The formal withdrawal of charges in the high-profile “unlawful association” case involving three journalists and three others in Shan State’s Hsipaw Township was postponed on Monday, with the legal bureaucracy delaying their official exoneration for another several days.
Despite the three journalists — DVB reporters Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung, and The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng — having been released on bail on Friday, the trial has been adjourned until 15 September. The latest delay comes three days after the defendants found out that the military would no longer push for their prosecution.
“A statement from the legal counsel is still needed, as well as one from the police,” Khin Mi Mi, one of the defendants’ lawyers, explained outside the courthouse in Hsipaw on Monday.
As part of Burma’s judicial procedures, lawsuits require certain legal officials’ remarks and cannot be dismissed without them.
Lawyer Maung Maung Win, also part of the defence team, added that the legal counsel would need to go to the Kyaukme district court, about an hour’s drive from Hsipaw, to prepare the necessary paperwork.
However, he emphasised that “if the people really work fast, it won’t take long. It will only take a few days; maximum a week.”
The six men who had been facing “unlawful association” charges were detained on 26 June on their return from a drug-burning ceremony in northern Shan State organised by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group that holds territory in the area.
Two drivers for the journalists who were also charged under the Unlawful Associations Act and additionally the Imports and Exports Act — the latter for allegedly driving an unlicensed vehicle — were released on bail as well on Monday, with bond set at 2 million kyats ($1,470) each.
Also still unresolved as of Monday was the fate of the three journalists’ confiscated equipment — cameras, SD cards and other materials seized as evidence when the men were arrested.
“My intention is to apply for [the return of] the equipment if the case is formally withdrawn at the next hearing,” Maung Maung Win told DVB on Monday.
Maung Maung Win said he was hopeful that the surprise announcement on Friday that the Tatmadaw would be dropping charges filed against six journalists in total — three others involved in separate cases in Rangoon — was a signal that “the military and media are working towards the same direction: for democracy.”
A statement from the military released on Friday read, in part, “The Tatmadaw recognises that media workers and the Tatmadaw share the same cause and work for the interests of the country and its people. In order to continue cooperating for the sake of the national interest, the Tatmadaw eliminates grudges [relating to] past incidents and withdrew the lawsuits against media practitioners and some [other] persons.”
James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, previously voiced outrage at the arrest and prosecution of the journalists in Hsipaw, stating: “This is a clear attempt by the authorities to intimidate journalists and silence their critical coverage. It is exactly in northern Shan State and the other ethnic areas wracked by conflict, where appalling human rights abuses are rife, that independent journalism is needed the most.”