Around 100 persons, including a press photographer working for the democratic opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were killed in the attack on Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade near Depayin in May 2003. The attack was staged by the military regime in order to stop the NLD leader’s successful tour, and it brought a limited political opening to an abrupt end. Aung San Suu Kyi and dozens of other pro-democracy activists were put in detention. The authorities imposed a news blackout on the national press and kept foreign journalists away.
International protests forced the authorities to release Aung San Suu Kyi in September but she was put under house arrest in Rangoon. The prime minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt, presented a "road map" in November that would supposedly lead the country to democracy by stages. But by the end of the year, there had still been no improvement in prison conditions for the thousands of political prisoners who included at least 15 journalists.
After visiting Insein prison, the UN special rapporteur for Burma condemned the "hell" that thousands of political prisoners have to endure. The detainees he met included the most famous of Burma’s imprisoned journalists, Win Tin, who has been held since July 1989 for his pro-democracy essays. Meanwhile, the authorities still did not release journalist Sein Hla Oo although he completed his seven-year sentence in August 2001.
The editor of a sports magazine, Zaw Thet Htwe, was sentenced to death in November 2003 on the pretext of his supposed involvement in an alleged plot against the junta leaders. In reality, the authorities did not like his independence and his articles on corruption in Burmese football. He was being held in Insein prison at the end of the year.
Burma’s two dailies are directly controlled by the military junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). They produce articles glorifying the generals in power and, like the government radio and TV stations, defend the regime against international criticism. The government news media reacted fiercely to the calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in June. One daily said: "Just as outlaws are arrested and prosecuted in the western countries, Myanmar works for peace and progress in an honest and autonomous fashion." In July, the pro-government New Light of Myanmar published the "revelations" of a journalist claiming to be close to Aung San Suu Kyi in which he said she was prey to fits of temper and authoritarianism.
Burma continued to be one of the few countries in the world with pre-publication censorship, administered by the Literary Works Scrutinising Committee (LWSC), an offshoot of the interior ministry. Criticism and any topics that irritate the generals such as human rights, AIDS, drugs and corruption were still banned. The censorship committee, headed by Maj. Aye Tun, a former member of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), decided each Saturday on the authorisations to be given to publications. Every quarter, the committee sent the interior minister and MIS chief a report on media activity. The committee often asked managing editors and editors to submit their CVs, failing which the newspapers were sanctioned. The few provincial newspapers must undergo a double check. After getting a green light from the censorship office in Rangoon, the editor must go through the local office. An editor from Mon state said it took an average of a month to get final approval after the initial submission to Rangoon.
Nonetheless, a few privately-owned magazines in Rangoon such as Sabaibhyu (White Jasmin) and Thought succeeded in publishing articles on politics, economy and culture that offered an alternative to the trite, saccharine propaganda of the press that supports the military junta.
When a news blackout was imposed after the attack against Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters, many Burmese turned to the international radio stations that broadcast in Burmese. The BBC, Democratic Voice of Burma, Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia were the most popular stations thanks to the cheap, Chinese-made radios that have flooded the Burmese market. There was no categorical ban on listening to the short-wave radio stations, but government opponents or journalists who agreed to be interviewed for them ran the risk of reprisals. According to a poll carried out in 2003, about 30 per cent of listeners tune into the BBC and VOA.
Burmese journalists in exile worked to produce independent news. The Mizzima news agency in India was one such source. The newspapers Irrawaddy, New Era and Mojo circulated among refugees in Thailand or were smuggled into Burma. The Burma Media Association, which groups dozens of exiled journalists, distributed articles that were banned in Burma. Burmese journalists on the Thai border set up the Burma Correspondents Club (BCC) in 2003.
Burma’s embassies abroad had the job of preventing "dangerous" foreign journalists from entering the country. They systematically refused visas to the dozens of foreign journalists who had been put on a blacklist for having at one point or another written or spoken about the political situation in Burma. So reporters had to enter Burma on tourist visas. The few who obtained press visas were closely watched from the moment they arrived. This aversion to foreign reporters hampered regular international coverage of Burma. The government newspapers resumed their attacks on the foreign news media 2003, accusing them of supporting neo-colonialism. There was only one foreign correspondent in Rangoon, a staffer with the Chinese government news agency. The stringers working for the other international news agency had to be Burmese and were subject to heavy pressure from the authorities.
