A Matter of Conscience

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 22 August 2017

YANGON — After rejecting bail for three detained journalists on Friday, Hsipaw Township Judge U Kyaw Thu Moe said there had been no intervention from the military pertaining to the case.

Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy, and U Aye Naing and U Pyae Phone Aung from the Democratic Voice of Burma, have been in custody in northern Shan State’s Hsipaw Prison since they were arrested by the Myanmar Army on June 26, as they returned from covering a drug-burning ceremony hosted by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The military accused them of unlawful association with the ethnic armed group, who they classified as an outlawed organization.

“I have no pressure from [the military] at all,” Judge U Kyaw Moe Thu told media representatives during his first meeting with the press, when asked if the military had intervened thus far in the legal proceedings.

“I have had neither instructions nor verbal command from any level of the courts regarding this case,” he added.

Given previous “upstairs interventions” concerning the courts in Myanmar’s past, people are prone to skepticism when presented with such assurances. However, if the judge was telling the truth, his statement reinforces the army’s affirmation that it would not put pressure on the judiciary in the case of the three journalists.

The matter, then, would be one of individual conscience, and the fate of the journalists will depend completely on the judge’s ruling, as it should.

The trial has been ongoing for one month, and only three witnesses—two army officers and one civilian—from the prosecutors’ side have testified. They have not presented evidence compelling enough to suggest that the journalists are guilty of what they are accused of: being associated with an illegal organization.

The first witness, adjutant Thet Naing Oo, who filed the case at Hsipaw Police Station, was not present when the reporters were detained. The second, a civilian, U Win Than, showed up at the police station as a witness when the army surrendered the journalists’ possessions as evidence, hours after the arrests. Maj. Myat Maw Aung, the third witness, had confiscated the reporters’ belongings. His involvement and insights beyond that remain unclear.

Make no mistake, the reporters repeatedly and publicly said that they were in the area to cover the TNLA’s drug burning program, not to join their mission. With that in mind, the accusation that they were associates of the ethnic armed group in question simply does not make sense. It is hoped that the judge will take these circumstances under serious consideration when making his ruling.

On Friday, when Judge U Kyaw Thu Moe read out the verdict once again denying bail to the defendants, among his reasons was a continuing need “to verify…that the case is factually all right to proceed legally.”

With his revelation to the media that there had been no strong-arming from “upstairs,” the judge will need to handle this case with rationality and care, as it remains in the spotlight both at home and abroad. Any misstep will surely attract criticism of the country’s judicial system as a whole: rule of law and equality before the law have yet to prevail.