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In Myanmar, a Facebook post deemed inflammatory led to an ex-minister's arrest

BANGKOK (AP) — A former high-profile Myanmar army officer who had served as information minister and presidential spokesperson in a previous military-backed government has been arrested and charged with spreading false or inflammatory news, a statement from the current military government said Sunday.

In a statement sent to journalists, the military’s information office said 64-year old Ye Htut, a retired lieutenant colonel, was arrested for violating Section 505(A) of the penal code, a provision called “incitement,” for writing and spreading false news on his Facebook social media account.

His arrest came the same month a Myanmar military tribunal sentenced two high-ranking generals to life imprisonment after they were found guilty of high treason, accepting bribes, illegal possession of foreign currency and violating military discipline.

Those sentences appeared to be the harshest so far for the senior members of the military’s administrative bodies that were set up after the army seized power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi more than 2 1/2 years ago. The country has been in turmoil since then, with widespread armed resistance to military rule, which the army has been unable to quash despite its superiority in weapons and manpower.

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Myanmar’s military leadership is known for being close-knit and secretive, and this month’s arrests are a rare public indication that there may be splits within its ranks.

Ye Htut was the spokesperson from 2013 to 2016 for President Thein Sein in a military-backed government and also information minister from 2014-2016.

The offense he is charged with makes it a crime to publish or circulate comments that cause the public to hate the government and the military, a definition that allows prosecution of anyone the authorities deem to have made offending remarks. It is is punishable by up to three years in prison.

The charge is frequently used against journalists and activists who displease the military, with the number of prosecutions soaring after the army’s 2021 takeover.

News of Myanmar, an online media outlet sympathetic to the military, reported on its Telegram social media channel that Ye Htut was arrested Saturday night after a military officer from Yangon Regional Military Command filed a charge against him at a police station in Ahlone township in Yangon, the country’s largest city.

The report said Ye Htut was taken to Insein prison in northern Yangon.

Data for Myanmar, an independent research group, said in a report earlier this month that more than 1,300 people were detained for criticizing the military regime and showing support for opposition groups on social media between February last year and September this year.

After leaving government in 2016, Ye Htut took the role of a political observer and wrote books and posted articles on Facebook. For a time, he was a visiting senior research fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a center for Southeast Asia studies in Singapore.

After the army’s 2021 takeover, he often posted short personal vignettes and travel essays on Facebook in which he made allusions that were generally recognized to be critical of Myanmar’s current military rulers.

Ye Htut’s arrest came a few days after pro-military Telegram accounts published his address and urged the military to arrest him for revealing on his own Facebook page the address of a retired military official.

Pro-military accounts on Telegram frequently denounce individuals they accuse of disloyalty to the government and often reveal their addresses, a practice known in the online world as “doxxing.”

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group that monitors arrests in Myanmar, about 4,160 people have been killed by security forces and 25,353 people arrested since the army takeover.