‘This case is not normal – it is a threat to the media’: Reuters lawyer

An interview with U Than Zaw Aung, lawyer for Reuters journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo.


The Reuters trial has grabbed headlines around the world and lawyer U Than Zaw Aung from the Myanmar Media Lawyers’ Network has been a central figure, distilling the day’s events from inside the courthouse for the media and other observers.

His clients are Reuters journalists Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested on December 12 and are facing a charge under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act that carries a prison term of up to 14 years. They allege that they were set up by police because of their reporting on Rakhine State, where they found evidence of a military massacre of 10 Muslim men. After spending more than six months in Insein Prison, the journalists expect to learn on July 2 whether the case will proceed to trial. Frontier interviewed Than Zaw Aung about the case on June 22.

How did you come to work on this case?

When the two reporters were missing and it was unclear where they had been taken, lawyers from New York representing Reuters contacted me and asked me to follow up their case, and I accepted the request.

On December 21 – a full week after their arrest – we began to probe the case.

The journalists say they were given rolled up papers at a meeting with two police officers immediately before their arrest. What were the documents, and what other documents were extracted from their phones?

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At the first court hearing on December 27, we got to talk to the journalists and learnt that the papers that the prosecutor alleges are secret concern the ARSA [Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army] attacks on police outposts in Rakhine.

They concern the attack on the Myin Hlut police station [in Maungdaw Township], and the number of police who were killed and the number of guns left at the station. And then also about Bengali houses being burned down. There is nothing more.

[This information] has already been published in state-run media – Kyemon (The Mirror) and the Global New Light of Myanmar – and other local media outlets as well.

The papers extracted from the phones were about the trip of Vice President U Myint Swe and U Win Myat Aye, the union minister for social welfare and resettlement, to Maungdaw in Rakhine State; the Manaung Township economic plan; about the Rakhine State Hluttaw forming a committee to investigate U Min Aung, the Rakhine municipal minister; Police Captain Moe Yan Naing’s transfer to Yangon from Rakhine; news of cows being stolen in Rakhine; and the seating plan at Kyaikkasan sporting ground for the Pope Francis’s visit to Myanmar. These are things that everybody knew already.

The prosecution witness, Police Major Aung Kyaw San, who is described as a computer expert, said that these papers were secret papers, but there is no indication or no reference to secret or security on the papers.

The document about Pope Francis’s visit was not even made by the Myanmar government – it was found on a German website.

And if they were secret papers that had been leaked, why not take action against the relevant departments over the loss of the documents?

Police Lance Corporal Naing Lin told the court he did not give the documents to the journalists. If that’s correct, then who did give them to the journalists?

At the first hearing on December 27, what we roughly knew through Wa Lone’s wife, Ma Pan Ei Mon, is that the papers were given [to the journalists] by Naing Lin and someone from Special Branch. We later learned from Moe Yan Naing that it was on the orders of Police Brigadier-General Tin Ko Ko.

Hours ahead of the arrest, six police officers who knew the Reuters reporters were summoned to meet with Tin Ko Ko, whose plan was to trap Wa Lone by handing him papers. They were told if they couldn’t do this they would be put in prison.

Among this group, Naing Lin and the officer from Special Branch were ordered to hand over the documents. Meanwhile, Moe Yan Naing and Police Sergeant Khin Maung Lin were arrested on the same day. But Naing Lin, the Special Branch officer and two others from the group remain free and have not been punished.

Then the Ministry of Information posted on December 14 that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been arrested together with Moe Yan Naing and Khin Maung Lin and stated that the journalists had obtained the documents from the police officers by way of deception.

The statement said that the journalists approached those two policemen, Moe Yan Naing and Khin Maung Lin, who had come back from Rakhine state after serving on security duty in Buthidaung and Maungdaw.

It said that two police officers allegedly involved … would be charged under the Official Secrets Act and police law. So people thought that these two police gave the documents to the journalists. But when Moe Yan Naing was called as a witness, the full story was revealed.

