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7 July – 13 July: A Return to the Bad Old Days for Freedom of Expression

July 15, 2014

12-July-Sai-Zaw-The-IrrawaddyIn a scarcely believable and punishingly harsh act of repression, four journalists and the CEO of Unity journal were sentenced by a Magwe Region court on 10 July to ten years imprisonment with hard labor for reporting on a story on a chemical weapons factory, giving a damming indictment of press freedom in Burma today. This occurred just days after President Thein Sein described Burma as “one of the freest in Southeast Asia” due to media reforms.

In January 2014, Unity journal published an investigative report on a chemical weapons factory in Magwe Region, central Burma, with accounts from factory workers, local villagers and photos of the site. While the Burma government eventually admitted it is a ‘standard ordnance factory’ that produces ordinary military equipment, an analysis of the images by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies concludes that there is strong evidence that this isn’t just a normal arms factory, and is consistent with chemical weapons factories in other places, such as North Korea. It is ironic that the journalists who published a story on chemical weapons are jailed for ten years under the State Secrets Act, while the Burma government denies it is making chemical weapons. Related to this, a point that has been overlooked slightly over the past week is that Burma must implement the measures of the Chemical Weapons Convention that it signed in 1993 and thus clear up the issue of whether Burma does have the capability to manufacture such equipment, as the Unity journalists reported and are now in prison for.

Yet the authorities did not want this information made public, and the four journalists and the CEO of Unity involved in the investigation, were arrested under the colonial-era State Secrets Act shortly after. The charges themselves were filed by President Thein Sein’s office and the sentence was handed down nearly six months later. Unsurprisingly, this caused a backlash, both domestically and internationally. A protest was held a day later outside the Myanmar Peace Center where inside President Thein Sein was meeting celebrities from Burma’s arts world. Around two dozen journalists attempted to cover the event wearing t-shirts, with the slogan, ‘Stop Killing Press,’ but were refused entry. Subsequently they taped their mouths and staged a silent demonstration outside the center. Internationally, rights groups have strongly denounced the sentences, with Reporters Without Borders calling it a “U-turn on freedom of information,” while Amnesty International described it as “a dark day for freedom of expression.”

This is not, however, out of line with recent government actions with the media. It is more an extension of an increasingly repressive media environment since initial media reforms in 2012. In June, military intelligence, Special Branch officers, in an act of intimidation, visited the offices of former exiled media outlet, The Irrawaddy to ostensibly to question their finances. After recent religious violence in Mandalay, President Thein Sein voiced a stark warning to the media; “Affirmative action will be taken against those who threaten state stability rather than using media freedom for good.” Arrests of journalists have not been limited to those from Unity either. Journalists from Eleven Media, Democratic Voice of Burma have been arrested and spent time in prison on defamation and trespass charges the past few months, while a journalist from Mizzima was arrested, ironically, for staging a demonstration against the lack of media freedom. Also last week, editors of Rangoon-based Bi Mon Te Nay newspaper were detained for publishing a story about a political activist group that claimed it had formed an interim government.

Freedom of expression and increasing media freedom are one of the main areas that international community has praised the Thein Sein government for. It has now become obvious that that praise was premature and misplaced. How many other areas of reform are going to backslide before the international community will start to grasp the reality and realize that the narrative they have constructed does not reflect the realities in Burma today? The reforms are not irreversible and with so many pressing issues in Burma right now, including the religious violence, a stalled peace process, and a culture of impunity for human rights violations committed by state authorities, vigilance is needed. This is where a free press and freedom of expression are so important. Pressure needs to be applied to the authorities in Burma to roll back repressive legislation, to foster an environment for freedom of expression, and to protect journalists. With the upcoming 2015 election, as well as the by-election in late 2014 how free the media is will be a benchmark to measure how free and fair these elections are, and as such give legitimacy to those elected.

News Highlights

Refugee advocates and civil society groups are concerned about the livelihood and safety of over 130,000 refugees from Burma after a meeting between Burma Army chief General Min Aung Hlaing and General Prayuth Chan-ocha, chairman of  National Council for Peace and Order lead to an announcement of repatriation plans for refugees in nine camps on the Thailand-Burma border as a result of recent 

Inside Burma

At a meeting with Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team and Burma’s political parties in Chiang Mai, general-secretary of Women’s League of Burma, Tin Tin Nyo, calls for political support the amendment of the 2008 Constitution to protect women and children from further abuses by the Burma Army

Despite a ceasefire, another clash occurs between the Burma Army and the Karen National Liberation Army

