As armed conflict continues to rage in northern Myanmar and negotiations over the peace process remain stagnant, the physical security of anyone relaying or helping to relay information from conflict-affected areas remains especially precarious—and not because of bombs or weapons of war.
In the latest reminder of this precariousness, three journalists covering a drug-burning event in a Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA)-controlled area in northern Shan State were detained by the Myanmar Army on 26 June, 2017. U Aye Nai and U Pyae Bone Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma(DVB), the Irrawaddy's Lawi Weng, also known as U Thein Zaw, as well as three others traveling with them, were subsequently charged under Section 17 (1) of the Unlawful Associations Act for having contact with the TNLA, one of several ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) deemed "unlawful" by the Myanmar Government. The event in question, held in commemoration of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, was meant to showcase the TNLA's efforts towards drug eradication.
Needless to say, the Myanmar Army is especially sensitive to any information that undermines or could be used to undermine its tightly-woven narratives. In deciding to highlight a positive move by the TNLA, the three reporters, with or without intending to, challenged the army's longstanding efforts to demonize and discredit EAOs. Their mere presence in a conflict area itself would have been concern enough for the army, which has capitalized on media blackouts throughout the country to deny serious allegations of human rights abuses.
Unfortunately, the judicial harassment faced by the reporters is only the latest in a long line of reprisals taken against individuals who attempt to relay sensitive information from the ground.
In September 2014, freelance reporter Ko Aung Kyaw Naing, better known as Ko Par Gyi, went missing while covering fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) in Mon State. Later it was revealed that he was detained based on unsubstantiated accusations of being a captain in the political wing of the DKBA, and tortured and killed in military custody before any charges could be made. In a less severe case, Khaing Myo Htun, deputy information officer of the political wing of the Arakan Liberation Army (ALP), was detained in July 2016 for exposing allegations of forced labor and torture by the Myanmar Army in Rakhine State and is now facing charges under Section 505 (b) and (c) of the Myanmar Penal Code.
Reprisals are also taken against civilians who merely assist in the information gathering process. In December 2016, Kachin pastors U Dwal Doag Naung Latt and U Gam Sai went missing after helping a journalist inspect a Catholic church damaged by military airstrikes in Mongko, a border town in northern Shan State. Weeks later, after the Myanmar Government had attempted to blame the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) for their disappearance, it was revealed that they had been detained by the Myanmar Army. They were later charged—without any corroborating evidence—under 17(1) for associating with the KIA, which along with the TNLA, the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Arakan Army, make up the Northern Alliance, a coalition of EAOs operating in northern Myanmar that have not signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Violators of Section 17 (1) of the Unlawful Associations Act face two to three years in prison. As with the notorious Penal Code and Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act, its broad language makes it a favorite tool of the authorities for silencing potential dissent—17 (1) punishes anyone who is a member of an unlawful association, takes part in meetings of any such association, "contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association," or "in any way assists the operations of any such association." The arbitrariness and disproportionality of the charge against the three journalists last week was readily apparent to the domestic media and civil society. As an open letter to the President, State Counsellor, and Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Army signed by 25 media organizations at an ethnic media conference last week noted, "the journalists were out there just to gather information, not [rebel] against the country." The very role of the press in the country is now under threat. As U Ye Naing Moe of the Yangon Journalism School pointed out, "If communicating with ethnic armed groups is considered illegal, how are media supposed to report on civil war?"
And while the crackdown on dissent sends chills through the media community, it hasn't spared their potential sources, which often include witnesses and victims of conflict and human rights abuses. Frontier Myanmar, which took part in the second government-led media delegation to northern Rakhine State in March this year, describes the reluctance of Rohingya villagers to discuss killings and disappearances that have occurred after the security crackdown in October 2016. During her country visit in January 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Ms. Yanghee Lee, noted a similar fear of reprisals amongst her interviewees.
By clamping down on information gathering and helping foster a culture of fear against truth-telling, it's clear that the Myanmar Government and Army are intent on maintaining a fabricated reality. In an environment where fact-finding is virtually impossible, the Myanmar Government's calls for patience and trust in domestic mechanisms fall flat. Thus, it is ever more urgent that the UN-mandated fact-finding mission into Myanmar takes place. Going forward, the international community must pressure the Myanmar Government to grant access to the mission. (The government denied visas to mission members last week.) Without credible information from the ground, impunity will continue to flourish in the country, accountability for victims of human rights abuse will be continually impeded, and Myanmar's transition to democracy will inevitably fail.
One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, 'Burma' is used.