Gagging the messengers of Myanmar’s wars
The detention of three journalists covering the country's ethnic conflicts coincides with rising reports of gross military abuses in conflict areas
The arrests of three Myanmar journalists in recent days has focused attention on the squeeze of media freedoms and the residual repressive laws still used by the military and government to target any perceived critics.
Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy magazine, one of Myanmar’s most celebrated conflict reporters, and Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), along with four companions and drivers, were taken into the custody by the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, following their attendance at a drug burning ceremony held by the rebel Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in Namhsan township in the mountains of Northern Shan State.
The crescendo of condemnation by the Myanmar media community, and international media freedoms groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, has rightly focused on increasing intimidation of the media and the uneven use of the Unlawful Association Act, section 17(1) of which bans contact with armed groups, with potential prison terms of three to five years. The TNLA is one of several ethnic armed organizations which remain on the Unlawful Associations list as they are still fighting the Tatmadaw.
The outrage over the arrests is understandable, as representatives of the TNLA recently attended peace talks in the capital Naypyitaw, a trip facilitated by the Chinese envoy Sun Guoxing meeting with senior government and military figures, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. In conflict areas throughout Myanmar, especially Kachin State, Shan State and Rakhine, dozens of civilians have been arrested and charged under 17(1) to intimidate civilian support for armed and political opposition.
Under Suu Kyi’s elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which has proclaimed to prioritize democratizing legal reforms, the repressive legal apparatus remains politically useful for what the legal scholar Nick Cheesman has called “rule by law” in Myanmar, or the abuse of the rule of law to stifle any form of dissent.
Yet an emphasis on the plight of the reporters and the legal measures being used against them should not obscure the very conflicts they were there to cover. Lawi Weng is especially determined to cast light on these marginalized wars and their horrendous impact on civilians. A week before his arrest he was reporting from inside a Myanmar army operation to clear communities from a mining area in Tanai Township of Kachin State.
There, the army had dropped leaflets warning the miners to leave or they would be treated as “terrorists.” Lawi has made a specialty out of accessing remote rebel-controlled areas and filing dispatches from these largely inaccessible zones, documenting important ethnic dimensions of the story of civil war often neglected or ignored inside Myanmar and by the outside world.
The day before the journalists’ arrests, a military parade of tanks and armored vehicles around the streets of the northern Shan State city of Lashio, replete with gun-toting militia men and police cars, was a clear show of force meant to intimidate the rebels and their supporters.
It came as fighting between the Tatmadaw and members of the so-called Northern Alliance (NA), consisting of the TNLA, Arakan Army (AA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Shan State-based Brigades 4 and 6 of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), has intensified.
The conflict has raged for over two years, and markedly spiked since the alliance attacked the Myanmar-China border town of Muse on November 20 last year. In that fight, the alliance seized control of the small border town of Mong Ko before being driven out by heavy Tatmadaw air strikes and artillery.
In early March, Northern Alliance members staged a daring raid on the government-controlled town of Laukkai, in the Kokang enclave along the Chinese border, which by some reports was a brazen bank job to finance their armed struggle.
Lawi has also reported frequently from behind the lines in the Shan State Army-North/Shan State Progressive Party (SSA-N/SSPP) enclave at Wan Hai in Central Shan State, a scene of heavy fighting a couple of years ago.
Clashes between the SSA-N and Tatmadaw, and between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), another Shan armed group and signatory to the so-called Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, and TNLA have been frequent in the townships of Kyaukme, Hispaw, Namhtu and Namshan, and resulted in the dynamic displacement of thousands of civilians.
There are over 100,000 internally displaced people dotted throughout Northern Shan State and Kachin State, some initially displaced in the fighting that broke out in mid-2011. Lawi and several other prominent Myanmar journalists have been at the forefront of reporting on these largely forgotten conflicts, which entail routine abuses against civilians by all sides, but predominantly by the Tatmadaw.
In July 2016, the Tatmadaw made a rare admission that its soldiers murdered five men in the town of Mong Yaw, east of the main city of Lashio, in cold blood. The death of two other men shot off a motorbike were denied by the army. Incidents such as these are replicated on a routine and frequent basis throughout the area, but with little or no attention and almost no accountability.
Phone camera footage posted on social media in early 2016, and in recent weeks, shows beatings by Tatmadaw troops against Ta’ang civilians in a number of cases in 2015. In recent months, Lawi reported on the killings of Ta’ang civilians in Namtu township, shot by the Myanmar army after being used as truck drivers by the TNLA.
The rising tensions and military operations in the north are clearly directed at the Ta’ang army, which is increasingly seen as a major challenge to the Tatmadaw. In 1991, the former incarnation of the TNLA, the Palaung State Liberation Front/Army (PSLF/A), was forced to sign a ceasefire by the Tatmadaw after a brutal counter-insurgency campaign designed to bring the rebel group to its knees was waged in the hills of Kutkai township.
Senior retired Palaung/Ta’ang military and political figures interviewed by this writer who endured the so-called ‘Four Cuts’ operation, aimed at cutting rebel access to food, funds, intelligence and recruits, fear that current military pressure is designed to do the same thing, albeit using more hi-tech helicopter gunships, jet fighters and artillery.
