Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss slavery and the torture of two underage domestic workers by Ava tailoring business in Rangoon. Ko Swe Win, chief reporter at Myanmar Now, who did an investigative report on this case, joins me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.
Parliament has denounced the members of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) and the President’s Office also said that it would take action against the commission. The police have arrested and charged the offenders with human trafficking. Why do you think your fight for justice was successful?
Swe Win: It achieved success because people should be humane toward one another. Any form of injustice against any person should not be accepted. Abuse of human dignity, especially committed by the strong toward the weak, should not be accepted. In the case we are talking about, it is fair to say the victims are vulnerable in terms of intellectual ability, age, financial position, and gender—they are underage girls. It could be said that they are the most disadvantaged people in society. It is a grave injustice that such people are abused.
As a citizen, a reporter and simply a human, I have the responsibility to oppose, condemn and prevent injustice and help victims no matter how small a matter. I got the chance to thoroughly study the MNHRC meeting, which contributed to my reporting. The commission held the meeting while ignoring the law and turning a blind eye to the fact that the case was a serious crime. As a journalist, I followed the journalistic code of ethics in reporting this case. I did not report based on emotion or on the accounts of the police or the victims’ parents. I gathered information from different points of view.
In journalism, there is a saying—“go to the ground and see for yourself”—which means journalists need to examine the situation with their own eyes and ears. There is also a Buddhist teaching that says, “you may accept when you analyze and understand by yourself.” I tried to understand all aspects of the situation. Making a factual report is one of the reasons that I achieved success.
I aimed for maximum coverage of my reporting. I did not ask lawmakers, authorities or the president to take my word for it, but let them examine my report through media coverage. This is beneficial not only to the readers but also for me because maximum coverage prevents the manipulation of information. I was deeply involved in this case and was reporting the truth, but I am a human and it is natural that human beings are biased—in a big or small way—as a result of their desires, ignorance or anger. That partiality needs to be controlled by others or by the law. In this case, I let other reporters check my reporting.
YN: The human rights commission has come under fire, but the evidence shows that police should also be blamed because you reported it to the police before the case was brought to the human rights commission. Why did it take so long for the police to open the case when they could conclude from the girls’ injuries and your report that this was a criminal case? Is it because they don’t understand that this was slavery or was there bribery involved, as alleged by many people? You were directly engaged with the police. What is your view?
SW: You are correct. It is clearly a serious crime. Not even the president has the right to settle it. It seemed that police handed the case to the human rights commission as a way of showing respect to a national-level body. Police in the lower echelons have to consider the influence of the commission not only as a national-level body but also a body that consists of retired high-ranking officials. For example, the person who was mainly involved in the negotiation served as the deputy chief of the Burma Police Force and the director-general of the Correctional Department. I guess that police have faced the fear of being punished for opposing the upper echelons, which is deep-seated in our society. Also, since the commission is a national level body, police might have thought that they needed to inform it first.
As it was a grave violation of human rights, police might have expected that the commission would take action immediately. But the commission did not respond and just treated it as a normal case that happens every day. The commission turned a blind eye to all existing laws. It failed to carry out its responsibility, which is to investigate. It could have gone to the tailoring factory within hours. Kawhmu is less than a two-hour drive from Rangoon. The commission—despite the fact that it is funded by state funds—did not bother to look into those children who suffered grave human rights abuse. It failed to investigate, attempted to negotiate a case—which was in no way negotiable—failed to take action in accordance with existing laws, and breached its duties.
YN: The commission’s handling of the case could be considered a national-level abuse of power. We heard that you received a threat after you exposed the case. How were you threatened?
SW: My safety was at risk once the commission summoned the offenders. I was addressed in the notice—which detailed my name, phone number and the news agency where I work. The shop owners later told me that they searched for me but could not find me. I don’t know what their purpose of searching for me was—if they wanted to pay to settle the case or physically threaten me. They told me that what happened on their end was my fault and that if I had not gotten involved, they would not be in this mess. But more so than the shop owners, the commission is most responsible for the threat to my safety for distributing my personal information. I will seek legal advice to decide whether to sue.
After the meeting ended, the shop owners knew that I was not satisfied with the result of the negotiation. They warned me not to report on the case or write about it on Facebook. Before the members of the human rights commission, they threateningly asked me if I knew why [Princess] Diana had died. But the commission members did not say a single word to oppose or denounce this. It is a crime to threaten someone’s life and it can be punished. Setting aside the torture of children, which the commission did not witness, it also ignored a death threat happening before it. The shop owners knew that I was about to go and meet the children because I had called other reporters to go together and they had heard. Then, they attempted to bribe the concerned village administrator of Kawhmu Township to hide the children in another village. Fortunately, that administrator was against this. Because he had been the village administrator under the previous government as well, he dared not speak against the national-level personalities. I requested that he arrange a meeting with the children and he agreed to it. The shop owners left a warning message for me with the administrator. They said, “they will have their turn sometime.” I reported it to the police station at once. The Home Affairs Ministry now provides full security for me under the instruction of the President.
YN: Thank you for sharing your experiences with us for this program!