The arrests of three journalists who visited a ceremony held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in northern Myanmar this week are part of a deliberate attempt to block information about the conflict, a spokesman for the group said, alleging that dozens of similar cases have occurred this year with civilians.
TNLA Major Tar Parn La said in an interview with VOA the Myanmar military wants to “cut off the connection between” the group and the public.
“That’s why they are trying to stop the media,” he said. “It means you are not allowed to contact the rebels and not allowed to expose the real situation of the war to the people.”
The TNLA, which is one of several ethnic armed groups in Myanmar engaged in intermittent clashes with the military, with a new bout of fighting occurring as recently as this past week, condemned the arrests in a separate statement.
Tar Parn La said the arrests are part of a pattern this year and that so far more than 30 civilians have faced action for possessing photos of the group or their territory in Namhshan Township in northern Shan State. In some instances, the images were just downloaded from the internet.
The journalists are Lawi Weng - also known as Thein Zaw - from the Irrawaddy news magazine, and Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma media group.
Government claims journalists broke the law
Zaw Htay, a government spokesman, told news outlets this week the three are to be charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, a colonial-era statute dating back to 1908 that has been used as a tool of repression in Myanmar’s borderlands.
The Irrawaddy reported on Wednesday that the three were charged and remanded to prison in Shan State's Hsipaw Township, with a court date set for July 11.
The U.S. embassy said in a statement that “journalists need to be able to do their work, as a free press is essential to Myanmar’s success.” Rights groups have called for their immediate release.
Both the Irrawaddy and the Democratic voice of Burma reported in exile before setting up in the country after it embarked on a transition from military rule in 2011. The transition included reforms abolishing censorship and led to elections in 2015 that elevated pro-democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi to power.
Criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi
But despite benefiting from years of media coverage while under house arrest in Yangon, Suu Kyi has proved a poor advocate for free expression, critics say. Since forming her government in April last year, she has done only a handful of interviews, most out of the country.
Her image has suffered further from a rash of online defamation cases against critics of her administration. In April, the advocacy group PEN Myanmar conducted a survey of freedom of expression to mark the one-year anniversary of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led government. It received a score of 8 points out of a possible 60.
PEN Myanmar’s scorecard made several recommendations, including allowing journalists more access to “conflict and frontline areas.” Many of these regions require government permission to visit, but it is rarely if ever granted.
Major Tar Parn La said the TNLA issued an invitation to the media to attend a ceremony to mark the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. The event, which involved the large-scale incineration of narcotics, occurred at 8:00 am on Monday. He said after attending, doing interviews and breaking for lunch, the three journalists left. They were arrested a few hours later.
Four others in the convoy, including drivers and a monk, were also arrested, he said. Whether they too will be charged remains unclear.
He said they spent two to three days in detention before being transferred to Hsipaw. The government had said they would be transferred to another town, Lashio, but authorities there seemed uninformed.
"We don't know where they are," said Lashio deputy police officer Sai Ko Ko. "We can't ask the military where they detained them.
Though Tar Parn La sees the arrests as an attempt to restrict the free flow of information, he remains puzzled by the thinking. The group is not a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and has been branded a terrorist outfit by the military, but the TNLA attended peace talks in the capital Naypyitaw in May, where exchanges with reporters and government officials flowed freely.
“I myself I was there,” he said. “In Naypyitaw I gave a lot of interviews, met a lot of media, but we don’t understand why when the media comes to our land they are arrested.
In good health
An editor at the Democratic Voice of Burma said they have not been able to contact the journalists yet, but the Irrawaddy reported, citing police and a colleague, that they appear to be in good health.
Media watchdogs in Myanmar have sent letters to the authorities about the arrests.
Thiha Saw, the director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute, said the implications of the case are far-reaching. The outcome could warn off those who want to interview groups that have not signed the ceasefire agreement.
“The case will have a huge impact in reporting on the peace process,” he said. “The best case scenario is that they will be released.”