Rebeca Ibarra: Hey everybody, I'm Rebeca Ibarra in for Tanzina Vega and you're listening to The Takeaway. In Hong Kong's latest conflict, 47 pro-democracy activists were charged Sunday with conspiracy to commit subversion under the national security law that China imposed on the city last year. The hearing started Monday and have continued for the past three days, during which the people arrested were deprived of sleep and food. Four people were hospitalized as a result.
If convicted, the defendants could face life in prison. How will this impact Hong Kong's opposition movement? Here to break it all down for us is Shibani Mahtani, Bureau Chief of The Washington Post covering Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. Shibani, welcome.
Shibani Mahtani: Hi, thank you so much for having me.
Rebeca Ibarra: Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have been fighting for the past two years. What is the significance of the latest development?
Shibani Mahtani: Yes. This is a really huge deal because, essentially, it takes away every single opposition leader in Hong Kong from public life. These are people who spent their lives campaigning not just for democracy, but also for LGBT rights, women's rights, environmental issues, workers' rights, you name it. They were all essentially arrested and have been fighting over the past four days to get bail, which, under Hong Kong's common law courts, should be a guarantee, but under the national security law, which, as you mentioned, was imposed by Beijing, the standard for bail is much higher.
We've just had a decision to come out of the courts here in Hong Kong where the judge granted 15 of them bail but ordered that the other 32 must remain in detention before any kind of trial, but immediately, the government's Justice Department appealed that decision. So, we're back to square one.
Rebeca Ibarra: If these activists remain in custody for a long time or are jailed for life, what does this mean for Hong Kong's opposition movement?
Shibani Mahtani: Yes. I think what was really remarkable here is that over the past few months, we've already seen a closing of space for any kind of opposition movement or any kind of democratic expression here in Hong Kong. You have changes being made to schools, to the legislature. A lot of these people who were arrested were disqualified anyway from running for elections ever again. All the tools are being used against them and against Hong Kong to essentially crush opposition and ensure that there will no longer be dissent.
I think the point here is that the use of the national security law against this group doesn't just ensure that they won't run in elections again or they won't be part of these political parties again, but it's really showing how draconian these measures are that it's not enough that they disappear from public life, but that they be punished in the most cruel possible way, that they be taken away from their families, that they be taken away from their wives, their children because Beijing just truly wants to punish them.
Rebeca Ibarra: Shibani, how might this case impact the independence of the courts?
Shibani Mahtani: Yes. I think that's a very interesting and salient question. I think at the heart of this issue is, can Hong Kong's independent judiciary, can Hong Kong's common law system ever be compatible with a law that was drafted by Beijing, which does not [inaudible 00:03:28] open legal system and actually has one that's very politically influenced? I think with this case, you're already seeing those two systems bump up against each other in a very serious and a very concerning way.
That's a problem not just for the people in Hong Kong, but for businesses who have had their base of Asia operations here for decades, who use Hong Kong as a center for arbitration, for finance and just for doing business. When they see something like that, you have to wonder, "Who's next?" One day, it could be opposition activists. Next day, it could be someone else. You never know when you're going to fall afoul of the authorities, especially when the law is written in such a broad way. I think that's something that's very concerning to everyone.
Rebeca Ibarra: Okay, a lot to think about Hong Kong there. Shibani, you also cover Myanmar and there's a lot to get there as well. Yesterday, more than 30 protesters, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed by security forces in Myanmar, making it the deadliest day since the militarized arrest of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in early February. Over 1,000 people have been arrested since the coup began, including journalists. Shibani, why are we seeing this kind of escalation now?
Shibani Mahtani: A resistance movement has been building since the military seized power on February, 1, and people in Myanmar detest what's happening in the country. They voted for Aung San Suu Kyi and her civilian government. They revere her and they were sick of the military running their country for 50 years and really welcomed participation in the democratic process. This movement has been building but the Myanmar military does not have a good track record of negotiation or really compromising in any way.
For the first few weeks, they seemed like they would hang back, they would use arrest as the main tactic of intimidation or maybe even some tear gas, stun grenades, but recently, there's been a trend where they've started firing into crowds of people and really firing to kill, shooting to kill. They've been aiming for heads and chests of protesters. The photos and videos coming out are beyond gruesome, and really, they're using this as a crowd control tactic.
They're doing it so that people in the crowd get scared and they run off and disappear at a very, very high cost. It's truly shocking and gruesome. The death toll is climbing higher than even the 2007 crackdown on monks, which was known as the Saffron Revolution at the time, which was when the country was still fully in the grip of military rule before it opened up. Yes, it's very, very concerning.
Rebeca Ibarra: How have the killings impacted people's resolve to protest?
Shibani Mahtani: Yes. It's truly remarkable, people have just gotten more and more resolute. Today, in places where people died yesterday, they've come back on the streets. In some cities where four or five people were gunned down yesterday, today, you see thousands more protesters coming out.
Rebeca Ibarra: Shibani, what about the response from the international community? The UN Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the situation in Myanmar on Friday. What are you looking out for?
Shibani Mahtani: Yes. I think the key question here is how Russia and China will act and how they'll respond. Russia and China in the past have been notorious at helping to prop up the Myanmar military regime. The commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, last year went to Russia to shop for arms and weapons and ensure that there was a pipeline there. If these countries don't come up very strongly to condemn the coup along with regional partners like ASEAN, Singapore being key to this equation, I think that the fear is that there won't be any real consequences. At the same time, we must remember that the Myanmar military is used to being isolated.
It's used to not having friends, it's used to being sanctioned, it's used to being an international pariah and I think they're prepared to go back to that if it means they continue to grip on power. I think at this point, if they were to negotiate, if they were to compromise in any way or turn back the clock on this, their standing as an institution in Myanmar will be completely done. Already, you have soldiers and police defecting, people not wanting to listen to orders.
The military has always wanted to have this very central role in Myanmar, in Burmese politics. I'm just afraid that this will be another situation where they're going to continue to refuse to compromise in the way they have in the past.
Rebeca Ibarra: Shibani Mahtani is Washington Post Bureau Chief covering Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. Shibani, thank you so much for joining us.
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