A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers

Wai Soe Hlaing was detained in April 2021 and his family said they were unable to trace his location. (Handout via REUTERS)
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Updated 29 January 2022

A year after Myanmar’s coup, families of detainees search for answers

  • The AAPP estimates more than 8,000 people are detained in Myanmar prisons and interrogation centers
  • More than 1,500 were estimated to have been killed, some after they were placed behind bars

Nearly a year after his son was last seen being hauled away by Myanmar junta troops, 66-year-old Win Hlaing says he just wants to know whether he is alive.
One night last April, a neighbor phoned to tell him his son, Wai Soe Hlaing, a young father who ran a phone shop in Yangon, had been detained in connection with protests against the Feb. 1 military coup.
They traced the 31-year-old to a local police station, according to Win Hlaing and The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a non-profit that has been documenting arrests and killings.
Then the trail went cold. He had vanished.
Reuters called the police station but was unable to determine the whereabouts of Wai Soe Hlaing, or the missing relatives of two other people who were interviewed for this article.
A spokesman for the junta did not respond to emailed requests for comment and did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
Wai Soe Hlaing is among many people who activists and families say have disappeared since Myanmar was plunged into turmoil after the military overthrew the elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
The AAPP estimates more than 8,000 people are detained in prisons and interrogation centers, including Suu Kyi and most of her cabinet, while about 1,500 have been killed. Reuters was unable to independently verify the figures from the AAPP.
They say hundreds have died after being detained. The junta has said the figures are exaggerated and that the AAPP spreads false information. The junta has not disclosed the number of people in detention.

Search for loved ones
The military does not notify relatives when a person is arrested and prison officials often do not do so when they arrive in jail, so families laboriously search for their relatives by calling and visiting police stations and prisons or relying on accounts from local media or human rights groups.
Sometimes they send food parcels and take it as a sign their relative is being held there if the package is accepted, a Human Rights Watch report said.
In many cases, AAPP co-founder Bo Kyi said, the organization has been able to determine someone has been detained but not where. Tae-Ung Baik, chair of the United Nations’ working group on enforced disappearances told Reuters the group had received reports from families in Myanmar of enforced disappearances since last February and was “seriously alarmed” by the situation.
In a border town, 43-year-old activist Aung Nay Myo, who fled there from the northwestern Sagaing region, said junta troops took his parents and siblings from their home in mid-December and he does not know where they were.
He believes they were detained because of his work as a satirical writer. Among them is his 74-year-old father, left disabled by a stroke.
“There is nothing I can do but worry every moment,” Aung Nay Myo said.
Two police stations in the town of Monywa, their hometown in Sagaing region, did not answer phone calls seeking comment.
In some areas, resistance to the junta has spiralled into conflict, with fighting displacing tens of thousands of people across the country, according to the UN Thousands have fled across borders to Thailand and India.

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In the northeastern Kayah state, where fighting has been fierce, Banyar Khun Naung, director of the non-profit Karenni Human Rights Group, said at least 50 people were missing.
The group is trying to help families search, asking recently released prisoners any names they remembered.
“The families of missing people are in great pain, especially mentally, as it is exhausting not to know where their loved ones are,” he said.
Myint Aung, in his mid-50s and now living in a camp for internally displaced people in Kayah, said his 17-year-old son Pascalal disappeared in September.
The teenager told his father he was going to travel to their home in the state capital Loikaw to check on the situation, but never came back, Myint Aung said.
Instead, he was detained by security forces, Myint Aung told Reuters by phone, saying that local villagers told him. When he visited the station to deliver food, he found soldiers guarding the area and ran away.
Since then, Myint Aung has heard nothing of his son, but the rights group told him he was no longer at the police station, citing conversations with several people recently freed. Reuters was unable to independently verify this information.
Banyar Khun Naung, the Karenni rights group director, said the teenager was one of two young men pictured making the “Hunger Games” salute adopted by protesters as they were detained kneeling by the side of a road, lashed together with rope by a soldier, in an image widely circulated on social media. His sister confirmed by phone it was Pascalal.
The photo appeared in a viral post from an account that appeared to belong to a high-ranking soldier, with the caption, “While we let them do what they want before we put bullets through their heads.” The account was subsequently deleted and Reuters was not able to reach its owner for comment.
“He’s an underage civilian boy and he didn’t do anything wrong,” his father Myint Aung said.
Police in Loikaw did not answer phone calls from Reuters seeking comment.
In Yangon, the family of Wai Soe Hlaing tell his four-year-old daughter her father is working somewhere far away. Sometimes, Win Hlaing said, she murmurs about him: “My papa has been gone too long.”


