Editor, Activists Urge Release of Myanmar Journalists Arrested in Thailand After Fleeing Junta
Rights and press groups urge authorities not to deport the Democratic Voice of Burma reporters.
Three Myanmar journalists arrested in Thailand after they fled a crackdown by the military junta should be set free because they would face severe punishment if they were deported back to Myanmar, their supervisor and human rights groups said Tuesday.
Police in Thailand’s northwestern city of Chiangmai arrested the three Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) journalists along with two political activists in a house in the city’s Sansai district on Sunday.
DVB began as an exile media organization prior to Myanmar’s democratic reforms, broadcasting uncensored news on TV and radio into the country before relocating there in 2012, a year after political changes in Myanmar began.
But the junta that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1 revoked DVB’s license in March, amid a crackdown on all independent media in Myanmar, driving the outlet’s journalists into hiding as they continued to broadcast news over satellite and through social media outlets.
The three DVB journalists who fled across the border had planned to continue their work from Thailand, their employer told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Tuesday.
“The Thai police arrested them during a surprise check, because they had no official travel documents,” said Aye Chan Naing, DVB’s executive director.
DVB had previously operated in Chiangmai before relocating to Myanmar, but this time reporters had to flee on short notice under pressure from the military regime.
“We didn’t just suddenly start up shop unannounced back then. We took the time to set up our base there and make sure of our security matters. But now, in this case, we have had to leave the country in a rush, so we had no time to make preparations,” he said.
“We were working there in Chiangmai for nearly 20 years. If we had had enough time to prepare and discuss with the Thai authorities, we wouldn’t be seeing these arrests,” he said.
Aye Chan Naing said that the three journalists took the step of quarantining for a 14-day period after they entered Thailand, and the only charge they face is illegal entry. If deported back to Myanmar they could face harsh punishment.
“We issued a statement today and have asked the Thai government not to hand them over to the military and to just send them to a safe place. We have asked the U.N. High Commission for Refugees office in Bangkok to ask the authorities not to deport our people back to Myanmar,” he said.
The five Myanmar nationals are being held in the Chiangmai central prison for investigation and they have legal representation, Chiangmai police on Tuesday told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
The five have pleaded not guilty to illegal entry and refused to provide information about themselves during a court hearing on Tuesday, Chiangmai Police Chief Tapanapong Chairangsi said.
“Those five men were charged under immigration law and the Thai landlord was charged with giving sanctuary to aliens. I believe they crossed illegally into the northern region about a year ago, but they moved to Chiangmai recently,” he added.
It was not immediately clear why the police chief’s account contradicted DVB’s statement that the journalists had fled the military crackdown.
“Thai authorities concerned are coordinating to find humanitarian solution to the recent case of journalists from Myanmar,” said Tanee Sangrat, a spokesperson for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but he did not elaborate when asked for more information.
A spokesman for Thai national police said investigators had 30 days to wrap up the five Myanmar nationals’ cases.
“Normally, a deportation is done only after a court ruling under immigration law. Police, however, will bring other factors into consideration whether to deport one or not,” spokesman Col. Krishna Pattanacharoen told reporters via a text message. “At the moment, we are not considering deporting them yet.”
‘Certain arrest and persecution’
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement urged Thailand to provide protection to the journalists, saying that if they were sent back, the junta would arrest and punish them.
“The junta’s hostile actions towards DVB were made clear when it revoked the DVB’s media license in March. Just last week, the junta criminalized ownership of satellite dishes, in part to prevent DVB’s satellite broadcasts from reaching the Burmese people,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
“The Thai government should immediately release these five journalists and activists, allow UNHCR access to provide them with protection, and ensure they can remain temporarily in Thailand,” Adams said.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) said it was “seriously concerned” over the arrests.
“These five individuals would face certain arrest and persecution, if not worse, for their work and association with the DVB, and under no circumstances should they be deported back to Myanmar. Rather, the DVB journalists and their associates should be released from detention, urgently offered protection, and granted the right to remain temporarily in Thailand,” the FCCT said in a statement.
The statement noted that more than 70 journalists were among about 5,000 people arrested by the junta since the Feb. 1 coup, and most remain in detention. UNESCO says 71 have been arrested since Feb. 1.
The FCCT also cited the satellite ban as an example of the junta specifically targeting DVB and another outlet Mizzima News as it had been the primary method for both networks to broadcast in Myanmar.
“The world is watching what the Thai authorities do in this important case for press freedom in Myanmar and the region, and for the protection of those fleeing the junta’s brutal crackdown on independent media and civil society,” the FCCT said.
Reported by Aye Aye Mon for RFA’s Myanmar Service and BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Translated by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.