Death of an Activist Reporter
By Aung Zaw 4 May 2015
May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, an occasion sanctioned by the United Nations to remind governments across the world of their obligations to uphold freedom of expression. In this column from October 2014, The Irrawaddy’s founding editor Aung Zaw recounts the events surrounding the death of freelance journalist Par Gyi, who was shot while in military custody late last year, and examines the state of press freedom in Burma.
Aung Kyaw Naing was a simple and honest person, his friends recalled at a small, quiet Buddhist religious gathering in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.
After the ceremony, Aung Kyaw Naing’s daughter, Suu Pyi Naing, 23, who studied at Chiang Mai University, told me that her father and mother, Than Dar—herself a former political prisoner and activist—were about to reunite in Thailand after years apart. “But he can no longer come back to see us,” she said.
The family doesn’t even know where his body is and so cannot hold a formal religious ceremony. The last time Suu Pyi Naing saw her father was in 2012 in Mae Sot.
Better known as Par Gyi by his friends, Aung Kyaw Naing, 49, was shot dead while in custody of an unnamed military battalion in Mon State, according to a letter reportedly sent to the Interim Myanmar Press Council by an aide to Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing.
Aung Kyaw Naing was a veteran political activist. His early activism began during the 1988 democracy uprising and he was one of the leading members of the National League for Democracy (youth wing). He was also part of the Tri-Color (Thone-Yaung-Chae) student organization and briefly served as a bodyguard for Aung San Suu Kyi. To escape the regime’s crackdown on activists, he travelled to Mae Sot, a Thai-Burmese border town where ethnic rebels, activists, and politicians often sought refuge.
Friends recalled him as a quiet person who devoted most of his time to political activism and the democracy movement. He was always happy to assist his fellow colleagues and never sought any credit.
For Aung Kyaw Naing, Mae Sot was like a second home. He met former dissidents who set up offices there and learned about the lives of migrant workers, prostitutes and ethnic refugees who had fled Burma. Perhaps, like many of us, these experiences inspired him to pursue his future vocation: reporting.
On Nov. 7, 2010, the same day the regime held shamelessly rigged elections—the first in two decades—10,000 refugees fled Burma as fighting between Karen and Burma Army forces broke out. Aung Kyaw Naing went to help refugees. Equipped with a camera that he had recently received from a friend in Japan, he also took photographs. It was the day he began his career as a freelance photographer and reporter.
As the country was opening up in 2012, Aung Kyaw Naing was gathering information in conflict zones and sending photographs and news stories to be published in local papers in Rangoon. His pen name was Aung Gyi.
When conflict flared up between the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the Burma Army in Karen and Mon States in September this year, Aung Kyaw Naing tried his luck again and travelled to the conflict zone. The situation was tense and many reporters were stopped, searched and interrogated. Irrawaddy reporters who travelled to the area were stopped and asked to erase the photographs they had taken.
Than Dar spent years in prison for her political activism while Aung Kyaw Naing was living in Mae Sot and often crossing the border back into Burma to report. Last week, she was one of two Burmese women activists who, along with an advocacy group, received awards from the N-Peace Network in Bangkok. Before collecting the award, Than Dar was in Chiang Mai with her daughter waiting to see her husband. But he never showed up and she eventually called a press conference to bring attention to his disappearance.
According to friends and relatives, Aung Kyaw Naing was possibly returning to the border to see his family, after taking photographs in the conflict zone, but was caught and arrested by police and soldiers.
However, a statement sent to the Interim Press Council accused Aung Kyaw Naing of being a “communications captain” with the Klohtoobaw Karen Organization (KKO), the political wing of the DKBA. It also made the incredulous claim that Aung Kyaw Naing was shot because he had tried to seize a soldier’s weapon.
The unsigned statement was accompanied by a photograph of Aung Kyaw Naing allegedly sitting with other KKO members. It was published in the Voice Journal—once known to advocate the military regime’s seven-step “roadmap to democracy.”
However, the photograph, seemingly intended to discredit Aung Kyaw Naing, most likely depicts the journalist on a reporting trip in 2010.
He was detained on Sept. 30 by the army’s Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 208 in Mon State’s Kyaikmayaw and had not been heard of since. LIB 208 is notorious in the area for carrying out the arrest and detention of many suspected rebels and some possible disappearances and extrajudicial killings. The army officers implicated in the killing of Aung Kyaw Naing evidently thought they would get away with it this time too.
Aung Kyaw Naing was tall and well-built but it was believed that he was badly beaten and tortured in army detention. His wife reached out to him through opposition and official channels but was not allowed to see him. The first news that arrived in dissident circles indicated that he had been detained so some thought the army would eventually free him.
Than Dar discovered that he had been badly tortured. Some sources close to the local police and army claimed that his physical condition was in such bad shape that there was no way he could have tried to escaped and seize a gun, as claimed in the army statement.
Around the same time Aung Kyaw Naing was awaiting death in army detention, Burma’s “reformist” President Thein Sein travelled to Europe to petition European leaders to stop submitting annual reports on the human rights situation in Burma. During the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan, Italy, Thein Sein told European leaders that while Burma’s transition to democracy was at a “delicate” stage “the government is committed to overcome the challenges and to continue the reform process without backtracking.”
Citing the creation of a National Human Rights Commission and the establishment of a reporting mechanism for human rights violations, the President’s Office issued a statement saying that “considerable progress in human rights protection has been made in Myanmar but the international community has not recognized the progress enough.”
But on the ground, the situation looks markedly different to the government’s rosy portrayal. Many activists feel that the space afforded to them a few years ago has shrunk and journalists covering conflict and hard hitting political stories are getting nervous. The media is coming under increasing pressure and the same people who have governed the country over past decades continue to run the show.
Closer to the truth was a UN report on Burma released last week that suggested the government was showing signs of backsliding. Many in the human rights community would no doubt agree.
In the report, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, called the arrest of journalists and protesting activists in Burma “troubling” and noted allegations of ongoing rights abuses in areas of ethnic conflict and “systematic discrimination” against Rohingya Muslims in western Arakan State.
“The important transition and far-reaching reforms in Myanmar must be commended,” the report states. “Yet, possible signs of backsliding should be addressed so as not to undermine the progress achieved.”
The death of an activist-turned-reporter, as well as increased government scrutiny of reporters and journalists, comes just weeks before US President Barack Obama’s visit to Burma to attend the ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit. The West would like to see and hear a more positive spin on Burma ahead of Obama’s visit, but the reality on the ground is not promising.
In an attempt to keep the media onside, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing recently met a group of editors and journalists who are part of the Interim Myanmar Press Council. The group was a mix of pro-regime figures with strong links to former regime leaders and a small number of independent-minded journalists.
During the three-hour meeting, the group discussed the media’s access to, and safety in, conflict areas. The commander-in-chief agreed to collaborate, but how?
The killing of Aung Kyaw Naing is a stark reminder of the dangers that journalists continue to face in Burma and of the official attitudes that paint the press as a potential threat and thus help enable such abuses.
On Oct. 27, the Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova urged Mexican authorities to investigate the recent killing of citizen journalist María del Rosario Fuentes Rubio and bring those responsible to justice. The international community, including Western leaders and UN agencies like UNESCO, should do the same for Aung Kyaw Naing.