A journalist killed
Photographer Tin Maung Oo, who often worked for the National League for Democracy (NLD), was struck hard on the head by the military junta’s thugs as he was trying to take pictures of the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade in Depayin on 20 May 2003. He died on the spot. Eye witnesses said dozens of other people, especially young NLD activists, were also killed in this attack on the leaders of the pro-democracy opposition. The junta claimed that only four people died in the clash.
15 journalists imprisoned
At least 15 journalists were in prison in Burma at the end of the year. They were Aung Pwint, Kyi Tin Oo, Sein Ohn, Thaung Tun, Win Tin, Aung Myint, Aung Zin Min, Kyaw San, Ohn Kyaing, Sein Hla Oo, Khin Maung Win (Sunny), Thein Tan, Monywa Aung-Shin, Tha Ban and Zaw Thet Htwe.
A few months after his arrest in September 1999, Aung Pwint was sentenced to eight years in prison for "illegal possession of a fax" and for sending news to banned Burmese publications. He was still in Irrawaddy prison (in the centre of the country) in 2003. Now aged 58, a poet and video producer, he is a leading figure in the Burmese media world.
Now aged 61, journalist and poet Kyi Tin Oo was arrested on 1 March 1994 and was sentenced a few weeks later to 10 years in prison by a special court inside Insein prison under articles 5 (j) of the protection of the state act and 17 (l) of the illegal associations act. The authorities took issue in particular with his political articles in the monthly Moe Wai (closed in 1996 for financial reasons) and the magazine Tha-bin, banned in 1988. He has spent 19 of the past 40 years of his life in prison. A journalist who is now a refugee in Thailand said he was known in press and literary circles for his columns on everyday life in Burma. "He has always loved our people’s culture. He wrote beautiful articles full of compassion for those who suffered." He suffered from heart problems and high blood pressure throughout 2003.
Sein Ohn, 51, a cameraman working with the NLD, was arrested in September 1996 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for distributing uncensored video material and possessing "undeclared" imported equipment (a video camera and video cassette recorder). He used to shoot footage of Aung San Suu Kyi and made video programmes critical of the junta’s policies. A video report he produced in July 1996 that was screened abroad showed peasants complaining of the failure of the authorities to provide relief after serious flooding in the Irrawaddy delta. Held in Mandalay prison, in the centre of the country, he has suffered from digestive problems and acute stomach pains since 2000 but has received no medicine from the authorities. For medicine, he has had to rely on his sister, photographer Khin Aye Kyu, who has been visiting him every two months.
Born in 1959 and better known by the pseudonym Nyein Thit, journalist and poet Thaung Tun worked for Padaut Pwint Thit (a magazine banned in 1995), contributed to the Rangoon city magazine and produced video reports for independent production companies. He was also an underground political activist for many years. Following his arrest on 4 October 1999, he was tortured during more than three weeks of interrogation. Two months later, a special court sentenced him to eight years in prison under article 5 (j) of the emergency act for the protection of the state for compiling data on human rights violations in Burma and sending it abroad. Initially held in Insein prison, he was transferred in April 2001 to the prison of Moulmein (the capital of Mon state), more than 700 km from Mandalay where his wife and mother live. They were able to visit him only once every two months. He was said to be in fair health.
Arrested on 4 July 1989 and detained in Insein prison, journalist Win Tin was sentenced to three years imprisonment in October 1989, another ten years in June 1992 and seven more years in March 1996, making a total of 20 years. On the third occasion, he was convicted of "secretly publishing anti-government propaganda" from inside prison. Held in recent years in cell 10 of Insein prison’s special wing, he has often had to be transferred to the prison’s hospital because of his very delicate health. During his 14 years in prison, he has had two heart attacks, a slipped disc and has undergone surgery. Now aged 73, he has lost most of his teeth because of the poor conditions inside the prison.
The former editor of the newspaper Hanthawathi, the author of many articles criticising the regime and a close advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Tin refused several times to sign a letter of resignation from the NLD in exchange for his release. Admired by his fellow political prisoners and called Saya (the Wise One) by Aung San Suu Kyi and fellow NLD activists, Win Tin has never ceased to peacefully resist the orders of the authorities and has maintained countless political discussions with his cell mates, one former political prisoner said. It was Win Tin who wrote the final version of the report on the conditions in Insein prison that was smuggled out of the prison and sent to the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Burma.
