(New York, NY) — In response to news that over 38 anti-coup protesters, including two poets, were killed in a single day in Myanmar by security forces—and numerous others subject to lethal force or detention—PEN America condemns the crackdowns on protesters and journalists and renews its call for the military authorities that assumed power on February 1 to respect the peoples’ fundamental rights to expression, assembly, and access to information. 

To quash a sustained and widespread Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) that has emerged across Myanmar, state forces have resorted to egregious means to confront the anti-coup protests, with CDM demonstrators being fatally shot, arrested persons being put in choke holds, and over 1,100 individuals detained. On Wednesday, the deadliest day of violence thus far, at least 38 protesters were killed, with 6 protestors shot to death in the central city of Monywa alone, including poets K Zar Win and Daw Kyi Lin Aye. In an escalation of harassment directed against the media, security forces have arrested journalists, including AP reporter Thein Zaw, Kay Zune Nway, Ye Myo Khant, and Banyar Oo, with several detainees reportedly subjected to physical abuse; they now face charges of violating a public order law.

“Under the state of emergency, military authorities in Myanmar are ramping up their suppression of dissent and trampling on the rights of freedom of speech and assembly, and even the fundamental right to life,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression at risk programs at PEN America. “As we mourn the loss of these two poets and dozens of other protestors, we also urgently call on the military authorities to cease using deadly force against nonviolent demonstrations, to allow members of the media to report freely, and to allow Myanmar’s people unfettered access to the internet and other communications channels at a moment when news and information are essential. This cruel and brutal crackdown must end.”

The Myanmar military assumed power in a coup on February, citing alleged irregularities in the November 2020 National Elections, and imposed a one-year state of emergency. Though flawed, the election was largely understood to have reflected the will of the people, with voters overwhelmingly supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD). As of early February the military-led state had detained several high-level political leaders, including state counselor and NLD party leader Aung San Suu Kyi and deposed president U Win Myint, who are now facing a closed-door trial. Writers and creative artists such as Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, Daw Than Myint Aung, Maung Thar Cho, and Htin Lin Oo were also arrested without legitimate charges and remain in detention. Meanwhile, sustained internet shutdowns—now occurring each night alongside a curfew—and the blocking of communications tools including Facebook and WhatsApp are impeding people’s ability to access and share information. 

This coup marks a severe blow to human rights and free expression in Myanmar, which has had a history of long periods of military rule, accompanied by extreme censorship and extensive silencing of dissenting voices. Since the most recent transition to democracy began in 2011, media, journalists, activists, and creative artists have had somewhat more freedom, but have still been subject to prosecution under repressive laws. PEN America’s 2015 report, Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar, offered an analysis of the myriad ways in which expression has been restricted and provided recommendations for meaningful reform. Myanmar ranked sixth worldwide in PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, with ten writers and intellectuals held behind bars in 2019.