Aung Kyaw Naing’s death in military custody has triggered fears the government is sending a message that no journalist in the country is safe.
The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that up to Sept 10 this year, 40 journalists had been killed while reporting. The name of Myanmar journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, also known as Par Gyi, who was killed on Oct 4 while in military custody, can now be added to the growing list of the dead.
Statistics listed on a page rarely give detail to the hurt felt by the wives, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters left behind to scrabble for answers and meaning to why government violence was used to cut short a life precious to them.
Official statements do not convey the terror of being held indefinitely and without explanation in military custody by armed soldiers. Nor do they ease the burden of pain of the wives who are desperate to know what happened to their disappeared husbands.
Worried over the disappearance of her husband, Aung Kyaw Naing’s wife, Thandar, spoke to the media on Oct 21, requesting that the military immediately release her husband. She did not know that soldiers had killed Aung Kyaw Naing 17 days earlier.
Myanmar’s army released a bizarre six-point statement that attempted to justify the killing of Aung Kyaw Naing three days after Thandar’s press conference and almost three weeks after his killing. The army’s statement alleged that he was a member of a Karen armed group and that he had been killed as he attempted to escape while “trying to seize a gun from a security guard”.
The army’s statement confirmed that Aung Kyaw Naing was arrested near the Mon town of Kyaikmayaw on Sept 30 by a combination of police and soldiers from Infantry Battalion 204. He was later taken for “interrogation” to Infantry Battalion 208 and the statement said that “the dead body was properly buried near Shwe War Chong village”.
The statement confirmed that Thandar had gone to Infantry Battalion 208 seeking information about her husband’s disappearance. The statement said that its “Division Military Command will inform Ma Thandar about the case” — she is still waiting.
To Aung Kyaw Naing’s family the government’s callous behaviour confirms the army is concealing how and why he had been killed.
But it is not only the family who are concerned about the possibility of a cover-up. The Committee to Protect Journalists last week issued a statement condemning the death of Aung Kyaw Naing.
“The killing of Aung Kyaw Naing by Burma’s military is reprehensible,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative. “Civilian authorities must investigate the military’s accounting of his death, which has the initial hallmarks of a cover-up. Any soldier found responsible for his extrajudicial killing or mistreatment before his death must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Reporting Myanmar is fraught with problems. Until recently, the country was regarded by international media groups as one of the world’s worst for freedom of the press. Journalists had to adopt pen names on their stories, as they feared draconian reprisals and decade-long jail sentences from the military regime.
In 2007, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Myanmar the world’s second-worst country for media freedom, just in front of North Korea. And in a report in 2008, Human Rights Watch fingered Myanmar as one of the “most repressive countries on Earth in terms of its restrictive press laws and its frequent practice of jailing journalists”.
In recent days as Aung Kyaw Naing’s story gained traction, a host of rumours started to circulate questioning his role as a journalist. The army’s statement alleged that Aung Kyaw Naing had confessed to being involved in the conflict and that he was a communications officer with the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army.
The army’s statement built on the supposed confession and attempted to muddy the waters further when it alleged that Aung Kyaw Naing was a member of the Karen armed group. Working from rumours, young Myanmar reporters flocked to the DKBA headquarters last week to question whether Aung Kyaw Naing was indeed on its payroll. In an interview with Spectrum, Maj Gen Kyaw Tet strongly denied that Aung Kyaw Naing was a member of the DKBA.
“The journalist was not associated with the DKBA. This is how the Burma Army operates.”
Maj Gen Kyaw Tet said that 19 years of being allied with the Burma Army had given him insight into the way it works.
“The Burma Army will always stir-up problems — that is their nature. You cannot trust them, they always lie. The foreign media and governments should come and find out the facts for themselves and not rely on the media that is under the influence of the [Myanmar] government.”
When the content of the army statement was read out to Maj Gen Kyaw Tet, it produced disbelief and ironic laughter from DKBA officers in the room.
