Myanmar security forces are arbitrarily arresting and detaining family and friends of activists, protesters and opposition members.
The trend is increasing, says global rights groups, who demand the authorities should immediately and unconditionally release all those wrongfully held and end all collective punishment.
Since the February 1 military coup in Myanmar, security forces have detained at least 76 people, including an infant, during raids when they were unable to find the person they sought to arrest, according to documentation by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
At least 48 of those people are still in detention, with some now held for more than three months.
“Seizing family members and friends as hostages is a thuggish tactic by Myanmar’s security forces to terrorize the population and coerce activists to turn themselves in,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“The authorities should end the practice of collective punishment immediately and release everyone held on this illegal basis.”
Security forces unable to find specific suspects have arrested their parents, children, other relatives, and friends who happened to be present during the search.
On March 8, security forces searching for lawyer Robert San Aung seized his daughter and brother-in-law and held them for 18 days before releasing them.
On April 22, security forces searching for Pu Do Sian Pau, a member of the opposition Civil Disobedience Movement, seized his mother and his 70-year-old father, a retired pastor of the Cope Memorial Baptist Church. Both are still in detention.
On April 29, security forces searching for Salai Bawi Uk Thang, the editor-in-chief of the Chinland Post newspaper, detained his father. He is still in detention.
On May 23, security forces arrested the parents and younger brother of a striking worker from the fire department. All three relatives are still in detention.
In some cases, witnesses allege that the security forces beat the relatives before detaining them.
Tin Htut Paing, an activist who is in hiding, told the media that, on May 2, security forces searching for him and his brother beat his 90-year-old grandmother and 64-year-old mother.
Security forces detained his mother and charged her with “incitement”. On May 28, she was sentenced to three years in prison.
According to the AAPP, security forces searching for Associate Judge Kaung Myat Thu of Chaung-U Township Court beat his mother before arresting her. His mother is still in detention
Young children and even an infant have also been detained, at least temporarily. Security forces detained five relatives of strike leader Ko Jay Lah, including two girls aged two and four.
Similarly, forces searching for protest leader U Tan Win detained his wife and 20-day-old baby.
While in both cases the family members were released later the same day, the arrests send a chilling message to activists and members of the Civil Disobedience Movement that no member of their family is safe, HRW’s Robertson said.
The detention of people based solely on their relationship to another person is a form of collective punishment, which violates the right to liberty and security of person and the right to a fair trial.
“Myanmar’s junta has taken unlawful detention to a noxious new level by detaining those close to people who themselves should not be facing arrest,” Robertson said.
“Concerned governments should urgently impose targeted sanctions and a global arms embargo or expect the junta to continue to raise the stakes on abusive actions.”
Last month, the Burmese army Tatmadaw used villagers as shields during their attempt to regain control of the Mindat town in the Chin Hills.
“Using civilians as shield is a gross violation of the rules of war,” said Amrita Dey, an author of a volume on Myanmar.
“The Tatmadaw is crossing all limits.”