Burma’s True News Information Unit
Burma’s decades-old regime of pre-publication newspaper censorship was dismantled in 2012. Three years later, ahead of the election that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to power, ten journalists were in prison. According to an Amnesty International report, Burmese journalists were labouring under a new ‘climate of fear’. ‘We don’t have any safety,’ the reporter Lawi Weng told the Amnesty researchers. The authorities ‘can arrest us, they can take us to court anytime.’
Lawi, a former colleague of mine and one of Burma’s most talented reporters, was arrested late last month. He was travelling back from the northern village of Namhsan with two colleagues when their truck was stopped at a military roadblock. They were held incommunicado at an army camp for two days, transferred into police custody at Hsipaw and charged under the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act for making contact with an insurgent group. They will stand trial on 21 July and face a two-year minimum sentence if convicted, which at this point is a formality.
In the fifteen months since Suu Kyi’s government took power, 17 journalists have been jailed or otherwise threatened with criminal charges, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Most have been prosecuted under a telecommunications law, enacted in 2013, that criminalises defamation on social media. The editor of a national daily remains behind bars after publishing a satirical article on an army propaganda film, despite later publishing in full an apology drafted by the military’s True News Information Unit. Another reporter in Yangon, after pressing the police over allegations of military involvement in the assassination of Suu Kyi’s senior adviser Ko Ni in January, found himself the subject of a defamation suit by a member of a Buddhist nationalist group known for its ties to the previous government.
Lawi had been returning from an opium poppy bonfire, a piece of ceremonial pageantry performed by government officials across the country; Burma is the world’s second-largest exporter of heroin and the centre of the regional methamphetamine trade. But the event Lawi was covering had been organised by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, one of more than 20 insurgent groups currently active after 70 years of civil conflicts. A relatively new organisation, the TNLA was formed after an attempt by the army to co-opt its predecessor as a proxy force a decade ago. The Ta’ang Women’s Organisation has documented the ravaging of communities such as Namhsan. Since a pro-government militia flooded the area with opium, it says, there are now villages where most of the adults are drug addicts. But the TNLA, too, draws a great deal of its revenue from taxing opium farmers, and its arms are supplied by other insurgent groups complicit in the drug trade.
Lawi and his colleagues are facing jail because the army would rather these conflicts and atrocities went unreported. Suu Kyi won’t save them; one of her confidantes publicly defended the arrests. But in truth the civilian government’s powers are severely limited. The constitution drafted by the former junta gives the armed forces a veto over any amendments to the document; federal reforms of the charter are the non-negotiable central plank of every insurgent group in the country. Accountable only to itself, the military retains control of the police, local government and every coercive mechanism of the state.