Win Tin was transferred to Rangoon general hospital on 22 November 2002 because of heart problems. He was put in a basement room some 15 square metres in area that is equipped to hold political prisoners. There, he was given medicine appropriate to his condition. On 2 June 2003, he was returned to his special cell in Insein prison after doctors deemed his health to be "satisfactory." On 5 February 2003 (and again in December), he received a visit from an Amnesty International delegation which, on its return to Europe, said his morale was excellent and his health was fair. He had never been so determined and refused to sign any document which the junta could use against him, an Amnesty International representative said.
Arrested on 14 September 2000 by the MIS, Aung Myint was sentenced to 21 years in prison on 20 December 2000 for disseminating news about the NLD to foreign news agencies and western embassies in Rangoon. He was still held in Insein prison in 2003. Better known by the pseudonym "Phya Pon" Ni Loan Oo, he used to write for the magazines Cherry and Mahaythi. Many of his articles were banned by the censors or rejected by privately-owned magazines.
Aung Zin Min was still in Thayet prison, in the centre of the country, in 2003. He was arrested with journalist Cho Seint in December 1996 and sentenced to seven years in prison for supporting the 1996 student demonstrations in his poems, published above all else in the magazine New Style which he helped to edit. He has suffered from depression and serious memory problems since 2002. As his family was visiting him only two or three times a year, he was unable to supplement his prison food and he had serious intestinal ailments. His cell mates were very worried about his declining health and above all by the lack of family support.
Known by the pseudonym Cho Seint, Kyaw San was transferred to Tharrawaddy prison in May 1997. He was given a seven-year sentence for supporting the 1996 student demonstrations in his articles and poems, published in opposition magazines. He was badly beaten during interrogation at the start of 1997 and has been partially deaf ever since. He is the grandson of Thakin Kotaw Hmime, one of the fathers of independence along with Gen. Aung San. The military has deliberately deprived his family of resources, and he was receiving almost no visits or help from outside prison. A former fellow inmate said his combative attitude never flagged and he even took part in a hunger strike in 1998 to demand more water and for cell doors to be left open during the day. The prisoners obtained their demands.
Sentenced to seven years in prison in October 1990 and another 10 years in May 1991, Ohn Kyaing continued in 2003 to serve his sentences in Toungoo prison to which he was transferred from Insein at the end of 1993. As well as being an elected NLD representative for the city of Mandalay, he was a journalist better known by the pseudonym Aung Wint. As such, he worked in turn for Kyemon, Botahtaung and the magazine Youqshin Aunglan, advocating democracy in his writing. Military prosecutors took particular offense at an article entitled "Three ways to achieve power" which he wrote for an opposition publication. Born in 1944, he is married and the father of four. His wife had to sell half of their home to meet his needs in prison. He has been suffering from hypertension and haemorrhoids.
Sein Hla Oo continued to be held in Myitkyina prison in the north of the country, to which he was transferred in February 1997 from Insein. Arrested in August 1994, he completed a seven-year prison sentence in August 2001. The authorities then decided to make him serve a ten-year sentence passed on him in 1990 for possessing information of a treasonable nature under article 124 of the criminal code. He had been given an early release in May 1992, 15 months before his re-arrest in August 1994. A journalist and people’s assembly representative, he was accused above all of distributing his "anti-government" articles to embassies and foreign news media. The graduate of a US journalism school, he used to write for Botahtaung and is an acclaimed cinema critic. Conditions in Myitkyina prison are much harsher than those in the south. Inmates have to cope with a colder climate, malaria, and food that is even worse than in other prisons. Family visits are also much more infrequent as it takes two days’ travel and the equivalent of an average monthly salary to get there.
Khin Maung Win, a photographer and cameraman known by the pseudonym of Sunny, was still in Loi-Kaw prison, more than 300 km northeast of Rangoon, in 2003. He was serving a seven-year sentence for helping to interview Aung San Suu Kyi before a summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. The authorities accused him of belonging to a group involved in anti-government activities who were called "puppets of the American government" by Gen. Khin Nyunt a few weeks before his arrest in June 1997.
Thein Tan was still in Thayet prison in 2003. The owner of a bookstore in his home town of Mandalay, he wrote for the government newspaper Kyemon before contributing to many privately-owned magazines in the 1980s. He was arrested at the end of 1990 because of an article he wrote about the murder of four people in Mandalay in August of that year. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, he should have been set free in 2000, but the authorities imposed an additional sentence of unknown length. He was transferred to Thayet after six years in Insein. Now aged 73, his health has got much worse since 2002.
In 2003, Monywa Aung-Shin was still serving a seven-year prison sentence imposed under article 17 (20) of the emergency act following his arrest in September 2000. He was one of the NLD’s press officers after editing the magazine Sar-maw-khung (Literary World) until it was banned in 1990.
