In spite of the release of journalists Soe Thein, in June, and San San Nweh, on 18 July, the military junta has still not emptied its prisons. Even worse, some journalists, such as Sein Hla Oo, who have reached the end of their sentences, have still not been released. However, since October 2000, the military junta and the National League for Democracy (NLD, the organisation headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi) regularly meet for discussions, and more than 200 opponents, including NLD members of Parliament-elect, have been released. "We have moved from the darkest pessimism to careful optimism," says one diplomat posted in Rangoon.
Several journalists are still held in Burmese jails in life-threatening conditions. Harsh conditions are still commonplace in some prisons and detention centres, and some journalists suffer from serious mental disorders resulting from long periods of isolation. Arrested and convicted to heavy prison sentences for "circulating information hostile to the State", owning undeclared video cameras, talking with foreign journalists or sending information to Burmese media in exile, most of the journalists imprisoned in the country are also members of the NLD.
Radio, television and all daily newspapers are in the hands of the military junta. The front pages of Burma’s newspapers unrelentingly show the country’s generals and other dignitaries. The first television channel, TV Myanmar, is controlled by the Ministry of Information, and the second, TV Myawady, is controlled by the army. The State controls all daily newspapers. In addition to the official media, there are about sixty privately-owned magazines (weeklies and monthlies) called "gya-neh", which are strictly controlled by the censorship office. Some of these publications are owned by generals or their close associates, and they contain people news, articles on international, national and economic events, stories on cultural and sporting events, short fiction and comics. The only publication that dares print articles that would not make it into Burmese-language publications is the Myanmar Times, a privately-owned English-language weekly. But this magazine is too expensive for most Burmese. Censorship, threats and arrests are still routine for journalists working for the few private media in the country, and for political activists who speak out against the situation in Burma. In spite of this, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt stated in March that press freedom was "sufficiently respected". Khin Nyunt, the number three leader of the junta, asked state-owned publications to improve their quality to attract new readers. And he again warned those who "attempted to publish information that could affect the people".
Foreign journalists are not treated any better. "As soon as there’s a little bit of news in Burma, we can no longer get press visas. Normally, we can get one-week visas, at best," said one journalist from a western press agency based in Bangkok. For some ten years now, foreign journalists have been trying to get around the drastic controls imposed by the military regime in power in Rangoon. Dozens of them are on this country’s black list. Some of them were forcefully expelled before being added to this black list, which includes reporters from the Voice of America, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the French dailies Le Monde and Libération, the New York Times, the BBC radio and the French television channel France 2. The few journalists who still try to cover Burma do so with tourist visas, hoping that they will not attract the attention of the omnipresent MIS (Military Intelligence Service). Foreign journalists are regularly accused of being "enemies of the country" and "neo-colonialists". In April, the official daily The New Light of Myanmar called Western journalists "the fifth column of old-fashioned neo-colonialism". However, for the first time in years, the official press did not publish attacks (caricatures and insults) against the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi on 13 January. Several days later, it was confirmed that leaders of the junta ordered that articles insulting the opposition leader no longer be published, following a request by the UN emissary Razali Ismail.
The only uncensored news available in Burmese is that broadcast by international radio stations. The BBC, Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Democratic Voice of Burma have large audiences in the country for their daily news programs.
But in 2001, the Burmese junta, still under sanctions from the European Union and the United States of America, seemed to realise how important it was to look like a "more open regime" to the outside world. Advised by their Asian friends, especially Malaysia, the Burmese military allowed the creation of a new FM radio station which broadcasts "light and entertaining" programmes. In July, the authorities also announced the creation of an English-language satellite television channel that was to show the "true face of life in the country". Finally, in September, the military junta announced that it would resume issuing licenses for satellite dishes. This had not been possible since 1993, except for hotels catering to tourists and some administrations.
Eighteen journalists jailed
As of 1 January 2002, at least eighteen journalists were jailed in Burma: Aung Pwint, Kyi Tin Oo, Ko Sein Ohn, Khin Aye Kyu, Myint Thein, Yan Aung Soe, Thaung Tun, Win Tin, Sein Hlaing, Myo Myint Nyein, Ohn Kyaing, Sein Hla Oo, Khin Maung Win (Sunny), Tha Ban, Aung Zin Min, Thein Tan, Cho Seint and Aung Myint.