In Shaw Koke Myaing township in Myawaddy, Karen National Union, Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, Karen Peace Force and Border Guard Force (BGF) meet at the BGF’s headquarters and form a joint-committee to combat illicit drugs

Over 100 villagers flee to Wan Wap Temple, Kesi Township, due to tension between Burma Army and Shan State Progress Party/ Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA) after Burma Army deployed more troops in the areas of central Shan State controlled by SSPP/SSA, while Shan State Army-North meets with government officials in Naypyidaw to discuss ways to prevent future clashes

In Chin State, Razua Women’s Group says authorities have arrested eight protesters – including women’s rights group leaders and youth representatives – after carrying out peaceful protests  condemning the rape of a Chin woman by a Burma Army soldier

In Moulmein, Mon State, Mon National Party, with the help of senior monks led by All Mon National Negotiating Team, sign a four-point agreement with 85 monks and over 200 Mon people present during a conference

Over 360 people have been arrested in Mandalay following the recent violent riots, mostly for breaking the curfew, while only 16 have been arrested in relation to the violence


Rohingya refugees living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh undergo enormous hardship due to restrictions imposed on non-governmental organizations in the camps, and the lack of support from the Bangladesh government and Bangladesh bans official marriages between its nationals and Rohingya refugees, claiming the Rohingyas are trying to use their wedding certificates to gain access to citizenship in Bangladesh

Four migrant workers from Burma brutally killed by unknown attackers in Malaysia, some suspect the attacks are related to the recent violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Mandalay

Thailand exposes human trafficking network after raiding a house on a palm plantation, which lead to an arrest of two Burmese men who detained 13 Rohingyas for extortion for over a month


The UN Environment Programme and the UN Human Settlements Programme sign an agreement with Burma’s government to help prepare for climate change and its impact on the country including droughts, cyclones and flash floods

The US urges ASEAN to make further efforts to combat human trafficking after two member states were blacklisted for failing to act decisively against exploitation of migrant labourers

Two British companies sign deals with the Burma government to aid and address a nationwide scarcity of electricity during the Minister of Electric Power, Khin Maung Soe’s visit to the UK


The Meaning of the Mandalay Riots in Myanmar
By Mong Palatino
The Diplomat

Burma gives journalists harsh prison-term as reform reversed
By Zin Linn
Asia Tribute

The Spoils of Aid in Burma: Transition a Boon for Former Dictators
By Jonathan Hulland
The Irrawaddy

Latest from the Blog

Burma Must Find a Path to a More Tolerant Society
By Burma Partnership


In Rangoon, two dozen journalists protest against the 10-year jail sentence given to four journalists and a CEO of Unity journal by wearing T-shirts with “Stop Killing Press” imprinted on them and as a result, the police refused their entrance to an event in which president Thein Sein met with local celebrities at the Myanmar Peace Center

Statements and Press Releases

Burma: Journalists Given 10 years’ Hard Labour for Article on Chemical Weapons Factory
By Amnesty International

One Month On From Signing Sexual Violence Declaration – No Action Taken
By Burma Campaign UK

Brang Yung Detention Illegal Says United Nations
By Burma Campaign UK

Statement by Political and Community Based Organizations in Kayah State Condemning the Planned Trespassing Charges Against 190 Villagers of Hso Lyah Ku Village in Pruso Township of Kayah State
By Civil Society Organizations

HURFOM Releases the Report of “In Pursuit of Justice: Reflections on the Past and Hopes for the Future of Burma”
By Human Rights Foundation of Monland

Burma: Four Reporters Sentenced to Lengthy Prison Terms
By International Federation for Human Rights and Altsean-Burma

အမ်ဳိးသမီးမ်ားအေပၚ စစ္တပ္က လိင္မႈဆုိင္ရာ အၾကမ္းဖက္မႈ ဆန္႔က်င္လႈပ္ရွားမႈအား အာဏာပုိင္မ်ား ႏွိပ္ကြက္ျခင္းကုိ ရပ္တန္႔ေပးေရး ေရဇြာ အမ်ဳိးသမီးအဖြဲ႔၏ သတင္းထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By Razua Women’s Group

Police Investigations and Prosecutions Used to Harass News Media
By Reporters Without Borders

Burmese Government Must Stop new Military Operation Against Ceasefire Army in Northern Shan State
By Shan Human Rights Foundation

Burma: State Leash on Media Freedoms at its End
By Southeast Asian Press Alliance

High-level Intimidation of Chin Women Activists Exposes Systemic Impunity for Military Rape
By Women’s League of Burma


In Pursuit of Justice: Reflections on the Past and Hopes for the Future of Burma
By Human Rights Foundation of Monland

This post is in: Weekly Highlights