Defending Lawi Weng

By Aung Zaw 28 June 2017

At The Irrawaddy’s office, it is not uncommon for Lawi Weng to bring local snacks or homemade liquor to generously share among colleagues after returning from reporting trips to Myanmar’s remote regions.

More importantly, he brings updates from the ground to our news desk in Yangon, along with an easy smile, upbeat attitude, and sense of humor.

This week, he and two other reporters from Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) were arrested by the military in northern Shan State after reporting on a drugs-burning ceremony in an area controlled by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). For nearly three full days, we did not know where they were being held—as of Wednesday afternoon, it was revealed that they are in Hsipaw prison, charged under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act.

We had approved the trip to northern Shan State, which was intended to explore local drug eradication efforts. Lawi Weng also wanted to find out more about reports alleging abuse against Palaung (Ta’ang) villagers who had accused army and local militia troops of human rights violations in the area; one incident he had been looking to investigate—a beating—took place in June 2015 in Kutkai Township, but the video footage only recently went viral on social media.

In the area of Man Lan, several miles away from where Lawi and other reporters were stationed, fighting resumed over the last week between the TNLA and the Tatmadaw.

During this time, BBC’s Burmese service reported that hundreds of villagers were kept in a local monastery for days under army supervision as clashes continued. There have been allegations of abuse, with some of the villagers having since taking refuge in the northern Shan State city of Lashio.

Lawi Weng did not go to the scene of these events, but had heard the news of the outbreak of conflict and was advised it was unsafe to travel to the area.

After attending the drug-burning ceremony, Lawi Weng and the other reporters left. This time he was heading to Kutkai, but he did not reach his destination. He and two other reporters were taken to an unknown location and detained.

We are now being told “they were treated well,” but will be charged with violating colonial-era laws for “unlawful association” with the TNLA.

It has been frustrating to witness authorities’ lack of communication or assurance of the safety of our reporters, and it is absurd that security forces are using outdated laws to silence and punish journalists who have committed no crime.

This must be categorized as an unlawful arrest and detention; under media laws in Myanmar, reporters are allowed to gather news in conflict zones.

The arrest of Lawi Weng and the DVB reporters, as well as the recent imprisonment of editors under the infamous Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, and the death of activist-turned-reporter Ko Par Gyi, have demonstrated that Myanmar remains an unsafe place for journalists to work.

Some colleagues have described the current events as reminiscent of the era in which the country was controlled by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, in which the notorious intelligence apparatus liberally jailed members of the public for perceived threats against the military regime.

The return of a climate of fear is very disturbing, particularly after the National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in the 2015 election. I can’t help but recall Lawi’s optimism on Election Day in Yangon. No, he was not thinking that he would eventually be locked up under this government.

Once a reporter in exile like many of us, Lawi Weng took a considerable risk in going back to his homeland to report on stories inside the country and particularly in the ethnic regions.

Donors and diplomats were eager to embrace the “changes” that unfolded under the former quasi-civilian U Thein Sein-led administration, and encouraged The Irrawaddy and other exiled media to return to Yangon and to set up offices. Our presence in Myanmar, they said, was proof that the country was making progress. We were happy to go back home, but we never ceased being cautious.

Yet now our senior reporter is in detention, and we feel the need to confront these individuals, organizations and governments with this reality. Calls to free Lawi Weng are growing in momentum, and we hope that the same entities that were pleased by our return to Myanmar will now also tirelessly advocate for Lawi’s immediate release, so that he can be allowed to return to his work.

We hope that this detention, however unjust, will strengthen both his spirit and his hunger for reporting. Many untold stories are waiting.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.