A Judicious Opportunity

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 28 July 2017

HSIPAW, Shan State — The first thing that Irrawaddy journalist Lawi Weng said as he emerged from a prison van for the first session of his trial in the Hsipaw Township court was an enthusiastic “Hi, all.”

Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporters Ko Aye Nai and Ko Pyay Phone Naing—also detained in northern Shan State under the same charges of allegedly violating Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act—gave a thumbs-up to their awaiting family members, colleagues, and fellow reporters outside the courthouse.

Before the three men stepped out of the van in shackles, Lawi Weng pointed to his handcuffs and sarcastically declared with a laugh, “This is what we get for being journalists. This is democracy—our country is a democracy.”

Thursday’s court session marked the official start to the journalists’ trial, 32 days since their arrest by the Myanmar Army for making contact with the ethnic armed group the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) for a story. Since then, they have been in detention, marked by two arbitrary court appearances, held without the prior knowledge of family members or colleagues, and in which they were remanded to police custody.

As this session was open to the public, the courtroom was packed with members of the detainees’ families and legal teams. I was among the journalists that had to stand next to the windows outside in order to witness the trial, as there was no space for us inside.

The judge agreed to consider the defense lawyers’ request for bail, stating that he would rule on it during the next hearing, scheduled for Aug. 4.

At The Irrawaddy, fingers are crossed that it will be granted.

In the past, particularly under the former military regime, Myanmar courts rarely granted bail in cases where the defendants were accused of liaising with “unlawful associations.” The statute was largely used to prosecute pro-democracy activists, since the government had outlawed nearly any organization that worked on this cause. As a result, many detainees were handed the maximum three-year prison sentence.

The charges against Lawi Weng, Ko Aye Nai and Ko Pyay Phone Naing stem from a decision by the Shan State regional parliament in 2016 to label the TNLA a “terrorist” group; the three reporters were returning from covering a drug-burning ceremony in TNLA territory when they were arrested. However, since the Shan State parliamentary announcement was not followed by an executive order signed by President U Htin Kyaw confirming the organization’s status, it is questionable whether the journalists can in fact be sentenced for liaising with the TNLA, as they were accused of doing.

Furthermore, the Myanmar Army affirmed that it would not put pressure on the judges handling the case and that the judiciary would be given space to decide upon a response that they rule is justifiable, according to the Myanmar Press Council, the body tasked with negotiating with the authorities.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recently said, “It is not for us to comment on how the various cases should be tried in court. That’s for the justice sector to take care of,” when asked about the recent arrest of the three reporters.

Absent external intervention, the decision as to whether the journalists are guilty now falls solely on the judges, as they need not fear an outside party handing down verdicts already decided upon “upstairs.”

Perhaps most importantly, it is an opportunity for the judiciary to signal to Myanmar’s citizens that equality before the law may, as of yet, prevail, marking the dawning of an era that sees the rule of law resurrected.