Biden leaves for Asia under Ukraine, N.Korea nuclear shadows

Updated 5 sec ago

Biden leaves for Asia under Ukraine, N.Korea nuclear shadows

ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE: President Joe Biden left Thursday for South Korea and Japan to cement US leadership in Asia at a time when the White House’s attention has been pulled back to Russia and Europe — and amid fears of a North Korean nuclear test during his trip.
Biden wants the trip to build on recent moves accelerating a years-long US pivot to Asia, where rising Chinese commercial and military power is undercutting Washington’s dominance.
But highlighting competing demands from Europe, Biden met right before his departure with the leaders of Finland and Sweden to celebrate their applications for joining NATO — a seismic development sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In another sign of growing US involvement in the conflict, the White House said Biden would put his signature while in Asia on a massive, $40 billion Ukraine weapons and aid package passed Thursday by Congress.
Signing the bill “expeditiously” will ensure no gap in the funding flow, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Seoul.
A separate crisis awaits Biden on arrival, however — jitters that North Korea’s unpredictable leadership will choose his trip as the moment to test a nuclear capable missile or even a test nuclear explosion.
Despite a spiraling Covid outbreak, Pyongyang’s “preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time,” South Korean lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said after being briefed by Seoul’s spy agency.
Sullivan said there was “real risk of some kind of provocation while we’re in the region, whether in South Korea or Japan.”
“We know what we will do to respond to them. We have communicated with not just our allies, but also with China,” he said.
Biden heads to Japan from South Korea on Sunday. He will hold talks with the leaders of both countries, as well as joining a regional summit of the Quad — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — while in Tokyo.
During the first leg, he will visit US and South Korean troops, but will not make the traditional presidential trek to the fortified frontier known as the DMZ between South and North Korea, the White House said.
Hours ahead of Biden arriving, South Korea’s newly elected, strongly pro-US President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled a warm welcome, tweeting: “A mountain shows its way to the summit to those who seek it. I am confident the ROK-US alliance that seeks to uphold the values of democracy and human rights shall only elevate in the future.”

'Wind at our back'

Sullivan said ahead of the trip that Biden is bound for Asia with “the wind at our back” after successful US leadership in the Western response to President Vladimir Putin’s now almost three-month-long invasion of Ukraine.
The high military, diplomatic and economic cost imposed on Russia is seen in Washington as a cautionary tale for China, given Beijing’s stated ambitions to gain control over democratic-ruled Taiwan, even if that means going to war.
Earlier this month, CIA Director William Burns said Beijing is watching “carefully.”
“I think they’ve been struck by the way in which particularly the transatlantic alliance has come together to impose economic costs on Russia as a result of that aggression,” he said.
Sullivan said the administration wants not so much to confront China on the trip as to use Biden’s diplomacy to show that the West and its Asian partners will not be divided and weakened.
He pointed to cooperation from South Korea and Japan, among others, in the sanctions regime against Russia led by European powers and the United States. He also referred to Britain’s role in the recently created security partnership AUKUS.
This “powerful message” will be “heard in Beijing,” Sullivan said, “but it’s not a negative message and it’s not targeted at any one country.”

Sullivan said the United States is braced for North Korea to again defy UN sanctions by conducting a nuclear test.
If that happens, the US response will be coordinated with South Korea and Japan, Sullivan said, adding that Washington had been in touch with Beijing as well.
This could include trigger “adjustments to the way that our military is postured in the region,” Sullivan said.
But he denied that a North Korean nuclear test would be seen as a setback for Biden’s diplomacy.
“It would underscore one of the main messages that we are sending on this trip, which is that the United States is here for our allies and partners.”
 


Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

Updated 19 May 2022

Karachi blast suspect received orders from Iran-based commander, says Pakistan

  • Allah Dino, killed by police in a gun battle on Wednesday, was trained in Iran, says Counterterrorism Department
  • Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country

KARACHI: Counterterrorism authorities in Pakistan said on Thursday that a suspect in an attack in the port city of Karachi last week had been trained in Iran and was receiving instructions from the Iran-based commander of a Pakistani separatist group.

