QUESTIONS are being raised in Burma on the whereabouts of the three journalists taken into military custody on Monday as they were returning from an event held by an outlawed ethnic armed group.
The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), whose staff are among those detained, said it was told the journalists would be handed over to the police “as soon as possible” and would also be charged, although it received no confirmation on the law to be used on the group.
It is widely believed the journalists will face charges under the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, which prescribes a prison term of up to three years for those convicted.
But in his remarks to DVB, presidential spokesman U Zaw Htay would not confirm this. He only claimed the journalists were being treated well at an undisclosed military “guesthouse” and that “action will be taken in accordance with the law”.
“But I cannot say which laws. The military will do that. They will be transferred [to Lashio police station] as soon as possible,” he said.
According to local media, the journalists – DVB’s Ko Aye Naing and Ko Pyae Phone Aung, and The Irrawaddy’s Ko Lawi Weng – and the four men also nabbed with them the same day, were supposed to have been transferred to the police on Tuesday.
— DVB Multimedia Group (@DemocVoiceBurma) June 27, 2017
Frontier Myanmar, quoting Zaw Htay, said the transfer is now expected to happen on Thursday.
As of 1pm Wednesday, however, the Lashio Myoma police station seemed to have no information on the transfer. Station captain Kaw Naing told DVB there was no confirmation on the matter, either from the military or senior police officials.
“We don’t know yet when the military will transfer the arrested people to us. They haven’t informed us about the transferring.
“The military must inform police officials if they want to transfer arrested people to the police station, but the military hasn’t yet done that,” he said.
The three journalists and their four still-unidentified companions were arrested at around 3.30pm on Monday at a military checkpoint in Payargi village, in northern Shan State’s Namhsam township.
— Elise Tillet (@EliseTillet) June 27, 2017
They were returning from a drug-burning ceremony held to mark the United Nations International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking and 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.
The DVB and Irrawaddy are seen as among the 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 Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng, described as one of Burma’s most well-known conflict journalists, has in recent years made numerous trips to meet with TNLA representatives, according to Frontier Myanmar.
DVB’s Aye Naing, meanwhile, has covered Burma’s many ethnic conflicts extensively for the media outlet over the past 10 years. Pyae Bone Naing is similarly no stranger to the field, having worked in several print and television outlets before joining the DVB last year.
Since their arrests, human rights activists and groups have issued statements demanding answers from Burma’s military.
US State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams in a statement on Tuesday condemned the arrests, saying: “We urge immediate action on this matter consistent with international standards of human rights and freedom of the press.
“A free press is vital to the success of peace and national reconciliation process,” she said, as quoted by The Guardian.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director Phil Robertson, responding to reports that the journalists would be charged with unlawful associated, called for the law to be revoked.
Fortify Rights’ Matthew Smith meanwhile said the well-being and whereabouts of those detained were of utmost concern.
“We’re concerned the military targeted them for doing their legitimate work,” DVB quoted him saying.