JAKARTA — Myanmar’s already dire human rights situation is deteriorating and the junta should release all political prisoners, the United Nations’ chief said Wednesday, as a leading local news outlet revealed one of its journalists had been jailed for 20 years for covering the aftermath of a cyclone.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he remains “deeply concerned about the worsening political, humanitarian, and human rights situation in Myanmar, including Rakhine state, and the plight of the massive number of refugees living in desperate conditions.”
Speaking on the last days of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, Guterres reiterated his “urgent call on the military authorities of Myanmar to listen to the aspirations of its people, release all political prisoners, and open the door to a return to democratic rule.”
Since the Myanmar military seized power in a coup in 2021, the country has been rocked by violence and instability and plunged into economic chaos. Fighting between junta troops and resistance groups under the People’s Defense Forces (PDF) unfolds almost daily across the country.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in junta airstrikes and ground attacks, according to monitoring groups, and many more – including journalists, activists and anyone accused of dissent – have been arrested.
On Wednesday, independent local media outlet Myanmar Now said one of its photojournalists was sentenced to 20 years in prison with hard labor by a military court on a raft of charges, including sedition.
Sai Zaw Thaike was in western Rakhine state to report on the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Mocha, which killed over 140 people and caused widespread destruction. He was arrested by junta soldiers in the state capital Sittwe on May 23, Myanmar Now reported.
“All of Sai Zaw Thaike’s colleagues at Myanmar Now and I are deeply saddened to hear of the lengthy sentence handed down to him,” the outlet’s editor-in-chief Swe Win said in a statement.
“His sentencing is yet another indication that freedom of the press has been completely quashed under the military junta’s rule, and shows the hefty price independent journalists in Myanmar must pay for their professional work.”
In the aftermath of the cyclone Myanmar’s junta suspended humanitarian access to parts of Rakhine state, where more than 1 million people were in urgent need of aid, the UN’s humanitarian office said at the time.
The decision to stop aid access in the already-impoverished state paralyzed the humanitarian response to Cyclone Mocha and crippled life-saving aid distributions to storm-hit communities.
Myanmar Now said though Sai Zaw Thaike’s initial charges included misinformation, incitement, and sedition, it was not clear what he was convicted of.
Sai Zaw Thaike was not allowed access to a lawyer during his detention and there were no hearings – the verdict took place in a closed-door military compound in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison, according to the media outlet.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said it was the longest known prison sentence given to a journalist since the February 2021 coup.
“Myanmar authorities’ grotesque 20-year sentencing of Myanmar Now journalist Sai Zaw Thaike on blatantly bogus charges is an outrage and should be immediately reversed,” Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative said in a statement.
“Myanmar’s junta must stop imprisoning members of the press for merely doing their jobs as reporters.”
CNN has not been able to immediately reach the Myanmar junta.
According to data from the Detained Journalist Group, more than 150 journalists have been arrested, and four media workers have lost their lives since the coup, Myanmar Now reported.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s highest profile prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi remains locked up and facing the prospect of decades without liberty, amid reports her health is ailing.
Reuters reported that a request for an outside physician to see the ousted state counselor was denied by the junta, citing a source familiar with the matter and the shadow government.
A source told CNN that Suu Kyi was suffering from gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums, and toothache, but had since recovered. The timeline of her illness and recovery is unknown.
Deputy spokesperson for the UN secretary general Farhan Haq on Wednesday called for Suu Kyi’s release saying, “everyone in detention should be able to have access to health care, that is a basic right.”
Leaders of the ASEAN member states met this week in Jakarta and Myanmar’s deteriorating security and humanitarian situation was high on the agenda. It’s the second consecutive year that Myanmar was not invited to the regional summit following the coup.
But the bloc has faced criticism for its failure to get Myanmar’s military leaders to stop the violence and human rights violations in the country and a five-point consensus agreed by ASEAN leaders and Myanmar junta chief Maj. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in 2021 as a roadmap toward peace has floundered.
ASEAN leaders said they were “gravely concerned by the lack of substantial progress on its implementation”
but maintained the consensus “remains as ASEAN’s main reference to address the political crisis in Myanmar,” according to the chairman’s statement.
Myanmar was supposed to hold the annual rotating ASEAN chairmanship in 2026 but regional leaders said the Philippines will take the role instead.
US Vice President Kamala Harris, who also attended the summit, said the United States will continue to press the Myanmar regime “to end the horrific violence, to release all those unjustly detained and to reestablish Myanmar’s path to inclusive democracy.” — CNN