The Palaung State Liberation Party (PSLP), militarily isolated by its neighboring rebel allies who have agreed to peace deals, soon followed suit, with the Tatmadaw establishing the Shan State Special Region Seven. Promised government development programs predictably failed to materialize. Livelihood and education opportunities were no better than when the area was a war zone. The PSLA was gradually weakened.
In 2005, the then ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) government forced the army to disarm as part of its ‘Arms for Peace’ program. Soon thereafter, the Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO) released a damning report called “Poisoned Flowers” on spiraling drug addiction in the area as opium and ya ba (methamphetamine) consumption rocketed, with terrible effects on Palaung society.
The passing of the 2008 Constitution and the establishment of the Palaung Self-Administered Zone comprising Mong Ton and Namhsan townships did nothing to advance the rights and livelihoods of the Ta’ang, as the Tatmadaw and its allies in the Kutkai Pyithu Sit (people’s militia) allegedly ran the local drug trade.
By 2010, as the PWO documented in harrowing detail, the drug trade had become a scourge for Ta’ang men and youth.
Under pressure from its community alarmed by the effects of drug addiction, the armed resistance was reformed, with a ready ally in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) who were back in conflict with the Tatmadaw after state forces attacked in 2011, breaking 17 years of ceasefire.
The KIA trained and equipped the newly formed Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), along with other Arakan Army and All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABDSF) allies. The Kokang splinter group MNDAA resurfaced in 2015 with deadly attacks on their former capital of Laukkai.
The arc of resurgent ethnic grievances was growing as a result of the Tatmadaw’s nearly two-decades-long use of ceasefires to gradually weaken armed groups through business deals, a cynical strategy that American academic Kevin Woods famously coined as “ceasefire capitalism.”
Spreading conflict in Northern Shan State between the TNLA and Tatmadaw, and increasingly against the RCSS, has been marked by rising reports of widespread human rights violations. The renamed Ta’ang Women’s Organization (TWO) released a report in mid-2016 detailing government and aligned militia abuses against Ta’ang civilians called “Trained to Torture.”
The report, which could not be launched in the former capital Yangon due to government pressure, highlighted the steady rise in the armed conflict and concomitant abuses, often perpetrated with complete impunity and a lack of government acknowledgement.
At the same time, official condemnation of the Northern Alliance has risen markedly in the last year. For instance, the Shan State parliament passed a resolution in December labelling alliance members as “terrorists”, a designation criticized by over a 100 Myanmar political and civil society groups as unhelpful to the peace process.
Suu Kyi, in a statement in late March, warned: “At such a time of great importance, undesirable destructive elements and instigations intended to harm peace might emerge. Therefore, this press release is being issued to urge our brothers who are leaders of the ethnic national races and Union citizens to be extremely careful”, in continuing to resist signing her promoted nationwide ceasefire agreement.
Suu Kyi’s message has been received with resentful distrust from armed groups in the north, as it has a contemptuous symmetry to statements from the Tatmadaw’s leadership. Both frame the peace process as a course to capitulation, not consensus building, as the civilian and military arms of the government stage peace conferences while the Tatmadaw escalates attacks in Kachin and Shan areas.
The jailed reporters’ plight and the repressive laws used to detain them also underscores the international community’s constrained attention span. A report by rights watchdog Amnesty International on war crimes in the conflicts released in early June evinced scant global attention, a disinterest at sharp odds with the international obsession with the repressive treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
A brutal ‘area clearance operation’ in the western region by security forces following an attack on border guard police killed nine troopers in October 2016 has forced over 75,000 Rohingya to flee into Bangladesh, arson attacks which have destroyed over 1,500 dwellings and widespread reports of sexual violence, torture and extrajudicial killings.
This brutal operation, redolent of decades of brutal counter-insurgency practices in Myanmar, was almost sneeringly dismissed by Suu Kyi’s government. A United Nations report released in February based on interviews in refugee camps in Bangladesh documented extensive reports of killings and rapes.
In the March session of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, the European Union sponsored a resolution on Myanmar which recommended the urgent formation of “an independent international fact-finding mission”…”to establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces.”
For Kachin, Ta’ang and Shan community leaders, the resolution held the promise of more global attention on the marginalized conflicts of the north and not just the plight of Rohingya Muslims. So far, however, much of the debate over the mission has centered on Rakhine State, with the government refusing to cooperate with the initiative and Suu Kyi recently denying the mission and its members permission to enter Myanmar.
This prompted understandable and justified international condemnation over an evident cover-up in Rakhine State. Seen in the light of the three journalists’ arrests, Suu Kyi’s government has also sent a clear signal that it will not allow any independent research or reporting from the northern conflict zones.
The mission’s fact-finding investigators and wider international community should view the arrest of Lawi and his colleagues as a barometer of the Tatmadaw’s need to conceal their northern operational abuses, similar to the media blackout it has imposed on northern Rakhine State.
It all bodes ill for genuine resolution of these long-running wars if the reporters seeking to expand the truth are being targeted and silenced, and the media and civil society intimidated by repressive laws that the NLD government should have repealed in the first days of assuming power through democratic means.
In calling for the release of Lawi Weng, Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing, advocates should remember to call for the protection of thousands of civilians in Kachin and Shan State, many of them displaced by war and now living in dire conditions. Their stories, after all, were a main reason the intrepid reporters had traveled to the increasingly shut-off region in the first place.
David Scott Mathieson is a Yangon-based independent analyst who has covered the armed conflict in Shan State for over 15 years