BURMA: SCRIBE'S MURDER TESTS DEMOCRACY
by Nava Thakuria, CounterVortex
Killings of media workers on the Indian subcontinent are nothing unusual. The subcontinent annually losses around 10 journalists to assassins. India, Pakistan and Afghanistan often top the list of victims, with additional inputs from Bangladesh and Burma. Despite its still-tentative democratic opening after generations of dictatorship, Burma (also known as Myanmar or Brahmadesh) as a whole witnesses fewer incidents of journo-killing, with only five regsitered over the past one-and-a-half decades. But the recent murder of a young reporter in Burma's northwestern region, adjacent to India's conflicted states of Nagaland and Manipur, exposes the vulnerability of writers who dare to cover critical issues—in this case threats to the environment by rampant resource exploitation in the region.
Ko Soe Moe Tun, 35, of Monywa, a town in northern Sagaing region, was found dead near his home on December 13—clearly targeted for his extensive investigations and reportage on timber-smuggling and illegal logging and mining in northwest Burma. The reporter, employed by national newspaper Daily Eleven, also posted few details on his Facebook page about the figures involved in the illegal timber trades. The autopsy report revealed that Soe's skull was fractured. He leaves behind a young wife and a son. The family source claimed that he was popular in his locality, with no enmity toward anyone.
In addition to his work on illegal logging, Soe covered farmland confiscation for development projects, and the controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine project.
Burma, which still possesses some of the world's most important biodiversity areas, faces massive deforestation because of its prized teak wood and other timber. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Burma has the world's third highest rate of deforestation, and has lost a full quarter of its forest cover just since 1990. The losses are most pronounced in the northern states of Sagaing, Shan, Kachin and Rakhine (formerly Arakan).
The ancient stories relate that the hills of Sagaing were once covered with thick forests, where local kings used to exile the condemned criminals, to be eaten by wild animals. But today, Burma has lost two some million hectares of its virgin forest.
Nevertheless, the country still has around 30 million hectares of forest cover—which is impressive compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors. Under the mentorship of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the government has limited timber exports and logging, now declares that it will soon impose a nationwide ban on logging to protect the old-growth forest. But many operations simply work outside the law in remote areas.
The overall media freedom in Myanmar has improved since 2011, the year Burma's military rulers handed over political power to a quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein. Soon the government at Naypyidaw, the capital, abolished the pre-publication censorship and allowed privately owned newspapers to hit the stands. The situation further improved following the massive win by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in the historic national elections of November 2015. Though the revered opposition leader lady could not become the president, because of some clauses in the 2008 military-drafted constitution, Suu Kyi emerges as the most powerful political figure in Burma.
But sadly, Burmese journalists continue to work under threat. Before, if it was from the military forces; now it increasingly comes from outlaw resource interests. Myanmar Frontier newspaper, based in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), stated in a recent editorial that "ensuring a media that is free from threats and is able to carry out its work would be a sign that the country is moving in the right direction."
The year 2016 ended with the figure of 16 journalist-murder incidents in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh along with Burma. India witnessed the murder of six journalists. India's troubled neighbor Pakistan lost three journalists to assassins, and Afghanistan five. Bangladesh reported the killing of one editor and a blogger.
Prior to Soe's murder, Burma had lost four journalists to assassins since 1999—with total impunity. Moreover, the government imprisoned many media figures. The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists have all deplored the murder of Soe as a return to this kind of impunity, and demanded justice in the case. Facing the heat, Burma's authorities detained three suspects in the murder—but two of them were reportedly released.
The Sagaing chief minister, Myint Naing, visited the Soe's residence after the slaying, and pledged that the police would find out the truth about his murder.
The Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists (APFEJ) is also urging a full investigation into the case. "Killing of a scribe is a serious offense, but the assassination of an environmental journalist should be recognized a major crime both against humanity and Mother Nature," said APFEJ chairman Quamrul Chowdhury. "We demand a fair probe into Soe's murder and visible punishment to the culprits." Chowdhury also appealed to the Burmese government to adequately compensate the family of the slain journalist and support his eight-year-old son in pursuing his education.
Photo: Yangon vigil for Soe Moe Tun. Credit: Coconuts
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