But then at the court hearing on May 16, Naing Lin denied giving the papers to the journalists – he said that he didn’t give anything to them. He told the court, “I didn’t take anything from them and I didn’t give anything to them.”

So the case against them has become weaker because [the prosecution] hasn’t really shown that someone gave those important papers to the journalists … But if they didn’t give the reporters those papers, how did those papers come to be in the reporters’ hands. Did they just come down from heaven?

[The prosecution did] not even say how they were leaked. Since then it is clear that they are not secret papers and the quality of their case has gone downhill ever since.

So how are Moe Yan Naing and Khin Maung Lin involved in this case? And why have they been arrested?

As he testified, Moe Yan Naing talked to Wa Lone at Batallion 8 but the conversation was not about the mass killing. Before the arrests on December 12, Tin Ko Ko collected a group of police officers who knew Wa Lone. During the meeting with Tin Ko Ko, Moe Yan Naing and Khin Maung Lin witnessed the entrapment plan.

Simply because [Moe Yan Naing] conducted an interview with Wa Lone, he was put in prison.

What has happened to Khin Maung Lin?

He was reportedly arrested together with Moe Yan Naing on the same day as the Reuters reporters but he was released after 129 days and sacked from the police force. Khin Maung Lin was meant to testify in court [in late April] after Moe Yan Naing, but the police said that they could not find him.

Then [on June 11] the police said they had found Khin Maung Lin living somewhere in Tanitharyi Region, but when it came his time to testify [on June 18] they said he was missing again.

But … Moe Yan Naing was put in prison for one year under the police law for violating police discipline while Khin Maung Lin was sacked after nearly four months detention.

Can you tell us about why the reporters were forced to kneel down for an extended period by police?

It was because Kyaw Soe Oo’s response to a police officer did not make them happy. Because of that, he [Kyaw Soe Oo] had to kneel down for two hours.

When they were arrested at around 9pm in 12 December, they were first driven to Taukkyan police station and one hour later, they were sent to Aungthabyay interrogation camp.

At Aungthabyay they were examined every two hours – day and night – for three consecutive days, which meant they didn’t get a proper sleep.

We went to Taukkyan Township police station twice with their relatives but they [police] said that the journalists had been detained elsewhere in downtown Yangon. They did not say exactly where they were held.

But when we went to the Yangon Region police headquarters at the Yangon Region Hluttaw compound, they referred us back to Taukkyan police station. It went back and forth, but we knew they were detained at Aungthabyay.

What are the conditions like in Insein Prison for the journalists?

When they were first sent to Insein Prison, they were put together with other criminals – for example, murderers and drug addicts.

But a day after Moe Yan Naing’s testimony at the court – which was four months after they were arrested – they were moved to another place, a better place. That is interesting.

Given the apparent lack of evidence, why do you think the Reuters journalists were arrested?

The only reason is because the government had a grudge against the reporters because of their work covering the mass killing of 10 people at Inn Din. That is why the two Reuters journalists are in prison.

What do you think about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s comment to NHK that the case was not connected to Rakhine State?

Well I think most of [the documents] are clearly related to Rakhine. She [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] talked about the case in her own way, but what is obvious is that she does not know enough about it.

What do you expect will happen on July 2?

I hope the case will be discharged.                                                    

What other unusual things have you observed during this case?

What is interesting is that within an hour of their arrest the prosecutor had an order from the President’s Office to prosecute the reporters.

At the same time, the police officers involved in this case have been transferred and promoted. That is also interesting.

Why does this case matter?

The government should be transparent about its actions. If they are not, the reporters will investigate their hidden things.

But when these journalists were arrested while conducting their investigation, it made other journalists hesitant to continue with their work. This situation is not good for journalists or for the public. When that happens, journalists lose their access to information and the public loses its right to know.

What else would you like to say?

I think international organisations helping the judiciary and Myanmar Police Force should reconsider their assistance and watch this case carefully. This case is not normal – it is a threat to the media.

TOP PHOTO: U Than Zaw Aung in his downtown Yangon office. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Correction, June 30: This article has been amended to correct the method of interview between Ko Wa Lone and Police Captain Moe Yan Naing.

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