Fitting a Round Peg into a Square Hole

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 9 August 2017

HSIPAW, Shan State—Last Friday, residents woke up to see beefed up security forces in their tourist town in northern Shan State. The night before, they also noticed several police and army vehicles patrolling the town.

About 60 police officers—half of the town’s police force—and additional army personnel were dispersedly deployed at almost every corner of the town and on its main road. They were all fully equipped with automatic rifles at the ready and pistols on their waist belts.

The heavy security in this tiny town was for a court hearing to be held in the morning.

Don’t be mistaken that this was for jailbird criminals. On the contrary, it was for three detained reporters and three locals who traveled with them. On June 26, Ko Lawi Weng of the Irrawaddy and Ko Aye Nai and Ko Pyae Phyo Aung of DVB were arrested by the military and later charged with Article 17(1) of the unlawful association act.

Before 10 a.m., traffic police halted all trucks and vehicles to make way for a police custody van and escorted police vehicles and motorcycles, which turned on an earthen road leading to the Hsipaw Township Court.

Residents rarely saw such a scene in the town and had the impression that it was a very important case since the first hearing on July 28.

Yes, it is a high profile case despite being held in a small town. The international community and the entire nation are watching over it with interest because the case is a legal battle between independent media and the military, which is the most powerful institution in the country.

Not only we journalists but also many people in the country see the case as a test of whether the country’s judiciary—traditionally notorious for not being independent, impartial or fair—has changed under the country’s first elected government run by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Just before the first court hearing, the military affirmed that it would not put pressure on judges handling the detained journalists’ case and accept the court’s decision. Few people believe those words based on their past experiences and a public consciousness that the judiciary was controlled by the previous military regimes.

Coming out of the police custody van on Friday morning, the three detained journalists told reporters that they believed that the court would release them on bail if the country had rule of law because they were only doing their jobs as journalists. Those hopes didn’t last long, as judge U Kyaw Moe Thu denied them bail soon after court started around 10 a.m.

The courtroom is tiny but the hearing for this case has been unprecedented. One social worker who was observing in the court for hours told me that he had never seen such intensive questioning, especially against a military prosecutor, during other hearings held for the same charges.

Six lawyers of the defendants bombarded prosecutor Adjutant Thet Naing Oo of the military with questions involving journalistic rights to freely contact sources regardless of who they are, the controversial unlawful association act, the nature of the independent media in serving the public and so on.

The essence of the questions indicated that the military’s charge against the journalists was like putting a round peg into a square hole and that these charges were simply wrong. The prosecutor seemed like he had been defeated on the battlefield. It was a minor ‘victory’ on that battlefield in the eyes of the defendants, their family members, reporters and other observers in court compound.

Locked up in police custody just behind the court for the lunch break, our reporter Lawi Weng asked me, “How long might the case take?” Honestly, I didn’t have a clear answer for his simple question. It’ll be hard for anyone to answer his question.

What I could say was that we have been trying our best to defend him and other detained reporters together with our lawyers. Simultaneously, we have been trying to make concerned authorities of the government understand that the journalists were wrongly charged from the start. But the government can’t interfere with the military, which is the main prosecutor in the case.

The bigger question that is still lingering is whether the court can act independently and justly. Though the military said it wouldn’t put pressure on judges and the court in this case, we have to wait and see how the court and the judge act.

In the meantime, our detained journalists are waiting in a cell in Hsipaw Prison for their next court hearing this coming Friday.