One person was killed and several were injured in a bomb blast late on May 12 in the Saddar neighbourhood of Karachi. The assault was claimed by the little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a dissident faction fighting for independence in the province of Sindh.

The attack came two weeks after a female suicide bomber killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in an attack on a minibus carrying staff from a Beijing cultural program at Karachi University.

In a press release on Thursday, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) for Sindh said special investigation teams formed in the wake of the latest spate of attacks were able to identify a number of suspects through intelligence sources and the use of technology.

Police used intelligence gathered from the investigation teams to trace three suspects from the Saddar attack on Wednesday as they traveled by motorcycle to transport explosives in Karachi on the instructions of what the CTD said was an Iran-based SRA commander called Asghar Shah.

In a gun battle with the three suspects, two identified as Allah Dino and Nawab Ali were killed while a third suspect fled the scene.

“The accused (Allah Dino) had been taking instructions from Asghar Shah, who operates his group (of the SRA) from Iran,” Syed Khurram Ali Shah, a senior CTD official, told reporters on Thursday.

“The eliminated terrorist Allah Dino was a master of bomb-making and he got his military training from neighbouring country Iran,” the CTD press release said.

Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country. Both nations deny state complicity in such attacks.


Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

Updated 19 May 2022

Biden cheers Finland, Sweden NATO plans as Turkey balks

  • "Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger," Biden said
  • Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries' ascension

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Finland and Sweden at the White House on Thursday to offer robust US support for their applications to join NATO.
Meanwhile Turkey threatened to block the Nordic nations from becoming members of the alliance.
Biden, who has rallied the West to stand up to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, joined Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö in a sunny White House Rose Garden bedecked with their countries’ flags in a show of unity and support.
“Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said. “They’re strong, strong democracies, and a strong, united NATO is the foundation of America’s security.”
Biden said his administration was submitting paperwork to the US Congress for speedy approval once NATO members gave the two countries a green light.
“They meet every NATO requirement and then some,” the president said. “Having two new NATO members in the high north will enhance the security of our alliance and deepen our security cooperation across the board.”
Turkey has expressed strong opposition to the Nordic countries’ ascension, pressing Sweden to halt support for Kurdish militants it considers part of a terrorist group and both to lift their bans on some arms sales to Turkey.
All 30 NATO members need to approve any new entrant. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a video posted on Twitter on Thursday that Turkey had told allies it will reject Sweden and Finland’s membership.
The Finnish president said at the White House that his country was open to discussing all Turkey’s concerns, and pledged to “commit to Turkey’s security just as Turkey will commit to our security” as a NATO ally.
“We take terrorism seriously,” Niinistö said.
Sweden and Finland have for decades stood outside the Cold War era military alliance designed to deter threats from the Soviet Union, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened security concerns.
The situation in Ukraine “reminds us of the darkest days of European history,” Andersson said. “During dark times it is great to be among close friends.”
Conversations between Sweden, Finland and Turkey have taken place to address Ankara’s concerns, with the United States involved in the effort. US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday that US officials were confident Turkey’s concerns can be addressed, and Biden told reporters “I think we’re going to be okay” on the issue.
Biden’s unabashed support put a firm, deliberate US stamp of approval on Finland and Sweden’s applications. He squeezed in the meeting just before departing to Asia and gave both leaders speaking time in the Rose Garden, underscoring that support.
Biden’s remarks also sent a signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Monday Putin said there was no threat to Russia if Sweden and Finland joined NATO but cautioned that Moscow would respond if the alliance bolstered military infrastructure in the new Nordic members.
Biden said on Thursday that new members joining NATO is not a threat to any nation. “It never has been,” he said.


Indian court convicts Kashmiri rebel leader of terrorism

Updated 19 May 2022

Indian court convicts Kashmiri rebel leader of terrorism

  • Mohammed Yasin Malik has been charged with terrorist acts, illegally raising funds and sedition
  • Malik dismisses charges against him as politically motivated while calling himself freedom fighter

NEW DELHI: An Indian court on Thursday convicted a top Kashmiri separatist leader in a terrorism-related case that carries a maximum sentence of the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Mohammed Yasin Malik had been charged with terrorist acts, illegally raising funds, being a member of a terrorist organization, and criminal conspiracy and sedition.

Judge Praveen Singh set May 25 for hearing arguments from both sides on sentencing, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. The judge also directed Malik to provide an affidavit regarding his financial assets.

During the trial, Malik protested the charges and said he was a freedom fighter.

