Burmese Journalist Detained After Aid

Burmese authorities have detained another noted personality after he aided victims of the devastating Cyclone Nargis.


BURMA, Dedaye : A survivor of Cyclone Nargis clutches a bowl of rice in the town of Dedaye in the Irrawaddy delta on June 9, 2008.
Photo: AFP
BANGKOK—Burmese authorities have detained a journalist who was aiding survivors of Cyclone Nargis, his wife said. The detention comes less than two weeks after authorities detained a noted comedian with whom the journalist was working to help those in areas worst hit by the devastating storm.

Ma Khine Cho said authorities took Zaw Thet Htwe into custody late June 15 while he visited his sick mother in the central town of Minbu. They also searched his parents’ home and confiscated Zaw Thet Htwe’s computer, some CDs, and various documents.

“I’m extremely worried, wondering what will happen,” Ma Khine Cho said. “My husband hadn’t done anything wrong. If he’s asked about the relief work, he’ll be able to answer well. He also said not to worry, because he had done these things legally.”

"I was extremely surprised. But my husband hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Ma Khine Cho

The authorities said only that Zaw Thet Htwe’s aid work on behalf of survivors of the May 2-3 cyclone wasn’t the reason for his detention, but they didn’t elaborate, Ma Khine Cho said.

“Since his mother had a stroke, we went on a two-day trip to Minbu, leaving behind our daughter, who’s only a little over a year old. On the day that we were to return, he was taken away and sent back to Rangoon, so I was extremely surprised. But my husband hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Four or five special branch agents came to the house with authorities from the ward, she said. “They searched in a good manner. They talked to my parents politely. They said not to worry…”

“They took away the phone that he had been using recently for business and stuff like that. They did say that they would inspect it, and if they didn’t find anything, they would return it. They took the phone, also the computer at our house, and some documents. They took four or five CDs—just that much,” she said. “I asked where he [would be held] and they said currently they were not able to tell me. That was all they said.”

Private aid effort

Zaw Thet Htwe had been working with Burmese comedian Zargana, who was detained June 4, and other Burmese media personalities, artists, and celebrities. Both Zaw Thet Htwe and Zargana have criticized the junta in the past.

Zaw Thet Htwe this month said in an interview that he and a large group of entertainers including Zargana were training young people in the worst-hit Irrawaddy delta to provide emotional support to cyclone victims.

Zargana was detained after he openly criticized the military regime’s slow response in aiding cyclone survivors. The cyclone killed at least 78,000 people while another 56,000 are listed as missing.

2004 sentence

Zaw Thet Htwe formerly worked as editor in chief of a popular sports newspaper, First Eleven Journal. He was detained in 2003 on charges of treason, for which he was convicted with eight other people on Nov. 28, 2003, by a special tribunal inside the notorious In Sein Prison. But on May 12, 2004, the Supreme Court of Burma reduced the sentences of all nine defendants, and Zaw Thet Htwe was freed in 2005.

According to an appeal on Zaw Thet Htwe’s behalf by Reporters Without Borders, his arrest was apparently linked to publication of an article speculating about the spending of an international grant to promote soccer in Burma. It also reported on a fine imposed by organizers of an Asian soccer tournament on a Burmese team for failing to take part in the competition.

After Zargana was detained, authorities began issuing daily warnings against people who send “video footage of relief work to foreign news agencies.”

RSF, Burmese media plea

In a statement, Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association on Monday condemned the arrest “for assisting in the distribution of food and clothes in areas hit by Cyclone Nargis. While editor of the sports magazine First Eleven Journal in 2003, he was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death, and then pardoned by the Supreme Court.”

“Zaw Thet Htwe is a respected journalist who was moved by the woes of his compatriots after the cyclone,” the two organizations said.

“Banned by the military government’s censorship from writing openly about the tragedy in his magazine, he decided to act. We urge U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to intercede with the Burmese authorities so that civilians distributing aid should no longer be treated as criminals, and so that the Burmese and international media should be allowed to operate freely in the cyclone-hit areas.”

At least eight journalists and one blogger are currently in prison in Burma, the statement said.

“A Rangoon-based journalist reported that the authorities have stepped up control of cameras in the delta region. Equipment has been seized from the home of private individuals for fear that it could be used to film or photograph victims,” it added.

Original reporting by Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Burmese service. Service director: Nancy Shwe. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated by Than Than Win. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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