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Myanmar celebrity used star power to galvanise opposition to coup

BANGKOK - "Are they crazy? The one who was elected was chosen by the people."

This was the response of Myanmar celebrity Paing Takhon to the Feb 1 military coup that overthrew the civilian government led by state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi last year. He had typed it on Facebook, where he had hundreds of thousands of followers.

Two months later, the 25-year-old model, singer and actor would be arrested as part of the junta's crackdown of the mass protests against its rule. Last week, he was sentenced to three years' jail with hard labour.

At least three other movie stars who advocated against the coup received the same sentence on Thursday (Dec 30), reported the Irrawaddy media outlet. They included award-winning actress Eaindra Kyaw Zin and her husband Pyay Ti Oo, as well as actor-director Lu Min.

They were part of some 8,000 people detained by the Myanmar regime since the coup.

Paing Takhon was arrested just as the young people in Myanmar's erstwhile peaceful anti-coup movement were beginning to take up arms against the junta.

He had protected demonstrators alongside other volunteer guards. In February 2021, he was pictured wearing a hardhat and black gloves, with a gas mask hanging loosely around his neck in preparation for the tear gas which the police invariably unleashed on protesters.

"It is inhumane that soldiers shoot the head of peaceful protesters. The people have no weapons, no swords." he wrote in March on his Facebook account, which has since been deactivated. "We, young people, are being killed on the streets every day."

At least 1,382 people have been killed by the junta since Feb 1, according to human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

They include student leaders and political activists who did not survive military interrogation. Others were regular civilians, like those fleeing the military's campaign against armed anti-junta fighters and burnt beyond recognition in an incident on Christmas eve, an act which triggered a rare condemnation from the United Nations Security Council.

Like many other celebrities, Paing Takhon used his star power to galvanise opposition to the coup, posting regular condemnations online until the junta began cracking down on such high profile critics.

The actor hails from the Tanintharyi region in southern Myanmar. Within the country, he has endorsed Sunkist beverages and Oppo mobile phones.

Uncommonly, he is also a big name in Thailand, where his chiselled, tattoo-covered torso and long luscious hair quickly gained him a following among local women. His love of animals - including the cats and dogs he was often pictured with - added to the appeal.

He has starred in an advertisement for 7-Eleven's steamed buns alongside a famous Thai actress. In 2019, he was appointed Myanmar's tourism ambassador to Thailand.

In early 2021, he shaved off his locks to enter monkhood temporarily, causing another stir on the Internet as images of him in a red saffron robe went viral.

With the Myanmar crisis now expanding to a larger armed conflict, some of his celebrity colleagues have fled to the jungles. In May 2021, news emerged that former beauty queen Htar Htet Htet was training with an unnamed ethnic armed group to fight the military. She posted online a picture of herself carrying an assault rifle.

Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing alleges that the November 2020 general election won by Ms Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party was fraudulent and has pledged to hold fresh elections by August 2023.

It is unclear, however, if the NLD will be part of this future poll, given that key party leaders have been detained and slapped with what critics see as spurious charges.

They include Ms Suu Kyi, who was earlier jailed for four years for inciting dissent and breaking pandemic control rules, a term that was halved by a partial amnesty by General Min Aung Hlaing.

In her first official statement on Monday (Dec 27), the new UN special envoy on Myanmar, Dr Noeleen Heyzer, expressed concern about the escalating violence in the country and called for a New Year ceasefire to facilitate humanitarian aid.

In an Instagram post in February 2021, Paing Takhon wrote: “Help us stop crime against humanity.” 
 

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