Arrested in March 1997, Tha Ban was sentenced to seven years in prison for his pro-democracy writing and because he helped a student gather data on the history of a student association. He was transferred from Insein prison to the Arakan state prison in the west of the country, where he is from. Aged 66, he has been suffering from dysentery for several years and must rely on his wife, a retired school teacher, to bring him medicine. His family said his vision had deteriorated considerably recently and he could turn blind if not treated by a specialist. The authorities had still not granted this request at the end of 2003.
Seven people continued to be imprisoned for participating in the clandestine distribution of Mojo, a banned opposition monthly printed in Mae Sot, in Thailand. They were Mg Hla Soe, arrested in August 1999 in MyaWaDee (Kayin state), Ko Win Naing, arrested in September 1999 in Pegu (east of Rangoon), Mg Kyaw Wae Soe, arrested in September 1999 in Tha-Ka-Ta (near Rangoon), Joseph, arrested in September 1999 in Pa-an (Kayin state), Tint Wae, arrested in May 2000 in KaMarYut (near Rangoon), and Ko Myo and Ma Htay Htay, both arrested in May 2000 in Belinn (Mon state). Most of them were serving seven-year sentences.
Military intelligence officers carried out a raid lasting several hours on 17 July 2003 on the offices of the sports weekly First Eleven. They handcuffed, beat and detained editor in chief Zaw Thet Htwe. They also detained journalists Than Htut Aung, Zaw Myint and Soe Pa Pa Hlaing, as well as Myint Zaw, the editor of another Rangoon publication. They were all taken to an undisclosed location. A few hours later, the military detained Zaw Thet Htwe’s wife, a member of the staff of the privately-owned magazine Living Colour. She was freed a few hours later. Than Htut Aung, Myint Zaw and U Zaw Myint were released on 19 July. Soe Pa Pa Hlaing was released at the end of July. However, editor in chief Zaw Thet Htwe was not freed.
The arrests appeared to have been prompted by an article in First Eleven about a fine imposed by the organisers of the Asian Champion Club soccer tournament on a Burmese team for failing to participate. The magazine, which has a circulation of 50,000, previously received a warning after carrying an article about an international donation of 4 million dollars for the promotion of football in Burma. The article asked how the money was spent. On 18 July, the day after the raid, the military police summoned all of First Eleven’s journalists and asked them to continue publishing the magazine while respecting the censorship rules.
Zaw Thet Htwe was secretly held at the Rangoon headquarters of the military police and was tortured during interrogation. A former political prisoner, he had previously served a four-year prison sentence in the early 1990s for his activities as a member of the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS). After Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association protested against his arrest, the military junta denied that it was linked to his work as a journalist and attributed it to involvement in "terrorist activities." A junta member, Col. San Pwint, announced on 26 July that the security services had thwarted a planned series of bombings in which 12 suspects were implicated, including Zaw Thet Htwe. They were also accused of contacts with political organisations in exile. It emerged that eight other people, including a lawyer and political activists, had been arrested on the same day as Zaw Thet Htwe.
On 28 November, a court martial held inside Insein prison convicted Zaw Thet Htwe and the other eight under article 122/1 of the law on high treason of trying to murder the leaders of the SPDC (the ruling junta). They were all sentenced to death. The others were Aye Myint (a lawyer), Zaw Zaw, Zar Naing Htun (a student), Ne Win, Naing Yekkha (a political activist from Mon state, also known as Shwe Mann), Than Htun, Myo Htway and Nai Min Kyi. Than Htun was released without explanation in December. His family said he was arrested by mistake.
Four journalists were freed in 2003.
It was reported in 2003 that Yan Aung Soe was released in December 2002. He was arrested in October 1998 by military intelligence officers and was sentenced a few weeks later by a special tribunal to 59 years in prison for being "in contact with organisations abroad." He is known for articles on education published from 1994 to 1997 in semi-legal academic reviews such as Unity and New Century, and in privately-owned magazines such as Thought and Our Life under the pseudonym Thu-Rein-Htet-Linn. An activist since the age of 15 in secondary school and university student associations and in the NLD, he edited and distributed leaflets for these organisations. After being interrogated and tortured at a Military Intelligence Service centre, he was held in Myaungmya prison in the south of the country.
