Prominent news organizations in Myanmar have received threatening messages from unknown senders warning them not to refer to the ethnic military the Arakan Army (AA) that is currently engaged in hostilities with government troops in western Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state as an “insurgent group.”
The AA is battling Myanmar forces for greater autonomy in the state and is supported by the majority ethnic Rakhine Buddhist population. Fighting between the two sides reignited in late 2018 and exploded in early January after Arakan soldiers conducted deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine.
The Myanmar government has labeled the AA a terrorist group and instructed its forces to crush the fighters.
Since April 1, journalists at Myanmar’s Eleven Media Group, 7Day Daily, Mizzima, The Voice, Democracy Today, and Khit Thit Media have received the threats via social media messengers and email, warning them that they will face mine attacks if they continue to refer to the AA as an insurgent group.
The messages say that the AA is not an insurgent group, but an Arakanese army carrying out a revolution for the “Father Nation.”
“The news media needs to stop portraying the Arakan Army incorrectly to misinform the Rakhine public and other ethnic groups,” the messages say. “Otherwise, the news media organization will see damage and we will blow up your newsroom by mine attacks.”
Khin Saw Wai, a lower house lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents Rakhine’s Rathedaung constituency, told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an earlier report that the AA had sent envelopes with bullets to village authorities in Rakhine state.
Kyaw Zaw Lin, chief editor of Eleven Media Group, said he reported the threats to the police and other authorities.
“We have never experienced such kinds of threats coming from an armed group,” he said. “We have reported them to the relevant authorities. We alerted international organizations working on press freedom. We also filed a case with the police force.”
Myint Kyaw, joint secretary of the Myanmar Press Council, cautioned journalists to refrain from taking action that could give more attention to the senders, who remain unknown.
“I agree that we should report this to law enforcement officers such as the police force,” he said. “We should take that kind of action. But these are threats coming from an unidentified source. As a media council, if we take action further than that, it will amplify the source’s message. We might be realizing the source’s real goal if all media and authorities take the threats seriously.”
“As for our media council, as an intermediary between the press and law enforcement authorities, we have a plan to issue alerts on the issue to all parties concerned,” he added.
Just like in 2012
Kyaw Min Swe, a consultant for the Myanmar journal The Voice who recently received a threat, recalled the allegations of “fake news” that inflamed Buddhist-Muslim communal conflict in religiously and ethnically divided Rakhine state in 2012, and said that he is suspicious about the real intention of those who are sending the current threats to the media.
Religiously-motivated riots that started in Kyauk Ni Maw village quickly led to murder and arson amid widespread public fear that was intensified by the spread of fake news on social media, he said. The violence left more than 200 people dead and displaced 140,000 others, most of whom were minority Rohingya Muslims.
“This fake news was intentionally spread to instigate fear among the public,” he said. “Because we have had such experiences in the past, we must question what is happening now. It was not a single incident. It happened multiple times between 2012 and 2014.”
“Given the examples and incidents that occurred in this country in the past, I suspect that it is true with the [current] cases too,” he said. “I suspect this is an attempt to instigate a public sensation.”
Tharlon Zaung Htet, editor-in-chief of Khit Thit Media who has received three messages, said the senders are issuing the threats for specific purposes and that news professionals must be cautious about what may happen after they receive such mail.
“[Those] behind these threats must [belong to] an organization with specific purposes,” he said. “They seem to be very knowledgeable and well organized. I see this as only a first step.”
“We don’t know what the second and third steps will be,” he said. “There could be many possibilities, given the fact that the rule of law is very weak in this country.”
Tharlon Zaung Htet also said that actual attacks could occur, putting the safety of journalists at risk given current hostile attitudes towards the media by a pro-government public.
“They could be murdered, physically attacked, arrested, or get into trouble anytime,” he said. “I view this threat as the first step of what could be coming. Not long after this, the second or third steps will come. Journalists must be extra cautious about what they are reporting.”
AA spokesman Khine Thukha denied that his outfit had sent the threats to the media and said the ethnic army would conduct a probe into the matter.
“We strongly denounce the intimidation of the media by sending them threats,” he told RFA. “This is a very cowardly act [by someone] who is using our identity because they are too scared to reveal their own.”
“As an organization, we will conduct an investigation and take necessary actions to track down the [senders],” he added.
“The AA doesn’t have any reason to send such threats to the news media,” Khine Thukha said. “We want you to know these are not ours.”
Support only the military
Supporters of the Myanmar military have also sent threats via email to four news organizations, including Radio Free Asia, demanding that they stand with the military. The messages also included death threats for journalists who are seen as siding with the AA.
The same message carried in the emails was posted by a Myanmar military supporter group under the name Patriot Soldiers Group.
A message received by RFA tried to influence RFA’s editorial policy, demanding that the media show support for “the only military” in the country in reporting on the Rakhine conflict and not report with bias favoring the AA.
It also warned that those who failed to comply with the demand would face the same fate as Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim human rights attorney and advisor to the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was assassinated in January 2017.
Some have speculated that Ko Ni was targeted for being an outspoken critic of anti-Muslim attitudes held by Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists and the country’s powerful military.
Major General Tun Tun Nyi from the Myanmar military’s committee denied that army officials were behind the threats.
“Sending anonymous emails that contain threats is a criminal offense, and whoever is doing it shouldn’t have done it,” he told RFA. “I think the sender is trying to implicate the military and further complicate issues that are already complicated.”
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.