Aung Pwint was sentenced to eight years in prison several months after his arrest in September 1999 for "illegal possession of a fax machine", and for sending information to banned Burmese publications. He is currently held in Insein prison. A poet and video producer, Aung Pwint, fifty-five years old, is a well-known Burmese media personality. In 1996, the authorities banned the broadcasting of his video reports on the situation in Burma, considered "too negative". Aung Pwint is also a democratic activist who spent three years in prison in the 1970s. His wife, a teacher, lives in Pathein, in Irrawaddy province, with their two children.
Journalist and poet Kyi Tin Oo was arrested on 1 March 1994. Several weeks later, he was sentenced to ten years in prison by a special Court in Insein prison according to articles 5(j) of the law for the protection of the State, and 17(1) of the law concerning illegal association. The authorities blamed him for political articles published in the monthly Moe Wai (closed in 1996 for financial reasons) and in the magazine Tha-bin, banned in 1988. Kyi Tin Oo, fifty-seven years old, already spent three years in jail in the 1960s, then seven more years beginning in 1978, and finally a few months after the 1988 coup d’etat. Kyi Tin Oo has therefore spent eighteen of the last forty years of his life in jail. According to a journalist currently living in exile in Thailand, Kyin Tin Oo is "well-known in journalistic and literary circles for his columns on daily life in Burma. He has always had a deep love of our peoples’ culture. He wrote very beautiful articles full of compassion for those who suffer." Kyi Tin Oo has been married to Than Yi, known by her pen name Kyaw Zaw, writer and owner of a small bookshop, since 1970. He has four children, including Aung Kyaw Hein, who is serving a fourteen-year prison sentence in Khaley for belonging to a banned student movement. Kyi Tin Oo’s health is poor; he suffers from chronic hypertension resulting from the awful prison conditions.
Ko Sein Ohn and Khin Aye Kyu, brother and sister, were arrested together in September 1996 and sentenced to ten years in prison for distributing videotapes not approved by a censor, and for possessing "imported video copying equipment" without official permission. Ko Sein Ohn, currently forty-eight years old, made films of Aung San Suu Kyi and reports critical to policies of the junta when he was a cameraman with the NLD. In July 1996, he interviewed peasants who complained about the authorities’ negligence in providing assistance after the serious floods of the Irrawaddy delta. This report was taken out of the country. Two other members of the NLD and two peasants were allegedly also arrested after this report was made. He and his sister are being held in Insein prison. As for Khin Aye Kyu, she was arrested for her activities as a photographer with the NLD. She was also accused of distributing videotapes not approved by a censor.
Myint Thein, known by his pen name Myint Myat Thein, is a teacher and journalist specialised in international relations. He worked for several magazines including the monthly Ah-twe-Ah-myin, founded by Soe Thein, Shwe Wut None, Nweny and Thaung-pyaung-htway-la. He was arrested on 4 December 1996 during the student demonstrations in Rangoon, and severely beaten by police officers during his interrogation. Myint Thein was convicted, several weeks later, to seven years in jail for supporting the student movement, especially through his articles. He is currently being held in Thayet prison.
Yan Aung Soe was arrested in October 1998 by members of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), and sentenced, several weeks later, by a special court to fifty-nine years in prison for being "in contact with foreign organisations". Yan Aung Soe is known for his articles on education published between 1994 and 1997 in semi-legal university journals (Unity, New Century, etc.), then in private magazines such as Thought and Your Life. An activist in student associations and the NLD since the age of fifteen, he was in charge of writing and distributing leaflets for these organisations. He was tortured during his interrogation at an MIS centre. He is currently held in Myaungmya prison, in the south of the country.
