Burma Stifles Critics By Arresting Journalists, Intimidating Lawmaker

February 5, 2014
Village of Du Char Yar Tan ablaze (Pic. courtesy DVB)


Authorities in Burma took action this week to stifle criticism against the state from two widely different sources: the Yangon-based newspaper Unity Weekly published a story alleging a chemical weapons factory operated by the military linked to former military junta leader Than Shwe in central Burma, while a Rohingya member of Burma’s parliament accused police of an arson attack on Rohingya homes in a village in Rakhine state.

Following the publication of a front-page story of a secret chemical weapons plant in Pauk, four journalists and the newspaper’s CEO were arrested on Friday and Saturday. According to the Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) they are charged with publishing government secrets and could face up to 14 years in prison.
The Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) said that first to be arrested was Unity reporter Lu Naw Maing on January 31 in Pauk, who was charged under the Official Secrets Act. The arrests of the newspaper’s CEO Tint San and three other journalists – Yarzar Oo, Paing, Thet Kyaw and Sithu Soe – were on Saturday.
RSF said the story, published on January 25, was headlined ‘A secret chemical weapon factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township.’ Authorities had seized copies of the newspaper throughout the country.
“This latest violation of freedom of information is indicative of legislative gaps in Burma, which is finding it hard to adopt a media law. The public has a right to be informed on a subject of general interest like this. Journalists who are just doing their job must be protected, and if anyone has to be prosecuted, it should be the newspaper. Under no circumstances should journalists be imprisoned because of the content of their articles,” said RSF.
The local independent media watchdog, Myanmar Journalists Council’s secretary Kyaw Min Swe told RFA “the Unity journalists’ arrest was something ‘typical of a country going through a transition period…We want to have discussions to avoid making the problem bigger during this time when we are building trust.”
Meanwhile, Burmese Parliament’s Rohingya MP Shwe Maung was threatened and intimidated after he accused police involvement in an arson attack on 16 Rohingya homes in the village of Du Char Yar Tan on January 28, in an interview with the Democratic Voice of Burma. 
Asian Correspondent said in an article that Burma’s President Thein Sein had written to the legislature’s speaker that he wanted to interrogate Maung. Maung is accused of defaming the police.
The arson attack followed another incident on January 13 in which between 40 and 48 Rohingyas were massacred. There were also reports of rape.
Maung had said in his interview to DVB that on the day of the fire civilian guards in the village had been replaced by the police. The fire had started later in the evening. He said, “It happened after the police took over guard duty of that part of the village. Also, I have solid information from locals in nearby villages who phoned me and said they saw the police setting the houses on fire.”
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.