New Government, New Fears for Journalists in Myanmar

By Lawi Weng 3 May 2018

Since my release from prison in September, I no longer dare to travel to conflict areas. I tell my friends I want to. But when I consider the case of the two Reuters reporters arrested in Yangon in December, I grow worried for my security. I do not want to go back to prison.

I was detained for two months and six days in Hsipaw, in northern Shan State.

Some friends have asked me whether the rule of law in Myanmar has improved much since the NLD came to power in early 2016. My own case has taught me that law enforcement still favors the army.

Me and my two friends from the Democratic Voice of Burma were the victims of a wrongful arrest. During our trial for unlawful association with a rebel group, however, the judge never asked us if we wanted to make a statement. The judge only asked the soldiers who arrested us.

When it took power, the NLD promised to improve the rule of law. But more than two years on, the rule of law is still broken.

I was only doing my job as a conflict reporter and was breaking no laws. So why did the army arrest me? The two Reuters reporters, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, were also doing their jobs — investigating the killing of Rohingya civilians by army soldiers — and were breaking no laws. We have the right to travel to conflict areas. Our job is to tell people what is happening in conflict areas, even when that means reporting on rights abuses.

I used be a journalist in self-exile, based in northern Thailand. I returned to Myanmar in November 2012. Many other self-exiled journalists returned to the country around the same time, all with high expectations of the government, which had just begun to open up to the world after decades of military dictatorship. Then President Thein Sein invited those of us in self-exile to come back, calling the press the fourth pillar of his democratic reform agenda.

But we all wondered whether the army, government and public saw the press the same way. Many people supported the NLD and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and dismissed journalists as mere troublemakers whenever we criticized them. The NLD itself takes criticism very badly. Under the country’s new semi-civilian government, journalists still have a very small voice.

Before, whenever I heard of a flare-up of communal violence or a new outbreak of fighting in an ethnic area, I packed my clothes for the journey. I told my editors my plans and they were quick to approve the trip.

I have been to Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine states many times. I never had any problems with the army during the previous government. When I met soldiers in northern Shan, we chatted like friends. They checked my wallet and my phone, to see if I had had any contact with rebel groups, then let me on my way.

I was only arrested after the NLD came to power and now wonder why I was never detained before.

The Constitution gives the army a great deal of power. The government cannot tell the army what to do, so the army can do what it wants. The army does not want the NLD to take credit for the country’s reform. So the army arrested us to show that it still has power.

In a democratic system, the army cannot arrest journalists who work for the people. So I believed the army could not arrest me for doing my job. But when the army did arrest me, it was merely for visiting a rebel-controlled area and meeting rebel leaders, all as part of my work.

I learned that in Myanmar the law is in the army’s hands. We reporters are like fish in a pond, and the army can catch us whenever it wants. Those who believe in democracy believe in telling the truth; the army does not.

Since my arrest, I watch for taps on my phone. I am careful about what I say on social media. On my way home, I sometimes wonder if someone is tailing me. If you ask me if I feel safe as a journalist under this government, I would say — not yet.