When the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee visits the country, the government sometimes prevents her from visiting certain locations, normally areas affected by ongoing conflict.
On her most recent trip, her third under the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, she wanted to travel to Hsipaw, a hilly town in northern Shan State, to visit three Myanmar journalists being held in the local prison.
UN official prevented from meeting with jailed journalists
“However, despite Hsipaw being a tourist destination and frequented by foreigners, I was not allowed to go there,” she told reporters at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon on Friday evening as her trip concluded.
For anyone following the case, the development was not surprising. The high-profile trial of the three reporters, who stand accused of associating with an ethnic armed group in Myanmar, has gotten off to a rocky start, with concerns over lack of access and unexpected hearings clouding the proceedings so far.
Lawi Weng from the Irrawaddy and Aye Naing and Pyae Phone Aung from the Democratic Voice of Burma were arrested in late June after attending a drug-burning ceremony held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, one of more than a dozen organizations still fighting for more autonomy amid a fraught peace process.
The three were charged under the Unlawful Associations Act and could face up to three years each in prison. The colonial-era act has been used to weaken support for ethnic armed groups fighting with the Burmese military, but it has rarely been deployed to target journalists. And the arrests have created a chilling effect on Myanmar’s media.
Almost from the beginning, it was not clear where the trial would even be held, and some of the hearings occurred at unexpected times or were pushed back, creating the impression that authorities were trying to throw off supporters and limit media coverage. Little is also known about three additional people – initially reported as four – who were arrested with the reporters.
While legal access has been allowed, Maung Maung Win, the attorney for the Democratic Voice of Burma, said conditions were less than ideal.
He said that when he spoke to his clients, Hsipaw prison staff stood too close to them and took photos. The attorneys were not allowed to bring in their own phones to record, and Maung Maung Win's assistant had to take notes. The situation created an atmosphere in which they felt they could not speak freely to their clients.
“We had to be controlled if we wanted to discuss in detail. I have never experienced [something] like this in my 40 years of a professional career. They only have the right to watch us from a pretty far distance,” he said.
The account could not be independently verified. Hsipaw prison officials could not be reached.
Yanghee Lee’s comments on Friday only seemed to confirm suspicions that deliberate attempts were being made to restrict the flow of information about the case, which has also highlighted the uneasy relationship between Myanmar’s civilian leadership and the still-powerful military.
Aung San Suu Kyi react
Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party won elections in 2015, ending decades of outright military rule, declined to condemn the arrests when asked about them in the capital Naypyitaw earlier this month, saying they were a judicial matter.
When asked for comment on the reasoning behind barring Yanghee Lee from Hsipaw, a spokesman for the government referred to a statement released on Saturday by Aung San Suu Kyi’s Ministry of the Office of the State Counselor. The statement said the government was “disappointed” with the Special Rapporteur’s end of mission statement and that it contained “many sweeping allegations and a number of factual errors.”
It did not go into detail about the errors. In her briefing, Yanghee Lee covered a wide-range of topics related to her visit, but she focused at the beginning on the ongoing practice of surveillance and the limitations placed on her travel.
Despite the lack of transparency about the case, information has trickled out. A Democratic Voice of Burma reporter managed to record a video interview with the three journalists as police escorted them to the courthouse.
The unexpected interview resulted in powerful statements about Myanmar’s ongoing fight for rule of law and press freedom, which was curtailed under military rule until pre-publication censorship was lifted in 2012.
“Just look at these chains,” Lawi Weng was quoted as saying. “Can you call this democracy?”
The next hearing is scheduled for July 28.
Aung Naing Soe contributed to this report.