Journalist Ko Par Gyi (second from right), in a previous career as a bodyguard for Aung San Suu Kyi. (Prachatai/Flickr).
The killing in military custody of a Myanmar journalist speaks to a continuing culture of impunity among the armed forces
An announcement last Friday confirming the death in military custody of a missing freelance journalist inspired fervent street protests in Myanmar’s capital earlier this week and prompted rebukes from international observers.
The statement, released by the military through Myanmar’s press council on October 24, said that Aung Kyaw Naing, also known as Par Gyi, was taken in for questioning in Kyaikmaraw town in the southern Mon State on September 30.
The military claims he was an information officer for a little-known wing of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), an insurgent group that has been involved in a new round of skirmishes with the army since September, although the DKBA quickly denied that had any affiliation with it.
The military’s claim that he was shot on October 4 while trying to seize a soldier’s gun and escape was met by widespread disbelief from civil society groups, who called for a thorough, impartial investigation. “So far we have seen no basis for this allegation, with his body not even being returned to his family,” said rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB). “Par Gyi’s death is a reprehensible demonstration of how the rights of the citizen in Burma are not respected and how intimidation and violence are used against them.”
Par Gyi is the first journalist to have been killed by the military since the death of Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai in 2007, gunned down on a central Yangon street during the “Saffron Revolution” uprising against military rule.
But while Par Gyi was an infrequent contributor to local media outlets, he was better known for his political activism, having close ties with the 88 Generation Students, a dissident political group. He also served as a bodyguard for opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from 1988 to 1990 and had reportedly kept in touch with her following her release from house arrest in 2010.
“We have a number of [media] associations in Myanmar, and I have never heard of him being part of any association,” said Kyaw Min Swe, the secretary of the Myanmar Press Council, adding that Par Gyi’s family had not filed a formal request for arbitration with the council over his death. The council is an independent body run by media professionals that acts as an intermediary in journalism-related disputes and as a go-between with the government.
Kyaw Min Swe asserted that “citizen journalists” – which is how he characterized Par Gyi – also have a right to due process, claiming that the council is willing to work in their interests even if they lack formal accreditation.
Hundreds gathered in front of Yangon’s city hall on Sunday to demand justice for Par Gyi, led by the 88 Generation Students. Ko Ko Gyi, a prominent leader of the student-led, anti-military uprising in 1988, warned that his death was an ominous sign for the country’s political trajectory. “Without the prevalence of true rule of law in our country, we will not be able to establish a democratic system or find peace,” he said at the rally.
On Monday, local authorities filed criminal charges against protest organisers, adding substance to Ko Ko Gyi’s indictment of Myanmar’s justice system after three years of political and economic reforms.
A belief held by many in the international community that reforms would usher in a new era of openness and democracy has been tempered somewhat by evident backsliding on press freedoms and civil liberties. In particular, the military remains a superlative force in Myanmar’s political life, controlling vast swathes of the economy and an automatic 25 per cent of the seats in parliament.
A nationwide ceasefire process, intended to forge unity between Myanmar’s multitude of ethnic armed groups, has collapsed into disarray over the past month. A dispute for supremacy between two of the country’s most prominent insurgent groups resulted in the Karen National Union “suspending” its participation in the ceasefire coordination process in September, amid a renewed bout of hostilities in southern Myanmar that Par Gyi was documenting at the time of his death.
Par Gyi’s widow has announced that she wants to take his killers to court, but Kyaw Min Swe feels this is likely to prove an uphill battle. “I think it depends on pressure, which [must be] smart,” he said. “It will be very difficult to convince the military to allow an investigation, because they are still in an old frame of mind.”