YANGON, Myanmar – Myanmar's military on Monday detained seven people, including three journalists, who observed the destruction of illegal drugs by an ethnic rebel group fighting the government.
The office of the military commander-in-chief said the seven men in two cars were stopped by government soldiers in northern Shan state and were found to have attended a drug burning organized by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army. Monday was the U.N.'s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, and the government also destroyed illicit drugs with an estimated street value of $384 million at official ceremonies in three cities.
The military's announcement, posted on Facebook, identified the journalists as Aye Naing and Pyae Bone Naing from the Democratic Voice of Burma and Thein Zaw, also known as Lawi Weng, from The Irrawaddy, both multi-format news services. It did not identify the four other people but described them as having "connection to the TNLA terrorist group." It said the detainees had been handed over to police "for further interrogation and to face legal actions."
Mai Kaung San, a Ta'ang journalist, gave a similar account, saying the seven were detained when the soldiers found photos and videos of Ta'ang guerrillas burning drugs at the ceremony.
The country's Unlawful Association Act provides for up to three years' imprisonment for people found to have abetted groups designated as illegal, such as the Ta'ang rebels. It has been applied before to sympathizers and members of rebel groups, and also to some aid workers, but apparently not to journalists.
The location of the detained men was not clear. A police officer in Lashio township, where they were supposed to have been handed over, said they were not at the police station there.
"It is the nature of the work of journalists to go and cover news and stories. They are not violating any laws," said Toe Zaw Latt, a senior journalist at the Democratic Voice of Burma. "We will have our lawyers for them and protect our journalists. These journalists went to cover the burning of drugs by an ethnic armed group and there's nothing wrong with that."
Although the government lifted most censorship rules when elected civilian rule replaced a military-backed regime last year, the authorities have been hostile to the media. Recently, two journalists for an independent newspaper in Yangon were arrested for writing news criticizing local authorities' activities in Magway division in west central Myanmar.