Forget the heady talk of reform. Burma will never get anywhere so long as the military remains unaccountable
When Than Dar first approached authorities in mid-October to find her missing husband, he was already dead. In late September, Aung Kyaw Naing had been covering renewed fighting between a band of ethnic Karen rebels and the Burmese military near the Thai border when he disappeared.
“The last time I had contact with Aung Kyaw Naing was Sept. 22,” says Than Dar. “That’s the last time I was in contact with my husband.”
After covering the conflict in Burma’s Mon State, Aung Kyaw Naing (who was also known as Par Gyi) was supposed to join his wife and daughter for a family reunion in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. But he never made it.
On Sept. 30, the 49-year-old freelance reporter was taken into custody by an army infantry battalion in eastern Mon state. Days later, Aung Kyaw Naing had been killed by his captors and his corpse buried. The military admitted to killing the journalist in an unsigned email sent to Burma’s Interim Press Council on Oct. 23.
“He was treated not as a citizen,” Kyaw Min Swe, general secretary of the Interim Press Council, tells TIME. “Every citizen has a fundamental right to be protected under the law.”
The shocking death of Aung Kyaw Naing comes weeks ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Burma — formally known as Myanmar — to attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit this month in the capital Naypyidaw.
Just two years ago Obama made his first, historic trip to the country, when it was grappling with fresh political and economic reforms after decades of military dictatorship. Now, with a year to go until widely anticipated elections, analysts say the country is now rapidly backsliding into the throes of authoritarian rule.
“Everyone in Rangoon has come to the conclusion that the reforms have either stalled or are starting to reverse,” David Mathieson, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, tells TIME.
The peace process aimed at ending decades of civil war is stalling, while the nascent press freedoms that served as a hallmark of the reforms are failing to protect journalists. In the past year alone, President Thein Sein’s government has locked up 10 journalists under various pretexts. But the death of Aung Kyaw Naing stands as one of the harshest indictments of the country’s reformist narrative.
“It caps what has been a steady deterioration in press freedom conditions in the country over the past year and a half,” says Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I think it has raised questions about [Thein Sein’s] government’s entire reform agenda.”
But who was Aung Kyaw Naing and why was he killed? Like many journalists in the country, he began his career as an activist during the antigovernment demonstrations in 1988 and briefly worked as a bodyguard for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
Later, Aung Kyaw Naing was among the many like-minded journalists and activists who congregated in exile in Mae Sot — a district of Thailand on the Burmese border. There, he documented human-rights abuses committed by the junta.
However, Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw, contends that the reporter was in fact an insurgent in disguise and working as a communications officer for the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army’s (DKBA) political wing.
“When they arrested him, they found a map of the position of military troops in that area and an identification card issued by the DKBA,” Ye Htut, a spokesperson with the President’s office, tells TIME. After five days in military custody, the army claims the reporter was killed after he attempted to steal a soldier’s gun and escape.
According to his wife, an official at Mon state’s Kyaikmayaw police station told her that her husband had been severely abused and tortured. The DKBA denies that Aung Kyaw Naing was working for them, and activists and fellow journalists have also dismissed the army’s version of events.
“’Shot while trying to escape’ is the most hackneyed and disturbing cliché in the field of extrajudicial killings,” says Mathieson.
In reality, human-rights activists say Aung Kyaw Naing was likely killed for doing what was previously unthinkable in Burma before reforms began: reporting openly on the military.
After ruling the country with an iron fist for nearly a half-century, the Tatmadaw appeared to slacken its grip on power by allowing a quasi-civilian government to replace the junta in 2011. However, Burma’s most feared institution has remained outside of the reform process and continues to hit back fiercely at the slightest investigation into its shadowy dealings.
“The military hasn’t reformed whatsoever,” says Mathieson. “Burma can only change when the military changes.”
Than Dar agrees. “The army is doing whatever they like,” she says. “It is obvious that the military is not following the constitution or the rule of law. There is no guarantee of political change for democracy.”
Earlier this summer, five journalists were handed lengthy prison sentences along with hard labor for publishing an article about an alleged chemical-weapons factory in central Burma.
The case, along with Aung Kyaw Naing’s death, provides a brutal indication of what happens when the country’s relative press freedoms collide with the vested interests of the military.
Aung Kyaw Naing’s wife is now leading a campaign to open an investigation into her husband’s death. Officials have also promised to act, but the chances that an inquest will be carried out independently are slim.
“If you look back in the past, there were so many incidents like this, especially in the ethnic areas and the truth never came out,” said Than Dar.
Now, Than Dar faces an uphill battle with authorities to retrieve her husband’s body and an even tougher fight with the military to find out what exactly happened on Oct. 4. However, if the past is any indication as to what lies ahead, getting Burma’s armed forces to openly discuss their murky deals may prove impossible.
“I’m looking for justice,” says Than Dar. “But I’ll have to wait and see.”