Thaung Tun, born in 1959, better known by his pen name Nyein Thit, is a journalist and poet. He worked for the magazine Padaut Pwint Thit, which was banned in 1995. He also wrote for the Rangoon city magazine and produced video reports for independent production companies. As a political activist, he was forced to live in hiding for several years. Arrested on 4 October 1999, he was tortured during his interrogation, which lasted more than three weeks. Two months later, he was convicted by a special Court and sentenced to eight years in prison according to article 5(j) for collecting information concerning human rights violations in Burma and sending it overseas. Initially held in Insein prison, he was transferred to Moulmein prison (capital of the Mon state) in April 2001. Originally from Mandalay, this journalist is also known for his poems. He already spent three years in prison in the late 1970s. He is reportedly in good health, but the only visits he receives are those of his wife and mother who live in Mandalay (more than a thousand kilometres from the prison) once every two months.
Sein Hlaing is imprisoned in building 3 of Tharrawaddy prison where he was transferred in November 1997 after spending seven years in Insein. He is serving a fourteen-year sentence. He was convicted, on 15 November 1990, and sentenced to seven years in jail for publishing an article entitled "What is going on?" in the magazine Yin-Kyae-Mu (Cultural). The military court also found him guilty of publishing satirical poems ridiculing the military junta. On 28 March 1996, he was sentenced to an additional seven years in jail for taking part in writing a document denouncing human rights violations; this document was sent to the United Nations’ special rapporteur on Burma. According to one of his former cellmates, Sein Hlaing has lost a great deal of weight and has no more hair. His three sisters can only visit him once each month.
Win Tin was arrested 4 July 1989 and placed in detention in Insein prison. Successively sentenced to three (October 1989), ten (June 1992) and seven years in prison (March 1996), he is serving a combined twenty-year prison sentence. Charges against Win Tin for his third trial state that he "secretly published anti-governmental propaganda" while in jail. He is being held in a special section of Insein prison, in cell 10, but his very poor health has forced the authorities to regularly transfer him to the prison hospital. During the twelve years he has spent in jail so far, Win Tin has suffered two heart attacks, a herniated disc and underwent one operation. Because of the poor prison conditions, he has also lost most of his teeth, and, for several months, the authorities refused to provide him with dentures. Former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Hanthawathi, author of many articles against the regime and close advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, Win Tin, now 71 years old, refused several times to sign a letter of resignation from the NLD in exchange for his freedom. Admired by political prisoners, he is called Saya (The Wise Man) by Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD activists. According to a former political prisoner, he constantly kept up peaceful resistance to the authorities’ orders and discussed politics often with his cellmates. He was the one who finished writing the document on prison conditions in Insein, which was secretly sent to the UN special rapporteur. While being held in one of the prison kennels, in 1995, Win Tin made a speech celebrating Burma’s national day.
Aung Myint was sentenced to twenty-one years in jail on 20 December 2000 for passing on NLD information to foreign press agencies and western embassies in Rangoon. He had already been arrested on 14 September 2000 by men of MIS Unit 14. He is held in Insein prison. Better known by his pen name, "Phyapon" Ni Loan Oo, this former journalist with the magazines Cherry and Mahaythi saw many of his articles and poems refused by private magazines or blocked by censors. His wife, Ma Tha Bye, a well-known writer, is editor-in-chief of the magazine Cherry.
Aung Zin Min has been imprisoned in Tharrawaddy since May 1997, after spending several months in Insein prison. He was arrested in December 1996, together with journalist Cho Seint, and sentenced to seven years for supporting the student demonstrations of 1996 in his articles and poems, published in the magazine New Style, where he was part of the editorial staff. Currently fifty-one years old, he suffers from headaches and dysentery. He is also depressed and worried about the fate of his destitute family. In 1998, he tried to smuggle out of jail fifty short poems written on bits of plastic. A guard caught him just as he was handing them over to his wife during a visit. The poems were confiscated and he lost visiting rights for more than a month.
Kyaw San, known by the pen name Cho Seint, was transferred to Tharrawaddy in May 1997. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for supporting the 1996 student demonstrations in his articles and poems, published in opposition magazines. He was severely beaten during his interrogation in early 1997, and has suffered from partial hearing loss since then. Grandson of Thakin Kotaw Hmime, one of the fathers of independence with general Aung San, his family was deliberately deprived of its means by the military authorities. He has practically no visits nor outside assistance. According to one of his former cellmates, he has never lost his fighting spirit and even took part in a June 1998 hunger strike asking for more water and that the cell doors be opened during the day. The prisoners succeeded in obtaining their demands.
Myo Myint Nyein was arrested 12 September 1990 and convicted to seven years in prison, in November 1990, for publishing in the magazine Yin-Kyae-Mu (Cultural), of which he was co-editor, an article entitled "What is going on?", and in March 1996 to seven more years in prison for participating in the creation of underground magazines in Insein prison. He is therefore serving a fourteen-year sentence in Tharrawaddy prison where he was transferred in 1996 after six years spent in Insein. In July 1995, journalist Myo Myint Nyein was one of sixty-three political prisoners, in Insein prison, punished by the military authorities for collecting information on prison conditions and sending it to the United Nations special rapporteur. For this "crime", he was locked up, from 11 September 1995 to 7 May 1996, in one of the cages of the Insein prison kennel where prisoners sleep on the concrete floor and receive no health care and no visits. During his last months in the kennel, Myo Myint Nyein, now forty-nine years old, started having nightmares. "In the middle of the night, he would suddenly rise up and start screaming incomprehensibly. We tried to wake him up but he kept on. He was hallucinating, and his attacks became increasingly violent," said Zin Linn, one of his cellmates, now living in exile in Bangkok. Prior to September 1995, Myo Myint Nyein already had severe intestinal problems and migraines. Unable to correctly digest food, he often vomited his meagre rations. After May 1996, his health worsened drastically. Wasted away, weakened and depressed, all he could count on was the support of his fellow prisoners. After being transferred to Tharrawaddy prison in September 1997, he saw one of his cellmates die. The death of Nyunt Zaw, an NLD member, affected his moral greatly and worsened his mental health. Myo Myint Nyein’s daughter, living in exile in Japan, is very worried about his health. "They are killing him slowly." Zin Linn, one of his former cellmates in the kennel, added, "The isolation cells, the interrogations and the untreated illnesses have gotten the better of Myo Myint Nyein, who was a vigorous man. The son of a well-known Burmese boxer, and an athlete himself, he was in excellent physical shape before."
Ohn Kyaing, better known by the pen name Aung Wint, is serving a seventeen-year sentence (sentenced to seven years in October 1990 and ten years in May 1991) in Toungoo prison after being transferred from Insein in late 1993. He was member of Parliament-elect for the NLD in the city of Mandalay. Successively a journalist for Kyemon, Botahtaung and the magazine Youqshin Aunglan, Ohn Kyaing is known for writing articles in favour of democracy. He was convicted for publishing an article "The Three Paths to Obtain Power" in an opposition publication. Born in 1944, Ohn Kyaing suffers from high blood pressure and haemorrhoids. He is married and a father of four. His wife had to sell half of their house to meet Ohn Kyaing’s needs.
Sein Hla Oo has been held in Myitkyina prison since February 1997. Before that, he was in Insein prison after being arrested in August 1994 together with San San Nweh. He is serving a seven-year sentence that was to end in August 2001. He is a member of Parliament-elect and was convicted of distributing some of his articles, considered "anti-governmental", to foreign embassies and media. This former journalist with Botahtaung has a journalism degree from a North-American university, and is a well-known cinema critic. Myitkyina prison, in the north of the country, is known to have more difficult conditions than Insein. Prisoners suffer, more than in other prisons, from malaria, cold, the brutality of the guards and very poor food. Visits from family members are much rarer as well. It takes more than two days to reach the prison from Rangoon, and costs the equivalent of one month’s salary. On 15 June 2001, Sein Hla Oo was transferred to Myitkyina hospital and operated on for a slipped disc. After a few days of convalescence, he was sent back to prison. The authorities did not consider it was necessary to notify his wife. In August, she moved closer to her husband in the expectation of his release, but returned to Rangoon without him. As of 1 January 2002, Soin Hla Oo has still not been released, five months after the end of his sentence.
Khin Maung Win, known by the pen name Sunny, is reportedly held in the new Kalay prison (in the north-west of the country, near the Indian border). He was sentenced to seven years for being involved in an interview with Aung San Suu Kyi before the ASEAN (Association of South-Eastern Asian Nations) summit in 1997. According to the authorities, Sunny was member of a group involved in anti-governmental activities. Several weeks after his June 1997 arrest, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt called them "puppets of the American government". His wife recently sent a letter to NLD headquarters explaining the difficulties she encountered trying to visit her husband.
Thein Tan was sentenced to ten years in prison and is being held in Thayet prison, after spending six years in Insein. Owner of a bookstore in Mandalay, his home city, he wrote for the official publication Kyemon before working with several private magazines in the 1980s. He was convicted by a military court for writing an article about the killing of four people in Mandalay in August 1990. He was arrested in late 1990. His health has reportedly deteriorated greatly in recent months. He is currently seventy-one years old.
Tha Ban was arrested in March 1997 and sentenced to seven years in prison for his articles in favour of democracy. He was also convicted for helping a student who was collecting information on the history of a student association. He was reportedly transferred from Insein prison to that in Arakan state (west of the country) where he is from. Sixty-four years old, Tha Ban has suffered from dysentery in recent years and can only count on his wife, a retired schoolteacher, to bring him medicine. His health worsened in 1995, but the authorities refused to transfer him to the hospital. His vision has recently deteriorated, and, according to his family, he may become blind if he does not get treatment from a specialist. Authorities have so far turned down this request.
Reporters without Borders is continuing its investigation into the reasons the four following opponents were imprisoned:
Htay Thein is a university professor in Rangoon and the author of many political and philosophical articles. He was arrested in June 1989 and sentenced, on 13 November 2000, to twenty years in prison according to articles 5 (j) and 17 (1), for his presumed involvement with the banned Burmese Communist Party. Htay Thein is imprisoned in Mandalay, after several years in Insein, and suffers from psychological problems. According to one of his former cellmates, he talks to the walls of his cell and bed incoherently. Traumatized by the torture he has undergone, he is persuaded that if he eats some of the food given to him, Aung San Suu Kyi will be killed.
Monywa Aung-Shin was arrested in September 2000. Former editor of the magazine Sar-maw-khung (The Literary World), banned in 1990, Monywa Aung-Shin became one of the NLD information directors in the 1990s. He was sentenced to seven years in jail according to article 17 (20) of the State Protection Law.
Tun Myint is a writer and was in charge of information research with the NLD in Rangoon. He was arrested on 13 September 2000 for distributing a press release stating that Aung San Suu Kyi had been placed under house arrest. It asked that sanctions against party leaders be dropped. He was sentenced to twenty-one years in jail according to articles 5(j), 17(20) and 17(1) of the State Protection Law. His vision has greatly deteriorated since his arrest.
Doctor Zaw Min is known for his involvement in the 1988 demonstrations. Author of many articles, essays and short stories, published under the pen name Zaw Nat Zaw, he is in Mandalay prison serving a twenty-year sentence, handed down in July 1989, for his participation in the popular uprising of 1988. According to his family, he is suffering from very serious mental problems. Tortured after his arrest, he was often kept in isolation during his detention period of more than ten years.
Finally, seven members of the clandestine distribution network of the banned publication Mojo are also in jail. They are: Mg Hla Soe, arrested in August 1999 in MyaWaDee (Karen 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 (Karen State); Tint Wae, arrested in May 2000 in KaMarYut (near Rangoon); Ko Myo and Ma Htay Htay, both arrested in May 2000 in Belinn (Mon State). Most of them were convicted to seven-year prison sentences after distributing this opposition monthly, printed in Mae Sot (Thailand), three thousand copies of which were sent to Burma. After this wave of arrests, new distribution networks were developed including some fifty people in Burma and just across its borders.
On 13 June 2001, after five years in prison, journalist and Member of Parliament Maung Wuntha, well known under his pen name Soe Thein and founder of the magazine Ah-twe-Ah-myin (Thought), was released from Insein prison (Rangoon). According to information obtained by Reporters without Borders, this decision took place after Soe Thein’s wife sent a letter to military authorities asking them to release him at the end of his sentence. Indeed, many political prisoners were given additional jail sentences just before their release dates. Maung Wuntha was arrested on 21 May 1996 and sentenced in June of the same year to five years in jail, according to Article 10/A of the 1975 State Protection Law. The authorities accused him of writing and publishing articles defending the "peaceful resistance" led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). During his detention, Maung Wuntha had two heart attacks and suffered psychological torture and bad treatment by his guards and Military Intelligence Service (MIS) agents present in the prison.
