Flawed Testimony Logged in Rangoon Crackdown Inquiry: Witnesses

By Yen Saning 20 March 2015

RANGOON — Three journalists who witnessed a violent police crackdown on protesters in front of Rangoon’s City Hall on March 5 say a commission of inquiry into the incident has failed to accurately document their testimonies.

The reporters, from three different private newspapers, were asked by the commission on Wednesday to describe what they saw during the crackdown. They were told that their testimonies were sought to aid the commission in uncovering the truth of the matter.

Nyan Hlaing Linn, editor-in-charge of the People’s Age weekly journal, said the journalists’ testimonies to the commission were not transcribed correctly, with some parts of the interviews omitted and other parts fabricated.

“We were asked to tell what happened; what we saw and how we think this can be prevented from happening again. The problem is that after the questioning, in the report some [testimony] was left out, some was given a different meaning,” he said. “I asked them to rewrite it several times and let me read it again.”

The journalists were asked to sign off on their interview transcripts, but all three refused.

Nyan Hlaing Linn said he received a call on Friday morning in which he was told the entirety of his interview had been accurately transcribed and was asked him to come and review it.

When he met with members of the commission on Friday afternoon, changes to the transcript had been made but the document remained flaw, Nyan Hlaing Linn said, adding that the witnesses had been told that they could meet on Saturday with the inquiry commission’s chairman Brig-Gen. Kyaw Kyaw Htun, who is also Burma’s deputy Home Affairs minister.

“We have given our time. We are disappointed. We have also become suspicious. [The record] included things I didn’t say and left out lots of things that I did say,” Nyan Hlaing Linn added.

He said Kyaw Kyaw Htun, Tun Tun Oo, the country’s deputy attorney general, and three other people were present for the journalists’ testimonies.

Moe Kyaw Lwin, a photographer from The Voice Weekly, echoed Nyan Hlaing Linn’s allegation against the commission, and summarized his testimony for The Irrawaddy on Friday.

“The protesters were not even about 50 people. … At that time, protesters were not violent or doing anything [to justify] using such forces as the red armbands,” he said, referring to a group of plainclothes men wearing red armbands with the word “duty” on them, who helped police crack down on the protest.

“They shouldn’t have done this,” Moe Kyaw Lwin continued. “The time that crackdown happened was about 4:00 [pm], when foreigners were visiting City Hall or Mahabandoola Park. I told them to think about the impact of using the red armbands on the government’s image.”

Saw Htun Aung Myint, the commission of inquiry’s secretary, told The Irrawaddy earlier this week that the investigation was underway, including looking into the plainclothes men’s involvement, but he declined to disclose any details of the probe.

“The commission has started to inquire. We are investigating concerns about the red armbands holistically. We can’t divulge the rest yet,” said Saw Htun Aung Myint, who is also Rangoon Division’s Karen ethnic affairs minister.

Attempts to reach him for comment in the aftermath of the journalists’ allegations were unsuccessful on Friday.

President Thein Sein on March 10 ordered the creation of a commission of inquiry into the violent dispersal of the Rangoon demonstration, which was held in solidarity with a group of students in Letpadan, Pegu Division, who at the time were staging a sit-in protest for education reform. The Letpadan students’ protest was also forcibly crushed by police five days later.

The men in Rangoon wearing the red “duty” armbands were spotted entering the City Hall building, where a local police contingent is stationed, shortly before joining the protest crackdown on March 5. It is believed they were deputized under Section 128 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, a colonial-era statute which empowers authorities to recruit male civilians to subdue “unlawful assemblies” by force.

The Rangoon government reportedly defended its deployment of plainclothes men to assist in a crackdown, claiming that the move was within the law, a prominent activist group has said.

Thein Sein has ordered the commission to report its findings by the end of March.

Additional reporting by The Irrawaddy’s Bone Myat.