Senior reporter for The Irrawaddy Ko Lawi Weng,
Under the military junta that ruled Myanmar for nearly 50 years, the media were tightly controlled.
The European Union on Monday urged Myanmar to protect journalists from “intimidation, arrest or prosecution” after several cases of reporters running into trouble with the law, including three detained by the army last week.
The three reporters were accused of breaching the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act after covering the burning of drugs by the rebel Ta’ang National Liberation Army to mark International Day Against Drug Abuse.
Family members of journalists detained in northern Shan State said their loved ones are “in good health” after they were allowed prison visits for the first time on Monday.
Lawi Weng, also known as U Thein Zaw, from The Irrawaddy, and U Aye Nai and Pyae Bone Aung from the Democratic Voice of Burma were arrested by the Myanmar Army on Monday, June 26, and and handed over to the police last Thursday. They have been charged under the Unlawful Associations Act and are being detained at Hsipaw Prison in northern Shan State.
On Monday, family members of Lawi Weng and U Aye Nai were allowed a 45-minute visit and were able to deliver food. The family members of another DVB reporter, Pyae Bone Aung, are on their way to Hsipaw, according to U Khin Maung Soe, the multimedia editor at DVB.
“Ko Aye Nai’s family members said he is okay,” he told The Irrawaddy.
U Khin Maung Win, Lawi Weng S elder brother, met him on Monday afternoon at the prison with a lawyer. He told The Irrawaddy said his younger brother was “in good health,” and has been “treated well.”
He said his younger brother had told him that he had not been subjected to abuse in the army’s interrogation sessions during his initial detention by the military.
“But [Lawi] said they had to sleep on the floor during the interrogation and it was cold. They were surrounded by dozens of soldiers with guns outside,” said U Khin Maung Win.
The three journalists were arrested near Namhsan on their way back from covering a drug-burning ceremony held by the ethnic armed group the Ta’ang National Liberation Army on Monday to mark the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse.
Senior reporter for The Irrawaddy Ko Lawi Weng, also known as Thein Zaw, and DVB reporters Ko Aye Naing and Ko Pyae Bone Aung, were arrested along with four others in Namhsan Township on Monday afternoon.
The trio had been travelling back from a ceremony organised by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army to mark the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
A Monday statement from the office of military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said soldiers had pulled over the car carrying the reporters towards Hsipaw and arrested them on suspicion of contact with the TNLA, which it deemed a “terrorist group” that was “harming rule of law and peace and stability”.
The statement appeared to suggest the possibility that the trio would be charged under the Unlawful Associations Act, which has been regularly used against individuals in contact with non-state armed groups, and which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
No further information about the identity of the other four detainees has come to light.
Sources at The Irrawaddy said that Lawi Weng was able to make contact with his superiors early on Monday evening, but declined to discuss the nature of the phone call.
Regarded as one of Myanmar’s best conflict reporters, Lawi Weng has made numerous trips to TNLA territory in recent years without incident, including a 2015 journey to report on the armed group’s opium eradication and drug rehabilitation activities.
Subsequent attempts at contacting the reporters have been unsuccessful. Despite a news report in state media and the commander-in-chief’s office announcing the trio had been transferred to police custody in Lashio, their location was unclear Tuesday.
made several unsuccessful attempts to seek comment from military spokesman Maj-Gen Soe Naing Oo and Maj-Gen Aung Ye Win. Officers from the Lashio police station also could not be reached for comment.
U Toe Zaw Latt, the Myanmar bureau chief for DVB, said he was unable to fathom why the trio had been arrested, given the TNLA had been extended an official invitation to the government’s most recent peace conference in May.
“Reporters do their work. They went there at the invitation of TNLA,” “Although they went to the rebels’ territory, the TNLA was invited to attend the 21st Century Panglong conference. I don’t know why it is a crime to communicate with them.”
James Gomez, the Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, characterized the arrests as a “crude attempt” by the military to intimidate journalists covering the protracted conflict in northern Shan State.
“These journalists must be immediately and unconditionally released, and allowed to resume their work freely and without fear,” he said. “Their arrests send a chilling message to Myanmar’s already embattled media.”