On 18 July, San San Nweh, journalist, writer and political activist, was released from Insein prison (Rangoon). Ten other National League for Democracy (NLD) activists including three Members of Parliament elected in May 1990 and Doctor Aung Khin Sint, were released the same day. San San Nweh was taken under military escort to her home in the Yankin quarter of Rangoon where she was reunited with her children after seven years in jail. On 8 April, San San Nweh who received the Reporters Without Borders - Fondation de France prize in 1999, had already been allowed to leave the women’s quarter of Insein prison for more than three hours to visit with her family, under control of MIS agents. In a telephone interview made with the Democratic Voice of Burma radio station, San San Nweh explained that she was released after being pardoned by the regime ("pardon 401"). "If I make any political errors against the junta, I will go back to prison for three years, with an additional three-year sentence," said San San Nweh. She discussed her prison conditions: "In accordance with prison rules, I had to stay in my cell alone all day long, except in the morning when I had 35 minutes of freedom, the time to clean up, wash my clothes and walk around a little. At the end of the day, I was allowed to go outside for 25 minutes. Otherwise, the rest of the time, my cell door was locked. (...) They would only give you medicine if you had an obvious infection (swollen glands or open sores). (...) When you are only allowed out of your cell for an hour a day and the authorities let your health worsen, it can be seen as a kind of mental torture. I was under constant pressure. I had to take three pills a day to lower my blood pressure, whereas, before I was in jail, I only needed one. Every time a door opened or slammed, I jumped. It was a constant state of fear. What would happen to me? Was there something wrong at home? Something with my children? (...) Even someone who is not sick will get sick in jail. And someone who is sick will get even closer to death."
In late July, Nge Ma Ma and her husband Myint Swe were released after four years in jail. These activists close to Aung San Suu Kyi were arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison in 1997 for attempting to smuggle out of the country a video recording of a speech made by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Pressure and obstruction
In June 2001, the authorities felt it necessary to remind the population that it is forbidden to own books, magazines, cassettes or videos containing information "hostile to the SPDC". According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, sentences for violating this law are from five to ten years in prison.
During the week of 9 July, Burmese embassies around the world received an order from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to add Evan Williams and Tony Emerson to the list of banned journalists who cannot receive visas. Evan Williams, an Australian reporter with the weekly programme "Foreign Correspondent" of the Australian TV channel ABC, had produced a TV report about the involvement of the Burmese junta in drug smuggling. It was broadcast on 26 June 2001. For two years, Evan Williams was systematically refused a visa for Burma. He produced a report in 1998 in Rangoon about the crackdown against Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD. The Australian journalist told Reporters Without Borders that, "the Burmese junta criticizes me for my reports, but they do not let me even cover their point of view." Tony Emerson wrote an article about the Rangoon regime’s education policy that was published in the 9 July 2001 issue of Newsweek.
In August, the official press said nothing about a visit by Razali Ismail, a special envoy of the United Nations Secretary General. He met with Aung San Suu Kyi, leaders of the NLD and leaders of the junta.
In early October, Burmese authorities confiscated illegal videos of the attacks against the World Trade Center in New York because censors had not viewed them. The authorities criticised the people selling these pirated cassettes as well as publications that covered these attacks closely. After waiting several days before authorising the publication of information about the events of 11 September, the authorities stated that the attacks could be explained by the fact that the United States welcomed "all sorts of undesirable people who pretend that they were victims of human rights violations." Dozens of Burmese opponents, including the Prime Minister of the government in exile, have taken refuge in the United States.
On 27 November, the military secret service ordered Burmese embassies to add the name of the Singaporean journalist Matthew Sim to their list of journalists forbidden to enter the country. He had just published a guide "Myanmar on my Mind".
General Than Shwe, Head of Government, has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters without Borders.