The military junta on 16 March announced the release of 45 political prisoners including Myint Thein, a teacher and journalist who wrote on international relations in several magazines including the monthly Ah-twe-Ah-myin using the pseudonym Myint Myat Thein. He was arrested on 4 December 1996 during student demonstrations in Rangoon and was badly beaten by police during interrogation. A few weeks later, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for supporting the student movement in his magazine pieces. He was held in Thayet prison. The release of this group came a few days before a visit by Sergio Pinheiro, the UN special rapporteur for Burma.
Dr. Zaw Min, a physician, journalist and short story writer, and Ko Htay Thein, a Rangoon university lecturer, poet and literary critic, were released by the junta on 28 April 2003 after 14 years in prison. They were arrested in July 1989 and sentenced to 20 years in prison for alleged links to the banned Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Their sentences were halved under a partial amnesty in 1993, but when they should have been freed in 1999, they were charged anew under article 10 of the protection of the state act, which allows the military to hold people without trial for "security reasons." When they were finally released, their families found their physical and above all mental health had suffered greatly from the years in prison. Dr. Zaw Min, who was in solitary confinement for years, found the prolongation of their imprisonment in 1999 unbearable and has serious psychological problems. The mental health of Htay Thein, who attempted suicide several times in prison, now needs much medical treatment. Their families told Reporters Without Borders they were in perfect health before their arrest.
Harassment and obstruction
It was reported on 8 January 2003 that the junta rejected a request for the lifting of a ban on 14 Thai journalists who had been barred from entering Burma since the year before. A Thai military officer raised the issue with his Burmese counterparts during the meeting of a border commission in January. Their names continued to appear on a blacklist of journalists deemed to have written anti-Burmese articles and disparaged the junta.
The Literary Works Scrutinising Committee (LWSC), the interior ministry offshoot responsible for censorship, summoned the editors of the main privately-owned newspapers to a meeting on 19 February and threatened them with reprisals if they published any reports about Burma’s serious banking crisis. This news blackout would prevent the crisis from being exacerbated and put a stop to rumours, officials said. Several journalists based in Rangoon told Reporters Without Borders it was impossible for them to report on the banking crisis. "I wrote three stories on the subject and they were all rejected. It’s very frustrating," one said. No report was published on the crisis, not even in the privately-owned English-language Myanmar Times. The crisis was set off by the government’s decision to close a dozen savings and loan institutions that were offering better interest rates than the banks. On 20 February, the central bank limited transfers and cash withdrawals from the country’s 20 banks. Hundreds of Burmese were lining up outside banks every day, especially the Asia Wealth Bank, in an attempt to make cash withdrawals on their savings.
On 17 February, the LWSC prevented any reports being published on the death of 17 students in a bus accident on the road from Syriam to Rangoon.
At the start of March, the LWSC banned all publications, especially the magazines Sabepyu, Kalya and Beauty, from carrying articles by the Burmese historian Than Tun. The ban was reportedly prompted by an interview he gave for the Burmese-language service of the Washington-based Radio Free Asia dismissing the junta’s claim that the discovery of three white elephants in western Burma was a good omen for the country’s development. The censors were thought to have been particularly irritated by this remark because of the financial crisis. Irrawaddy, a magazine published in Thailand, suggested the ban was also linked to Than Tun’s articles in the monthly Kalya on the way Burma was governed in the 18th century, in which the censors saw allusions to the junta’s policies.
After the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade by the regime’s thugs on 30 May, the censors banned any report on the incident that contradicted the junta’s version. Both government and privately-owned news media were forced to say that the incident was attributed to NLD activists. In the following weeks, the press spoke of Aung San Suu Kyi’s "protective detention" and began to insult and vilify the pro-democracy opposition again.
Articles by Ludu Daw Amar, the most famous of Burma’s women journalists, were censored by the authorities in July and August although she now only writes on Burmese culture and society. As a result, the magazine Kalya was forced to reject one of her pieces. The ban was prompted by her comments to international radio stations on Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest and the massacre of pro-democracy activists. Now aged 88, Ludu Daw Amar recently said to the magazine Irrawaddy: "We cannot write anything freely, there is no press freedom and the censorship office is very restrictive."
The censors imposed a news blackout on a trip to China in August by the junta’s No. 2, Gen. Maung Aye. China is the junta’s main international ally.
The authorities in the Depayin region, where the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade took place in May, banned the population from listening to foreign radio broadcasts in the Burmese language in September.
The US army’s capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in December passed without mention by Burma’s radio and TV stations, while the government newspapers just ran brief reports. A Rangoon journalist told the foreign-based Democratic Voice of Burma that the Burmese had dubbed the junta’s news media "Radio and TV Saddam."