Myanmar junta jails documentary filmmaker for life

Shin Daewe, a former reporter, was sentenced by a military tribunal for alleged acts of terrorism.
By RFA Burmese
2024.01.10
Myanmar junta jails documentary filmmaker for life Shin Daewe, a documentary filmmaker and journalist in Myanmar, has been sentenced to life in prison by a junta court in Insein Prison court in Yangon.
(Facebook/Mg Ko Oo)

Updated January 11, 2023, 1:53 p.m. ET

The journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker Shin Daewe was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday for violating Myanmar’s Anti-terrorism Law, her husband said, prompting an outcry from rights groups and members of the media who called for her immediate release.

The ruling is the latest bid by the junta to stamp out criticism by using lengthy sentences to instill fear in opponents to its rule, observers said.

Known for her work highlighting the challenges facing Myanmar’s environment and the impact of conflict on civilians following the military’s 2021 coup, the 50-year-old Shin Daewe was arrested on Oct. 15 in Yangon’s North Okkalapa township while picking up a video drone she had ordered online to use in filming a documentary, her husband Ko Oo told RFA Burmese.

Police interrogated Shin Daewe for nearly two weeks before charging her and transferring her to Insein Prison, Ko Oo said. It appeared that she had been tortured, he said.

“When she returned, I didn't get access to her. But I heard that she had injured her head,” he said. “She had stitches on her head and welts on her arms. That means she was beaten.”

Shin Daewe’s case was heard by a secret military tribunal, during which she was refused the right to legal representation. She was handed the maximum sentence under section 50(j) of life in prison on Wednesday, he said.

Ko Oo, a professional painter and photographer who is paralyzed from the waist down, said he had only been allowed to meet with Shin Daewe twice since she was detained.

A veteran journalist in Myanmar called the sentence “shocking and unacceptable.”

“As far as I know, she was not involved in any terrorist acts,” said the journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing security risks. “I don't understand why she was subject to the anti-terror law for making documentaries. For me, it is unacceptable.”

Myanmar state media has yet to report on Shin Daewe’s sentencing, but pro-junta Telegram channel, Swan Arr Shin, responded Thursday to what it described as reports by “terrorist media” that she’d been unjustly imprisoned by the junta.

The post alleged that Shin Daewe had transported a lathe for making weapons and drones for use by the Bo Kyar Gyi PDF, or People’s Defense Force. It said she had donated money and collected donations for PDFs – the resistance groups that have emerged since the Burmese military toppled a democratic government and gunned down peaceful protesters, triggering a conflict that has engulfed swaths of Myanmar.

Swan Arr Shin is named after a pro-military militia. It is a platform for statements from military authorities and its supporters.

Prolific documentarian

Shin Daewe served as a journalist for the independent Democratic Voice of Burma during Myanmar’s 2007 Saffron Revolution, when the military violently suppressed widespread anti-government protests led by Buddhist monks.

She later released a documentary that helped bring the revolution – named for the monk’s saffron-colored robes – and its ensuing crackdown to international attention.

Beginning in 2010, Shin Daewe began making documentaries full time, several of which went on to win awards at local and international film festivals.

In 2013, her documentary “Now I Am 13,” about the life of an uneducated teenage girl in central Myanmar, won a silver medal at the Kota Kinab International Film Festival and won the Best Documentary Award at the Wathann Film Festival a year later.

Other documentaries, including “Brighter Future,” about the Phong Taw Oo monastic education center; “Rahula,” which portrays the story of a sculptor from Mandalay; and “Take Me Home,” about a camp for internally displaced ethnic Kachins; also received recognition at various festivals.

Khin Khin Su, a fellow documentary filmmaker who has worked with Shin Daewe, told RFA he was devastated by her sentence.

“I was worried that the dictator would arrest her one day, but when she was, I was still shocked,” he said, referring to junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. “I hope we can quickly come to a time when these tyrants are uprooted and I’ll be able to see her again.”

According to the Thailand-based Assistance Assocaition for Political Prisoners (Burma), at least 19,911 civilians arrested since the coup remain behind bars.

Toe Zaw Latt, the secretary of the Independent Myanmar News Media Council based in Thailand, condemned Shin Daewe’s jailing on charges that he said had nothing to do with her.

“It is unacceptable that a journalist who is doing their job was arrested and prosecuted under such serious charges,” he said. “The existing law refers to the 2008 constitution, which grants freedom of access to information. I think it is unacceptable to charge a journalist with terrorism laws that have nothing to do with journalism and then put her in jail for so long.”

Toe Zaw Latt vowed to work for the release of all of Myanmar’s journalists, including Shin Daewe.

Before the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, Myanmar ranked 139th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ annual media freedom index, but dropped it to 173rd in its latest rankings – the worst in the country’s history.

Instilling fear in critics 

Thaik Tun Oo, a member of the Steering Committee of the Political Prisoners Network, said that the junta often imposes long sentences on prominent people to instill fear in its would-be critics.

“It is their intention to stop those who are trying to follow in their footsteps by giving such punishments to their role models,” he said.

Patrick Phongsathorn, a senior advocacy specialist with Fortify Rights, said that Myanmar’s junta “considers any opposition to their rule to be terrorism.”

“This latest sentencing of Shin Daewe is a clear sign of the desperation the junta is feeling,” he said. “They are clearly desperate to control the narrative and are arresting, detaining and even killing journalists to ensure that their narrative wins out.”

Phongsathorn called for an end to the impunity enjoyed by Myanmar’s military regime and said Fortify Rights is recommending that member states of the International Criminal Court refer the situation in Myanmar to the court’s prosecutor so that he can open an investigation into what he called the junta’s “crimes since the coup.”

Wednesday’s sentencing also drew condemnations from Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, and Human Rights Watch, both of which urged the junta to free Shin Daewe.

"By sentencing a documentary film director to a life in prison under the pretext of terrorism, the military junta shows the extent of its arbitrariness and ruthlessness,” said RSF’s Asia-Pacific Director Cedric Alviani. 

“We urge the international community to intensify its pressure on the Myanmar regime for her release, as well as on behalf of the 64 other journalists and press freedom defenders detained in the country."

Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson called the punishment “outrageous,” and said it shows “the extremes to which the junta is prepared to go to silence people.”

“Possessing a drone should not be considered a crime, but in the paranoid worldview of the … junta, they think that anyone who has such a device is plotting against them,” he said. “Shin Daewe has done nothing wrong, and should be immediately and unconditionally released.”

Edited by Joshua Lipes, Malcolm Foster and Mat Pennington.

Updated to add claims from pro-junta social media about the sentencing and to make minor edits.

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