Concern is growing about an increasing war on the press and human rights activists by Burmese authorities after Aung Kyaw Naing, a freelance journalist covering clashes between ethnic rebel and government forces in the country’s southeast was arrested by army officials and apparently murdered.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said Naing had been arrested nearly a month ago and called on authorities to immediately release him before he was found to have been killed. In addition to the murder, Burma is holding at least nine journalists in jail, all of them sentenced to prison in court decisions this year, according to the CPJ research.
Crowds gathered on Oct. 26 in Rangoon to demand an investigation into Naing’s death. On Oct. 25, the Interim Myanmar Press Council was notified that the reporter, also known as Par Gyi, had died. The Committee to Protect Journalists said he had been kidnapped in Mon state on Sept. 30.
Although the military said that on Oct. 4, Naing “tried to seize a gun from a guard and run away; then he was shot dead by the guard,” the statement was greeted with widespread suspicion. His body was buried and his family was given no notification of either the death or the burial, according to reports in Rangoon.
The Burmese government is toughening its stance on human rights and freedom of the press at a time when in just three weeks the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will hold its annual summit, in conjunction with the Ninth East Asian Summit, with many of the world’s leaders on hand.
Concern is rising over its treatment of minorities and other issues, with Human Rights Watch issuing a scathing report last week that the country’s transition to democracy has stalled and in many areas has begun to regress. In mid-October, more than 650 representatives from Burmese civil society groups gathered to discuss the status of the country’s reform process in a sober atmosphere, eventually condemning the stalled reform effort.
In Rangoon Sunday a crowd carrying placards demanded that the country “Restore justice and security for citizens” and “Stop brutality.”
“Ko Par Gyi is a journalist, a politician and a citizen,” Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent activist and leader of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society movement, told the independent news site Irrawaddy. “His death shows that we do not have protection of the law.” He added that the Burmese Army’s version of the reporter’s death was produced nearly a month after he had disappeared, suggesting that the government may have been concealing abuses and must provide answers to the public.
CPJ said Naing, based in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, had been reporting from an area held by the rebel Democratic Karen Benevolent Army before he was apprehended in the government-controlled township. Naing was a contributor to local Burmese publications Eleven Media, Yangon Times, and The Voice, according to local journalists and news reports.
The exact date of his detention is unclear, but local reports citing his wife, Than Dar, said he was taken into custody between late September and early October by police or military authorities in Kyaikmayaw Township of Mon State.
Than Dar said in a press conference on Tuesday that police told her Naing was being held at the Light Infantry Division 208’s local base and that he had been beaten while in army custody. When Than Dar made inquiries about her husband at the base, a military official said Naing had been handed over to the Border Affairs Ministry, news reports said.
Mon State Border Affairs Minister Htay Myint Aung said Naing had been detained by police and handed over to local military commanders, according to a report quoted by CPJ.. The official said Naing was still being held at the battalion base and that he was unaware of the reporter’s current condition although it was clear that he was already dead by that time.
Than Dar filed a missing persons report and a complaint of possible kidnapping with Kyaikmayaw police on Sunday, according to news reports.
Burma’s military and media are increasingly at loggerheads over the reporting of security-related information perceived as sensitive, according to CPJ. “Four journalists and the chief executive officer of the local Unity newspaper were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor under the 1923 Official Secrets Act this year for reporting on a secretive military installation in the country’s central Magwe Division. Their sentences were later reduced to seven years each.”
With reporting by Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement