At least eight of 11 people who were detained after communicating with CNN journalists in Myanmar were released on Monday, according to three sources close to those detained, who spoke on condition of anonymity over fears of reprisal.
CNN is the first international media organization to be given permission to enter the Southeast Asian nation since the military unseated the civilian government in a coup on February 1 and began waging a brutal clampdown on pro-democracy protesters, which has left more than 550 people dead, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group based in neighboring Thailand.
The CNN team is reporting with the permission of the military and is being escorted by the military, which sent six trucks carrying soldiers to monitor the team on its first day on the ground, and is sending several “minders” with the crew everywhere it goes.
The CNN team was invited to tour the Ten Miles bazaar in Yangon’s Insein Township on Friday. There, they were approached by residents who wished to be interviewed, including two women flashing the three-finger salute, which has become a symbol of the protest movement against the military junta.
The pair were arrested by a group of security officials within three to five minutes of the CNN team leaving the area, according to eyewitnesses. The women work at a shop in the market and were taken to the Shwe Pyi Thar Interrogation Center, sources close to the women said.
CNN toured a second market in the Mingaladon township on Friday afternoon, where several local residents approached the team. A man and woman were arrested after the interview. A relative of the two Mingaladon detainees approached the CNN team and told them what had happened. She was then also detained once the team moved away from the area.
Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun confirmed in an interview with CNN on Sunday that security forces had detained three people from the first market and eight others at the second after interacting with the team on the ground. When asked by CNN what crime they had committed, he admitted that they hadn’t broken the law.
“The security forces were worried they would provoke others and start the protest in the market, and that is why they got arrested,” Zaw Min Tun told CNN, adding that the military expressed “regret” over the arrests.
The military assured CNN it would be able to report independently and be given freedom of movement, but the journalists’ request to stay in a Yangon hotel was denied and the team has been staying in a walled military compound instead, given only intermittent and heavily controlled access to the public.
Minders sent by the military to monitor the CNN team have been taking down the names and filming anyone speaking to CNN, including those who were arrested shortly after interacting with the team at the markets.
The junta has cut all wireless internet services across the country until further notice, in what appears to be a concerted effort to control communications and messaging.
The country’s ousted civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was charged on Thursday last week with violating the country’s Official Secrets Act, the fifth and most serious charge leveled against her since the military’s coup.
Reuters reported that her lawyers said the charges were trumped up. And in March, Suu Kyi’s lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw told CNN that the allegations against his client were “a complete fabrication,” in reference to her previous four charges, which included violating the import-export law over walkie talkies, publishing information that may “cause fear or alarm,” and corruption in the form of accepting illegal payments and gold while in government.
“I have been in politics in Myanmar for nearly 40 years, and in all these years I have not witnessed such shameless allegations” he said at the time. He added: “We are in country where the people have seen lots of corruption in the past and many misbehaviors, but Aung San Suu Kyi is not in that sphere of corruption.”
Human Rights Watch said Friday that the junta had “forcibly disappeared hundreds of people” – including politicians, election officials, journalists, activists and protesters since the coup.
According to AAPP, at least 2,667 people – among them journalists, protesters, activists, government officials, trade unionists, writers, students, civilians and even children – have been detained, many in night-time raids.
This story has been updated to reflect that CNN is the first international media organization to be given permission to enter Myanmar since the coup.
CNN’s Sandi Sidhu, Carly Walsh and Angela Dewan contributed to this report.