Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has sent a letter of condolence to the widow of Par Gyi, a journalist recently killed by the Burmese military while covering armed conflict in Mon State.
Par Gyi’s wife, Ma Thandar, released Suu’s Kyi’s letter to the media during an alms offering ceremony for the deceased journalist on November 2.
In the letter, Suu Kyi recalled how Par Gyi cooperated with her and other democracy activists during the 1988 uprising.
“My dear daughter Thandar, I am very sorry to hear about ‘my son’ Par Gyi. I remember that he worked with us during the democracy movement ever since he was a student. All of us who endured hardship during that period share our condolences for Par Gyi,” wrote Suu Kyi, adding: “I hope your family obtains justice”.
Par Gyi was a political activist and a member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal security team during the 1988 uprising. He was also one of the first National League for Democracy Youth members and acted as the group’s Karen State coordinator.
After his involvement in the uprising Par Gyi was forced into exile in Thailand and began working as a freelance journalist under the pseudonym “Aung Naing.” His wife Ma Thandar spent several weeks looking for her lost husband after he went missing in late September until the military issued a report on 23 October which said the Burmese army killed him due, in part, to his involvement with the Klohtoobaw Karen Organization (KKO), the political wing of an armed group commonly known as the Democratic Karen Benevolent Association (DKBA).
The government continues to describe Par Gyi as “Captain Aung Naing,” a communications officer for the KKO. However, Par Gyi’s family and friends dispute the Burmese army’s claim that he was ever a member of the KKO.
In an interview with DVB, Maj. Saw Lonlon from the DKBA denied that Aung Naing was a captain in the KKO, which does not even have ranks such as “captain” since, he said, it is merely a political group affiliated with the DKBA. Saw Lonlon admitted the DKBA knew Par Gyi, but only because he had previously contacted them to obtain information for his news reports.
“We are often contacted by journalists and usually we show them around, but Aung Naing couldn’t film much because there was fighting taking place,” said Saw Lonlon.
Ma Thandar and the rest of Par Gyi’s family have been demanding justice and want to know why he was detained and murdered by the Burmese army while working as a journalist. The international community has expressed outrage at the incident, including the United States, which has called on Naypyidaw to conduct a transparent investigation into the journalist’s death.
Protests condemning the killing have already taken place in several Burmese cities, including Mandalay, Mandalay, Hinthada, Prome and Rangoon. However, the government been reluctant to grant permission for protests related to Par Gyi’s death, and has already arrested several individuals for holding demonstrations without a permit.
In Mandalay, an activist was informed by police on 29 October that he was being charged for violating the Peaceful Assembly Act, which prohibits individuals from holding demonstrations without prior approval from the authorities and carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment.
Despite the possibility of being arrested for violating the law, around 200 activists still showed up for the protest in Mandalay to call for an independent inquiry into Par Gyi’s death. In Prome, 100 people gathered for a similar protest even though two of the protest organisers are likely to be charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act, according to a report in The Irrawaddy.
This year a rising number of media workers have been arrested and imprisoned, a trend which UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee denounced in her speech to the UN General Assembly which summarized a report she wrote about Burma’s human rights situation. During her speech on 28 October, the special envoy expressed concern about reports that “outdated legislation” is still being used to “criminalize and impede the activities of civil society and the media”.
Most likely, Lee’s concern about government suppression of civil society and the media was a response to Par Gyi’s murder and the unusually long prison sentences handed down to media employees and peaceful protesters this year—including five individuals working for a weekly news publication called Unity Journal who were sentenced to tens years’ imprisonment in July on grounds of “exposing state secrets.”
The disturbing increase in the number of media workers being intimidated, arrested, jailed and killed worldwide prompted around 100 Burmese journalists to hold a candlelight prayer vigil in Rangoon yesterday to mark the first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.
In recent weeks, the Burmese government has taken some steps to respond to growing public anger about Par Gyi’s death and the jailing of other Burmese journalists. In particular, on 30 October—just a few days after a large protest was held in Rangoon demanding justice for Par Gyi’s murder—the Burmese government issued a press release stating that President Thein Sein’s office has ordered the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission to conduct an investigation into his death.
However, the government’s press release still referred to Par Gyi as “Captain Aung Naing” of the KKO and has still hasn’t provided an explanation of why it took so long to release the report about Par Gyi’s death.
On 21 October, the Myanmar Journalists Network met with Information Minister Ye Htut to discuss their concerns about the rising number of legal actions lodged by the Burmese government against media employees, but it was the first time a government minister met with the journalist association—despite the fact that numerous NGOs have been criticising the government this year for harassing the media and using the law as a tool to stifle the media.
In June, Human Rights Watch said the government was using “intimidation” tactics against local media, and Reporters Without Borders released a statement in July condemning Burma’s Special Branch—a police intelligence agency—for harassing the news media on the pretext of conducting financial audits. A Reporters Without Borders statement said that Special Branch officers went to the Myanmar Herald’s office on 23 July and detained three of the news journal’s editors without any explanation.
For the moment, the Par Gyi case has become a rallying point for Burma’s media workers, who have received support from numerous NGOs such as the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society (88GPOS), which released a statement on 24 October strongly condemning the army for summarily executing a civilian, labelling it “a lawless act”. The 88GPOS’ leader, Mya Aye, said the army is responsible for the murder of Aung Naing and the group will demand justice against the perpetrator(s).
“As soon as we heard news that Ko Par Gyi was missing, we reached out to government officials and stressed that he is entitled to legal rights, and that they cannot just arbitrarily detain him and take him away to unknown places,” said Mya Aye.
The 88GPOS leader then added, “We learned from Aung Naing’s family that when they first went to look for him [in Kyeikmayaw], the army told them they would be allowed to see him and that he could be released if his family bails him out. But later they backtracked on their promise and began avoiding the family.
“According to the statement released [on 24 October], the army conjured up a far-fetched story about him, claiming that he was shot dead for trying to rob a gun while escaping from detention. But we do not accept that. From a legal point of view, the army has committed a crime and we demand to see effective legal action against the perpetrator(s). We will stage public protests if necessary,” said Mya Aye.
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ has also weighed in on the Par Gyi case, with the group’s Southeast Asia Representative, Shawn Crispin, releasing a statement on 24 October.
“We are gravely concerned by reports that journalist Aung Kyaw Naing has been killed while being held in military custody in Burma. Government authorities must investigate these reports, reveal publicly the circumstances behind his death, and prosecute the perpetrators under the fullest extent of the law,” said Crispin.
In early October, Par Gyi was buried by the Burmese army in Mon State without informing his family, but after coming under pressure from Par Gyi’s family and civil society the police informed Ma Thanda on Sunday that her husband’s body would be exhumed so that Par Gyi’s family can see the body and a more thorough forensic investigation can take place.