the country's military-led government is torturing detainedprotesters, highlighting the regime's distrust of independent news media, including foreign journalists.

"There is no torture," said Maung Maung Ohn, who was appointed by the military in August, in an interview on Tuesday with Nikkei Asia. "Only news reported by state-owned media is true."

Maung Maung Ohn assumed the post of minister of hotels and tourism in February, after the military took full control of Myanmar. Military-appointed cabinet ministers rarely agree to be interviewed by foreign media outlets.

In the online interview, Maung Maung Ohn spoke about media restrictions as head of the Ministry for Information which operates state-run newspapers and TV stations, and oversees media, including foreign news organizations. Speaking on behalf of the State Administration Council set up by the military, he also talked about the steps being taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the elected civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi was toppled in a military takeover in February. The military, in complete control of the government, has charged Suu Kyi with corruption and other crimes.

"The current political situation is not a coup, but steering power in line with the constitution," Maung Maung Ohn said, stressing that the current administration is not a military regime but government "under the state of emergency."

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Villagers demonstrate against the military takeover, in Launglon township, Myanmar, in April, in this photo obtained from social media.   © Dawei Watch via REUTERS

"We value media as the Fourth Estate in our country," the minister said.

Nevertheless, the military leadership has taken a harsh line against critics in the media, revoking the operating licenses of nine news organizations, including Mizzima News and the Democratic Voice of Burma. "We revoked their licenses, or warned them in line with the law" because they spread fake news and harmed the nation, he said.

Earlier this month, the military government changed the broadcasting law to restrict online news, making violators subject to imprisonment as well as fines. The move is aimed at strengthening media controls by stamping out the streaming of anti-government videos and other activities.

Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression for individuals is also under threat. The military government added a provision, Section 505A, to the criminal code in February that bans comments that "cause fear" to the public and spread fake news. The new provision has since been used frequently to prosecute anti-coup protesters.

Noting that the legal revision is aimed at regulating opinions and comments on social and other media by celebrities, Maung Maung Ohn said that protesters who were involved "unintentionally" as a result of "incitement" will be released, as will detainees under 505A.

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Families wait outside Insein Prison as Myanmar's military regime releases prisoners including, pro-democracy demonstrators in Yangon, on Oct. 18   © Reuters

Outside organizations say freedom of speech has suffered greatly since the military took power in Myanmar, which ranked 140th out of 180 countries surveyed in Reporters Without Borders' 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

Despite the crackdown, however, information on social media is eroding the military's control. "People are ignoring the state media and only know fake news online," Maung Maung Ohn complained.

The military's grip on information is far from perfect. To control media is "very difficult, as the world has become a global village, with various digital technologies and smartphones," the minister acknowledged.

News media that have lost their licenses "are broadcasting and publishing from outside the county" with assistance from others, he said. They need to "be controlled by the international community." His remarks suggest that the regime is frustrated that it is unable to control information as effectively as when it last ruled in Myanmar.

The minister repeatedly stressed the country's "normalization" in the interview. With the spread of COVID-19 contained, Myanmar will allow international flights in stages, starting in January, he said. The country can "fully guarantee" the security of foreign investment, as terrorist acts are committed by a small number of people, and "all are under control," he added.

Although Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, appears calm, pro-democracy activists continue to live in fear: They still face death by gunshot or torture. The number of civilian deaths connected to the military takeover stood at 1,275 as of Thursday, including more than 40 fatalities since the start of November, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a nonprofit human rights organization. The military claims those figures are not accurate.

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Riot police detain a demonstrator during a protest against the military coup in Yangon in March.   © Reuters

Demonstrators may be injured while resisting arrest, but "there is no torture" in prisons and interrogation centers, Maung Maung Ohn maintained.

Stressing that the arrest of protesters is based on law, he said more than 47,000 people have been released in four amnesties. In addition, 4,000 lawsuits have been withdrawn, with only people responsible subject to legal action, "according to the goodwill" of Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's military commander.

But the Ministry of Information admitted that the numbers cited by Maung Maung Ohn include prisoners released in mid-February, before the government began cracking down harder on pro-democracy protesters, such as those arrested for crimes unrelated to anti-government demonstrations.

In a September report, Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for human rights, said her report to the U.N. Human Rights Council had documented "many serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including violations of the rights to life, liberty and security of person: the prohibition against torture, fair trial guarantees, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly" in Myanmar.