A GLOBAL rights watchdog is demanding freedom for three Burmese (Myanmar) journalists detained Monday for covering a drug-burning ceremony by an ethnic armed group the government considers an illegal organisation.
Amnesty International (AI) in a statement condemned the arrests, saying such action only exacerbates the culture of fear and intimidation the media in Burma have been forced to operate under. The arrests also come amid heightened concern about restrictions on free speech under Burma’s first pro-democracy civilian government headed by national heroine Aung San Suu Kyi.
“These journalists must be immediately and unconditionally released, and allowed to resume their work freely and without fear.
“Their arrests send a chilling message to Burma’s already embattled media,” said James Gomez, AI’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
The three journalists – Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing, both from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and Thein Zaw (aka Lawi Weng) of The Irrawaddy online journal – were arrested on Monday along with four others, who have yet to be identified, while carrying out work in the conflict-afflicted northern Shan state.
The DVB and Irrawaddy are seen as two of few media outlets that continued to provide independent coverage of events in Burma when it was still a military dictatorship, before the transition to civilian leadership began in 2011.
The journalists were in two cars when they were picked up by soldiers at a military checkpoint in Payargyi village, in northern Shan state’s Namhsam township, at around 3.30pm local time.
They were reportedly returning after covering a drug-burning ceremony held to mark the United Nations International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The event, according to reports, was organised by the Ta’ag National Liberation Army (TNLA), one of several outlawed ethnic militia currently locked in battle with the Tatmadaw, Burma’s military forces, in the strife-torn north.
Officials in Burma and Thailand organised similar events on Monday, destroying some US$800 million worth of narcotics to mark the commemorate the occasion.
Burma’s Defence Ministry in a statement posted on Facebook confirmed the arrests of the three journalists and four unidentified men, whom they said were picked up for “connections to the TNLA terrorist group”.
The authorities have yet to specify which laws were broken but it is widely believed that the seven may be charged under the colonial-era Unlawful Association Act, a legislation often used by the junta to stifle dissent.
The law expressly states that those associating with illegal groups can face between two and three years’ jail, as well as a fine.
Gomez in his statement echoed concerns that the seven may face charges under the Act. Condemning this, he accused the Burmese military of clamping down on the media because it feared it would be held responsible for its abuses.
“Fearful of any scrutiny of its role in northern Myanmar, where they stand accused of war crimes, the army is doing its best to stop journalists and other observers from accessing these areas,” he said.
AI in a report it released earlier this month documented how civilians from minority ethnic groups in the Kachin and northern Shah states have been suffering abuse, and possible war crimes, at the hands of the Tatmadaw.
The report titled, All the Civilian Suffer”: Conflict, Displacement and Abuse in Northern Myanmar accuses the armed forces of committing torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and indiscriminate shelling of civilian villages, as well as fixing punitive restrictions on movement and humanitarian access.