“This is a fantasy. How could he get a gun? He would have been tied up. Gagged and with a gun to the back of his head. How could he grab a gun? Nonsense.”
The Myanmar president’s office said in a statement on Thursday that it had referred Aung Kyaw Naing’s death to the “Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to make an inquiry according to laws defined in Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Law and to submit a special report surrounding human rights [on this case] to the president’s office as soon as possible”.
Aung Kyaw Naing’s sister, Chaw Chaw Kyi, said she had little faith in either the commission or the president’s office to be independent about the killing. She also noted that the press release took the opportunity to repeat the lie that her brother was an communication officer in an armed ethnic group.
‘MY BROTHER WAS LOYAL’
In a small, neat side street in the Thai-Myanmar border town of Mae Sot, Aung Kyaw Naing’s living space remains as he left it before embarking on his ill-fated assignment to cover the armed conflict between the government army and the DKBA.
Aung Kyaw Naing’s family are dismayed at what they claim are attempts by the government and some Myanmar media outlets to smear his name by insinuating he was bought off by the DKBA. The family point to the spartan conditions of his living quarters as evidence that he was not taking money from any group.
Chaw Chaw Kyi fussed with a faded blue curtain that had provided her brother with some measure of privacy from the nearby street as she spoke to Spectrum.
“I want people to know that my brother was loyal to his country, he made many sacrifices, he had no interest in money or personal gain. He loved his work, writing stories about the ethnic people.”
Aung Kyaw Naing’s living space takes up a small section of a covered carport at the front of a house. A shaky cupboard and a converted bookcase shields a single bed and thin mat from passing eyes. The shelves are neatly stacked with clothing. A towel lies folded on the bedhead. A computer, well past its used-by-date, sits on a wood veneer desk. Facing the street and behind the cupboard, Aung Kyaw Naing’s much loved but beaten up motorbike sits waiting.
Chaw Chaw Kyi’s face showed the strain. She was close to tears as she tried to understand what has happened. Her daughter, Hnin Wati Nwe, stepped to her mother’s side and comforted her with a hug, and described how she heard her uncle was dead.
“I was studying, it was after nine at night, my cousin phoned me and told me that uncle had been killed by the
military. Mum couldn’t stop crying. It was if she had lost her mind, she couldn’t sleep, she was upset, crying all night. It’s hard on all of us, we can’t believe he’s gone. We all loved him so much.”
Chaw Chaw Kyi wiped her face with a blue cloth, took a deep breath to compose herself and explained how she was finding it hard to come to terms with the loss of her brother.
“I’ve lost all feelings. I can’t accept this has happened — it is unthinkable. I miss him so much. It is our
nightmare and it won’t go away. It won’t be OK ever again — he’s gone.”
Hnin Wati Nwe, 21, opened her tablet to show a message and a photo Aung Kyaw Naing had sent to her just before his death.
“We spoke a lot on social media. He said he would be back to give me my birthday present, he sent me a picture of a traditional top that was in my favourite colour — blue.”
Chaw Chaw Kyi pointed out that her brother was not worried about covering the conflict and dispelled a rumour that he was ethnic Karen and had links to the DKBA.
“He had done it so many times. Ethnic people liked him, but he was Burman, he was born in Yangon division and both our parents were Burmese. He never had problems with the Burma Army before. Everyone knew him. He was always going off to get stories. He wrote, photographed and made videos.”
Hnin Wati Nwe clicked her way through folders on Aung Kyaw Naing’s computer. Photographs flashed on screen of Aung San Suu Kyi and other iconic figures of Myanmar’s political opposition that he had taken. A portfolio of stories and photos published in a wide range of Myanmar newspapers and broadcast media appeared on screen, giving lie to the accusations that Aung Kyaw Naing was not a journalist.
“This proves that his work was published by many media,” Hnin Wati Nwe said. “He worked hard as a journalist and he took it seriously. We hear now that some media are distancing themselves from my uncle.”
