RANGOON, Burma — The Burmese army arrested and filed charges against three local journalists this week, sending shock waves through the Burmese press corps.
The country is still emerging from decades of military rule, and journalists remain uncertain of what can be safely reported. They are also unsure how much backing they will receive from Burma’s democratically elected leaders. The government, led by the National League for Democracy party of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been slow to condemn this and other infringements on media freedom since taking power last year.
In her evolution from dissident to politician, Suu Kyi — Burma’s de facto leader — benefited immensely from media coverage, which in an era before widespread Internet access helped keep her cause alive. During military rule, when Suu Kyi was under house arrest in Rangoon, Burmese news organizations operated from exile to bring information about her plight and the fate of Burma’s pro-democracy activists to the world.
In 2011, a year after Suu Kyi’s house arrest was lifted, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party launched a series of media reforms. Exiled organizations were allowed back into the country as it ramped up for its historic 2015 general election, the first free nationwide vote in Burma in 25 years. The journalists arrested on Monday — along with four civilians whose identities are not known — were from two of those news outlets, the Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma, known locally as DVB.
They were stopped after leaving a ceremony held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in a remote part of Shan state in the northeast. The TNLA is one of many ethnic armed groups fighting for more autonomy. Though their representatives attended peace talks in May, the rebels continue to clash with the army and have not signed a cease-fire agreement. After being detained, the journalists were transferred to the police and charged under a section of the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act that carries a maximum prison sentence of three years.
Rights groups and the U.S. Embassy quickly spoke out, but Suu Kyi’s government appeared to defend the arrests. DVB’s Rangoon bureau chief, Toe Zaw Latt, told The Washington Post that, in his opinion, Suu Kyi may feel she doesn’t need the press anymore.
“When it comes to DVB, we always made sure Burma news is regarded in the international arena. Don’t forget Aung San Suu Kyi, we always highlighted that,” he said. “But she does not think that she owes anybody, especially the media. That is very sad.”
Advocacy groups have expressed alarm about the state of media freedom under Suu Kyi’s watch. In April, PEN Myanmar, which uses the country’s official name, surveyed 14 groups for a scorecard on freedom of expression. Participants were told to rank different indicators from 0 (regression) to 10 (outstanding progress). The indicator for media independence and freedom received a 1 — no progress.
The low ranking stems in part from a lack of unimpeded access to report in conflict areas, an online defamation law that has been used to prosecute journalists and civilians critical of the government, and the ongoing publication of state-sponsored news. Suu Kyi herself has avoided giving interviews in the country.
Win Htein, a senior member of the National League for Democracy who was quoted defending the actions of the military in local media, told The Post that he never said he approved of the arrests, — even as he proceeded to offer a justification for them. The longtime NLD stalwart said those involved in peace talks are allowed to meet with armed groups, while others, even others in government, are not.
“They went there ignoring this,” he said. He described the case as not serious and said the journalists will “come out sooner or later,” measuring the long years that party activists spent in prison under military rule against the ordeal of the three reporters so far. “A few days is just chickens---,” he said.