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Nirmal Ghosh
Tuesday, Nov 4, 2014

Asia

Myanmar reporter's death 'a mystery'

The Straits Times | Nirmal Ghosh | Tuesday, Nov 4, 2014

Than Dar holds a family photograph showing herself, her husband and daughter posing at their home.

The last time slain Myanmar journalist Aung Kyaw Naing's three children, whom he had taken care of for years while their mother was in jail, had seen him was in 2012 in Mae Sot, a Thai town close to the border with Myanmar.

The 49-year-old was supposed to meet up with his oldest daughter, aged 23, and wife Than Dar, 46, in Thailand recently, but he never showed up.

As word spread that he had been detained by the Myanmar military, his wife, a long-time political activist who had done time in jail under the country's previous military regime, held a press conference last Monday to bring attention to his disappearance.

A few days later, Myanmar's press council received a letter reportedly sent by an aide to the military's commander-in-chief, saying the journalist had been shot dead on Sept 30. The incident happened when he tried to grab a gun from a soldier while in custody in Mon state, not far from Mae Sot.

The military accused him of working as an information officer for a branch of the rebel Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, which denies the allegation.

His wife and journalist colleagues also dismiss the claim as an attempt to discredit him.

It is "nonsense", says Mr Aung Zaw, Chiang Mai-based editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

"I really don't think he has any strong link to rebels," he wrote in an e-mail to The Sunday Times.

The military's explanation of his death has also been met with scepticism by his family and those who know Par Gyi or Aung Gyi, as the journalist was also known.

Mr Aung Kyaw Naing's political activism began with the student-led 1988 uprising against military rule. He served as a bodyguard to democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi after she returned to Myanmar in the late 1980s. He was also an organiser of her National League for Democracy youth wing.

As Myanmar began opening up after the 2010 election, he became a freelance journalist, using a camera gifted to him by a Japanese friend and reporting from the grey zone that is Myanmar's border areas, where the military often clashes with armed rebel groups.

Life is hard, unpredictable and potentially violent in the conflict zones, where the writ of the quasi-civilian government in Naypyitaw is, at best, tenuous.

"He was a quiet person, soft-spoken, he didn't talk a lot," Ms Than Dar told The Sunday Times over the phone. "He did not make many jokes. But he showed a lighter side in laughing at others' banter and jokes," she said.

They never had much money, but aid programmes for migrants helped pay for their children's school in Thailand, she said. Two of their children are adopted.

In the dislocated life of rights activists in Myanmar, they were often apart, and communicated using the Internet, she said.

Like many other veterans who have spent years persevering in their trade in a country beset by ethnic insurgencies and controlled, until recently, by a military regime which did not allow independent media, Mr Aung Kyaw Naing operated on the edge.

To get a story, he would mingle alternately with armed rebels fighting for their own state, and government troops sent to stop them.

In late September, the military took casualties during fighting in Mon state and may have been angry at Mr Aung Kyaw Naing, Mr Aung Zaw said.

Yangon-based photographer Steve Tickner, who was in the same area at the time, wrote on his blog that the situation was tense and that he and a colleague from The Irrawaddy were threatened by military units which, at one point, forced him to delete photographs from his data card.

The next day, Sept 30, Mr Tickner heard that Mr Aung Kyaw Naing had disappeared.

Forty-six political groups have demanded that a commission of investigation with independent experts be set up to probe the case.

The army apparently buried Mr Aung Kyaw Naing soon after the shooting. But it took weeks to report the incident.

"If he is dead, I want to get his body back," his wife Than Dar told reporters. She is still waiting.

nirmal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 02, 2014.
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