Rebecca Ibarra: Hey, everybody. I'm Rebecca 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.
Rebecca: Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have been fighting for the past two years. What is the significance of the latest development?
Shibani: 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've spent their lives campaigning, not just for democracy, but also for LGBT rights, women's rights, environmental issues, workers' rights, you name it and they were all essentially arrested and have been fighting over the past four days to get bail, which is 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 trial, but immediately, the government's justice department appealed that decision. We're back to square one.
Rebecca: 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: 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 before elections ever again, all the tools are being used against them and against Hong Kong, just the crush opposition and ensure that they 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'd be taken away from families, that they'd be taken away from their wives, their children, because Beijing just truly wants to punish them.
Rebecca: Shibani, how might this case impact the independence of the courts?
Shibani: I think that 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 have open legal system and he 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 the 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 foul 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.
Rebecca: A lot to think about Hong Kong there. Shibani, you also cover me Myanmar and there's a lot to get there as well. Yesterday, more than 30 protestors, including a 14-year-old boy were killed by security forces in Myanmar, making it the deadliest day since a militarized arrest of state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in early February. Over 1000 people have been arrested since the coup began, including journalists. Shibani, why are we seeing this escalation now?
Shibani: A resistance movement has been building since the military sees power on February 1 and people in Myanmar detests what's happening in the country. They voted for Aung San Suu Kyi and [unintelligible 00:04:55] 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 there, it seemed like they were hang back. They would use the rest as the main tactic of intimidation or maybe even some tear gas and grenades. 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 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 role before it opened up. It's very, very concerning.
Rebecca: How have the killings impacted people's resolve to protest?
Shibani: 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 of protesters coming out.
Rebecca: 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: 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 Hlaing, last year, went to Russia to shop for arms and weapons and ensure that there was solid pipeline there. If these countries don't come up very strongly to condemn the coup along with regional partners, like Osteon, Singapore being key to this equation, I think 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. I think that they're prepared to go back to that if it means they continue that 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, 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.
Rebecca: 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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