Police arrest a protester during a demonstration against the military coup in Mawlamyine in Mon State on February 12, 2021. Business leaders with links to the National League for Democracy have also been arrested. Photo: AFP/STR

Having arrested hundreds of politicians, activists and social workers for taking part in Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement against the military coup d’état on February 1, the ruling junta now has another target in its campaign to cower an outraged public into submission: the local business community. 

Scores of major, medium-sized and small business owners and contractors across the country have been rounded up, interrogated and even detained by the Office of the Chief of Security Affairs, the most dreaded branch of Myanmar’s military intelligence agency, which is known locally by its acronym sa ya pa

Among those businessmen is Zaw Zaw, a magnate and the founder and chairman of the Ayeyawdady – or Aya – Bank and the chairman of the Myanmar Football Federation.

Another is Chit Khaing, the founder of the Myanmar Apex Bank and president of the Eden Group, a major construction and service company. A third tycoon who was interrogated but may have been released is Maung Weik, whose Maung Weik and Family Company has investments in real estate, trading and construction. 

Those three – and others whose names and identities are not yet known – were accused of having made donations to the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won landslide victories in the 2015 and 2020 elections which made it possible to form a government.

Others thought to have been rounded up donated to the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a charitable organization established in 2012 by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi in honor of her mother, who died in December 1988 and was the widow of Myanmar’s independence hero Aung San.

Protesters face off with police standing guard on a road during a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw on February 8, 2021. Photo: AFP/STR

NLD links

Zaw Win Shein, owner and chairman of A Bank, Sein Win, a construction tycoon, and Aung Myat, the founder of the Mother Trading Company which began with a major investment in Myanmar’s cement industry, were also rounded up in the wake of the coup as was Maung Maung Naing, the owner of a printing press close to the NLD. According to the latest reports from Yangon, Aung Myat has just been released. 

Details about the identities of those detained or brought in for interrogation by the say ya pa upcountry are still sketchy, but most are believed to be local business people who may have been given government contracts when the now-ousted NLD government was in charge of certain sectors of the administration.

These sectors did not include defense, internal security and border affairs, which under the rules laid down in the military-drafted 2008 constitution, remained under military control even when the NLD was in office. So far, only one foreigner has been detained – Sean Turnell, an Australian economist who served as an economic policy adviser to the Myanmar government before the coup.

The whereabouts of most of the business people who were targeted by the new ruling junta, the State Administration Council (SAC), remains unknown, but given their prominence in business, it is plausible to assume they have not been treated as harshly as those who were arrested immediately after the coup.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an NGO that monitors the arrest and fate of those who have been detained for their political beliefs, 728 activists, writers, monks, politicians and others are in custody after sweeps on the old capital Yangon and elsewhere.

A police officer aims a gun during clashes with protesters taking part in a demonstration against the military coup in Naypyidaw on February 9, 2021. Photo: AFP/STR

Early morning swoop

As of February 24, 666 of them have been charged, some under new laws passed by the SAC designed to quell the civil disobedience movement. 

The best-known internationally of those who have been arrested is Mya Aye, an independent, veteran pro-democracy activist who, according to his family, was arrested around 5.30am on the day of the coup.

“He was taken away by soldiers and a plainclothes man who came to our house in downtown Yangon,” said his daughter Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, who lives in exile in the United Kingdom. “We haven’t heard anything about his whereabouts and when we went to the local police station, we were told that he had been arrested by the military, not the police.”

Well-known local filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi was also arrested, as was Lu Min, a Myanmar Academy Award winner and former chairman of the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization. Zin Wine, another movie celebrity, hip hop artist Anagga and rap singer Saw Poe Kwar were also rounded up. 

Doctors and teachers, who have been at the forefront of the civil disobedience movement, have also been picked up in nightly raids.

Sa ya pa played an important role in suppressing the monk-led saffron revolution in 2007 and continued to keep a watchful eye on pro-democracy activists even after the NLD’s 2015 and 2020 election victories.

Beatings and kickings

According to Human Rights Watch, part of the interrogation technique sa ya pa uses is sleep deprivation, and it also condones the beating and kicking of detainees until they are unconscious.

Notable former sa ya pa commanders include new president Myint Swe – the military sacked President Win Myint on the night of the coup and Myint Swe, the former military-appointed vice-president assumed to post – and the new defense minister, General Mya Tun Oo.

While the arrests of celebrities infuriated the public and can only lead to further discontent, rounding up business people and subjecting them to say ya pa-led interrogations will hardly bolster confidence among domestic as well as international investors.

And without getting the economy back on track in the midst of the Covid-19 health crisis, a general strike and mass arrests, the future of Myanmar’s new military regime definitely hangs in the balance.