“Terrorism-related charges leveled against me are concocted, fabricated and politically motivated,” his organization, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, cited him as telling the court.

“If seeking Azadi (freedom) is a crime, then I am ready to accept this crime and its consequences,” he told the judge.

The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was one of the first armed rebel groups to come into existence in Indian-administered Kashmir. It supported an independent and united Kashmir. Led by Malik, the group gave up armed rebellion in 1994.

An insurgency broke out in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989 with fighters demanding an independent Kashmir or its merger with Pakistan. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training rebel groups to fight Indian forces, a charge Pakistan denies. Islamabad says it provides only moral and diplomatic support to insurgents.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since British colonialists granted them independence in 1947. Both claim the region in its entirety and have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir.


Germany strips Schroeder of official perks over Russia ties

Updated 19 May 2022

Germany strips Schroeder of official perks over Russia ties

  • The parliament's decision to strip Schroeder of an office and paid staff follows a lengthy effort to get him to turn his back on President Vladimir Putin
  • EU lawmakers separately called in a non-binding resolution on the bloc to slap sanctions on Schroeder

BERLIN: Germany on Thursday removed perks accorded to former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, assessing that he has failed to uphold the obligations of his office by refusing to sever ties with Russian energy giants.
The parliament’s decision to strip Schroeder of an office and paid staff follows a lengthy effort to get him to turn his back on President Vladimir Putin, which spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine.
EU lawmakers separately called in a non-binding resolution on the bloc to slap sanctions on Schroeder and other Europeans who refuse to give up lucrative board seats at Russian companies.
“The coalition parliamentary groups have drawn consequences from the behavior of former chancellor and lobbyist Gerhard Schroeder in view of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the parliament decided.
“The office of the former chancellor shall be suspended,” it said, noting that Schroeder “no longer upholds the continuing obligations of his office.”
German media have put the annual cost of Schroeder’s office and employees paid for by taxpayers at around 400,000 euros ($421,000).
Schroeder, Germany’s chancellor from 1998 to 2005, has been under fire for refusing to quit his posts with Russian energy giants Rosneft and Gazprom following Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
He condemned the invasion as unjustified but said that dialogue must continue with Moscow.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who like Schroeder is from the Social Democratic Party, has also repeatedly and publicly urged the former leader to give up his Russian jobs, but to no avail.
Schroeder, 78, is chairman of the board of directors of Russian oil giant Rosneft, and also due to join the supervisory board of gas giant Gazprom in June.
The gas group is behind the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, which has been halted by Scholz in one of the West’s first responses to the war in Ukraine.
Schroeder himself signed off on the first Nord Stream in his final weeks in office.
In fact, he took a job with Gazprom as chairman of the shareholder’s committee at its subsidiary Nord Stream in 2005, just days after leaving office and parliament in 2005.
Schroeder has always cut a controversial figure.
Schroeder was born on April 7, 1944 in Mossenberg, western Germany but lost his father in the war in Romania six months later.
Recalling his childhood, he said they “really didn’t have a cent — that is something that marks you for life.”
He joined the SPD at 19 and worked a variety of jobs to fund night classes to earn his high school diploma at age 22.
Schroeder qualified as a lawyer before becoming a radical left-wing activist, only later developing a taste for cigars, bespoke Italian suits and Mercedes cars.
His rise through the official ranks began in 1990 when he became premier of the state of Lower Saxony at his second attempt, before taking Germany’s top job in a coalition with the Greens in 1998.
Germany was the “sick man of Europe” with high joblessness. Schroeder is credited for his so-called Agenda 2010 reforms which restored the country’s economic competitiveness and turned it into an export giant.
But many in his blue-collar party saw the painful cuts as a betrayal of their ideals, and reviled him for pushing through the plans that widened the country’s wealth gap and left it with millions of working poor.
He became the first postwar leader to back Germany’s economic muscle with military might when he deployed combat troops abroad for the first time since World War II: to Kosovo and Afghanistan.
However, despite pressure from US president George W. Bush, he declined to commit German troops to Iraq, causing a rift between Berlin and Washington.
The “bromance” with the Kremlin chief would mark his post-chancellorship years, as Putin made headlines as a prominent guest at Schroeder’s 70th birthday party.
When the Russian leader held his inauguration in 2018, Schroeder was in the front row.
Asked in 2004 if Putin was a “flawless democrat,” Schroeder said he was “convinced that he is.”