Myanmar’s government should investigate crimes against the media committed during the former military regime’s nearly five decades of rule, including the “murders” of six reporters while carrying out their work or during their detention, a journalist watchdog said Tuesday.
In an open letter to President Thein Sein ahead of a two-day visit to France on Wednesday, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called on the reformist leader to establish a Commission of Enquiry to bring to justice the people responsible for crimes committed under the junta’s watch.
“We urge you to create a Commission of Enquiry dedicated to combating impunity for crimes against news providers since 1962 because we know that Burma (Myanmar) is now starting a new page in its history and we believe that the process of democratization begun by your government will not be complete without an official effort to render justice for the victims of the military junta’s crimes,” the letter said.
Thein Sein’s government has implemented a sweeping set of reforms since taking power from the junta in 2011, including the creation of a national commission for human rights, new media rules that have allowed press groups greater freedom to operate and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
But RSF said that it was “concerned about the lack of significant efforts to address impunity for the systematic crimes and violations against news providers during the years of repression.”
The group said the Commission of Enquiry’s main task should be to investigate and establish the circumstances in which six journalists, including five from Myanmar and one from Japan, died between 1991 and 2007.
Additionally, RSF said, journalists, media workers and bloggers were subjected to many other abuses by the junta, including “arrest, violence, torture and hundreds of years in jail sentences handed down by courts on the military’s orders.”
“This commission’s goal should also be recognition of all the crimes against Burmese and foreign journalists and news providers since the start of the military regime, to be achieved by means of thorough documentation in which we are ready to participate,” it said.
RSF, which was blacklisted from working in Myanmar for more than 20 years until September last year, said it was unable to provide an exhaustive list of the crimes committed during military rule, but listed the six journalists “killed by the junta’s henchmen because of their work or who died as a result of treatment … in prison.”
They included two reporters that authorities announced in 1991 had died in prison: Ne Win, a correspondent for Japan’s Asahi Shimbun who was said to have died from cirrhosis of the liver, and Ba Thaw, former chairman of the All Burma Journalist’s Association who was said to have died of a heart attack.
Also listed were Saw Win, the editor of the daily Botahtaung who was said to have died of a heart attack in prison in 1998, and Thar Win, a photographer with the state-run Kyemon newspaper who died at an intelligence agency detention center in 1999—also of “cirrhosis.”
Photographer Tin Maung Oo, who often worked for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, died of a blow to the head by “junta thugs” as he tried to take pictures of the opposition leader’s motorcade in 2003, RSF said.
And Japanese photographer and video reporter Kenji Nagai, who worked for the Japanese news agency APF, was shot dead by a soldier at close range while in a crowd of demonstrators in 2007 during the crackdown on the monk-led democracy movement, known as the Saffron Revolution.
Nagai’s death, while carrying a camera in his hand, was recorded on film and seen by the international community. Another video, shot by Burmese journalists, showed that a soldier took the photojournalist’s camera from his body during the ensuing chaos.
RSF said that the establishment of a Commission of Enquiry to investigate the deaths of the six journalists and the crimes committed against the media was an essential part of Thein Sein’s efforts to undo the wrongs of the former junta and further democracy in Myanmar.
“By undertaking to not let these murders go unpunished and to bring those responsible to justice, you would be taking a historic step towards national reconciliation and guaranteeing all human rights in Burma,” the group said.
Thein Sein on Monday pledged to release all of Myanmar’s remaining political prisoners by the end of 2013, while visiting Britain for the first time, according to reports.
"I guarantee to you that by the end of this year, there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar," Agence France-Presse quoted the president as saying during a speech at Chatham House in London, shortly after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“We are aiming for nothing less than a transition from half a century of military rule and authoritarianism to democracy.”
The president said that thousands of prisoners had already been released from Myanmar’s jails and that a committee was working through the cases of those still locked up. Rights groups say hundreds of those released since Thein Sein took over were political prisoners.
Last month, during a radio address, Thein Sein said that any prisoners serving jail time for holding, expressing or acting in accord with political beliefs would be set free “soon,” without providing a timetable.
“I don’t want anyone who is imprisoned with particular political beliefs in any jail,” he said at the time, adding that a government investigation into cases that had been “confused with criminal” acts was ongoing and had “taken some time.”
Thein Sein did not reveal the number of prisoners the government considers to be jailed for their political beliefs.
Around 200 prisoners of conscience are languishing in various jails around Myanmar, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).