STANDING UP FOR THE OPPRESSED
A Myanmar journalist pulled out of an interview for this story at the last minute, saying that his management was concerned that he was talking too much about Aung Kyaw Naing.
The family are comfortable that Aung Kyaw Naing had careers as both an activist and a journalist and Chaw Chaw Kyi is straightforward in her assessment of her brother’s attitude to his work.
“In reality he was a simple man and honest, he was not after money. He stood up for those who were oppressed.”
Outside in the small soi children hit and chase a shuttlecock — laughing and shouting, in stark contrast to the sombre mood in the house. A ponytailed man stops by the house, introduces himself as Pay Toe, and explains his relationship with Aung Kyaw Naing.
“We’ve been friends for 15 years. He was my brother. I was shocked by his death. He knew the assignment had some danger attached to it but he still went. The military accused him of not being a real journalist. If they knew him they would not have killed him. He was a journalist and a good one.”
Pay Toe said Aung Kyaw Naing’s friends are angry at the government’s disregard for the family’s plight.
“We are still waiting for the truth. We want to know how he died, was he beaten, was he shot? We want his body immediately returned to the family. We demand that this government give freedom to journalists — they should not have to worry that they will be killed for reporting news.”
Pay Toe believes his friend’s killing was meant as a stark warning to journalists.
“Journalists are not scared, but the government is because everyone in Myanmar is now demanding the truth and they know journalists will do it.
“If there’s no independent inquiry or investigation, many journalists are in danger of being killed in the same way as Par Gyi.”
DEMAND FOR INQUIRY
A statement by the Assistant Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) condemned the killing of Aung Kyaw Naing, highlighting that he had an activist background and that he had “worked as a security guard for Aung San Suu Kyi during the 1988 Democratic Movement and was a member of the Tri Color Students Group. He has since been working as a freelance journalist in and around the Thai-Burma border.”
AAPP joint-secretary Ko Bo Kyi said the government had to “be open about what really happened” to Aung Kyaw Naing and an “investigation is needed into not only his death but into all accounts of extrajudicial killings. We are calling for an investigation into both his case, and all other cases that violate basic human rights and ignore the rule of law.”
Chaw Chaw Kyi agreed with Ko Bo Kyi and AAPP’s position on her brother’s death, and is angry that the military’s statement attempts to cover-up what really happened.
“We need the truth, I need this for my brother. I demand an independent investigation and our family wants his body back and we want it now. I want to know how my brother died, was he beaten, was he tortured — we want his killers identified and prosecuted.”
Chaw Chaw Kyi said the killing can be taken as a warning to all journalists.
“He was made an example of — he was a clean man, no drinking or smoking. He was an example to teach a lesson that the military can do whatever it wants at any time to whoever it wants. The army will lie and try to cover up what happened unless we get an independent inquiry free from their influence.”
A quick search of the internet produces a long list of credible international and regional human rights organisations that have documented and verified widespread and systematic violence and abuses by the Burma Army in eastern Myanmar. It includes Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Fortify Rights, Harvard Law School, the Border Consortium, the Karen Human Rights Group, Free Burma Rangers and the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).
The Committee to Protect Journalist’s Mr Crispin told Spectrum he is troubled that the government is trying to hide what really happened to Aung Kyaw Naing.
“The army statement has all the hallmarks of a cover-up. We’re concerned that he may have been tortured to death while he was in military custody. That would explain why his body was buried at an undisclosed location.”
Mr Crispin said the CPJ was calling for an independent investigation into the killing.
“I clearly doubt under Thein Sein’s government that we will get that. An independent investigation would provide the Thein Sein government with an opportunity to demonstrate to civilians that the government has control over its military by prosecuting them openly for Aung Kyaw Naing’s death.”
Mr Crispin warned that it was unlikely that the government would hold an independent inquiry. “If Aung Kyaw Naing’s death is allowed to vanish without repercussions for those who are responsible for the killing, it will happen again.”
*This article appeared first on Spectrum, Bangkok Post on 2 November 2014.