Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

Slaying of journalist casts doubts on Myanmar’s democratic reforms

Human rights activists suspect Par Gyi was tortured to death in military custody

YANGON, Myanmar — When Par Gyi’s body was exhumed from a shallow muddy grave in eastern Myanmar, it was barely recognizable. His head had been crushed, his jaw was broken in several places, and some of his teeth were missing.

“The only way I could tell that it was my husband was because of his height,” says Ma Thandar, who identified him at the grisly scene. “The top layer of his skin had completely rotted off.”

Par Gyi, a 49-year-old freelance journalist, was detained by the Myanmar army on Sept. 30 in Mon state’s Kyaikmayaw township, near the border with Thailand, shortly after visiting a group of ethnic Karen rebels to cover a fresh burst of fighting. He was on his way to see his wife and daughter in northern Thailand when soldiers picked him up at a bus stop.

Five days later, he was dead.

The army, which waited three weeks to announce his death, described Par Gyi as a “communications captain” for the political wing of the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), an ethnic minority rebel faction, and said he was shot and killed while attempting to wrest a gun from a soldier in a bid to flee custody. Ma Thandar dismisses the suggestion as “unbelievable.”

She and the DKBA have denied that Par Gyi, also known as Aung Kyaw Naing, worked for the group.

Human rights advocates suspect that Par Gyi, a former pro-democracy activist who regularly contributed to Yangon-based news journals, was tortured to death in military custody and hastily buried to hide the evidence. Par Gyi was reportedly carrying a notebook with the names of ethnic Karen rebels and villagers at the time of his arrest.

“I know what it feels like to be in the interrogation room because I have experienced it,” says Ma Thandar, a prominent activist and former political prisoner. “In 2007 they broke my ribs during police interrogation.”

The case has thrown serious doubts on Myanmar’s democratic reform process, which has seen the country slowly emerge from five decades of iron-fisted junta rule since 2011. The U.S. government dropped most sanctions against the former pariah state in 2013 and quickly boosted economic and diplomatic relations with it. In mid-November, President Barack Obama made his second visit to Myanmar, where he praised its progress toward democracy but warned that reforms were “incomplete.”

The military still wields considerable political influence — it is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in parliament — and violence continues to grip the country’s volatile border regions, where more than a dozen armed ethnic groups are fighting for greater autonomy and rights. On Wednesday 23 rebel soldiers were killed when the army launched its deadliest offensive since 2011 in northern Kachin state. Human rights monitors say extrajudicial killings and torture remain commonplace

‘I asked the doctor, ‘How could [Par Gyi] get shot in the chin if he was running away?’’

Naw Ohn La

pro-democracy activist

Par Gyi; his wife, Ma Thandar, right; and their daughter at their home in Yangon with Aung San Suu Kyi, center, Oct. 28, 2014.
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters

President Thein Sein launched an inquiry into Par Gyi’s death after pressure from the U.S. government and a spasm of protests across the country. But Ma Thandar says she has faced obstruction, intimidation and threats since she discovered her husband was missing.

“The police [in Kyaikmayaw] said that a higher authority was preventing them from opening an investigation into the case,” she says. “But when I asked, they refused to tell me which department had made the order.”

On the day of the exhumation, she says, soldiers forced her and a group of observers to walk through a minefield for an hour to reach her husband’s remains. The burial site turned out to be accessible by road.

A post-mortem examination later concluded that Par Gyi had been shot five times — in his chin, chest, back, thigh and ankle. But Ma Thandar, who saw the body at Mawlamyine Hospital in Mon’s capital, insists there were no wounds on his back. A fellow activist and colleague of Par Gyi’s, Naw Ohn La, who saw the corpse a day before the autopsy, claims the injuries looked more like stab wounds, adding that his ribs were caved in and his stomach blotched with bruising.

“I asked the doctor, ‘How could [he] get shot in the chin if he was running away?’” says Naw Ohn La. “It was torture.”

Then local authorities attempted to block them from taking the body back to Yangon, insisting it should be buried in Mawlamyine out of respect for Mon tradition. The pair says they were twice harassed by community leaders and a group of monks outside the hospital. Naw Ohn La says the monks appeared drunk and threatened them.

“They became rude and shouted, ‘Why did this bastard have to come and die here?’” she recalls. “If you take the body, there will be trouble. There will be another Rakhine.”

Since 2012, several bouts of ethno-religious violence have struck western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, mostly targeting the Muslim Rohingya minority. The unrest has been linked to a monk-led nationalist movement known as 969 with historical ties to the military regime. It was founded in Mon.

Many observers suspect that hard-line elements in the Myanmar government have sought to exploit religious and ethnic divisions to solidify their power base ahead of the 2015 general elections — which could mark the country’s first democratic transfer of power in more than 50 years. Prior to Obama’s visit, the U.S. government placed Aung Thaung, a powerful member of the ruling party, on a sanctions list, allegedly for his role in fomenting religious turmoil in collusion with 969.

Ma Thandar eventually secured the return of Par Gyi’s body to Yangon, where  was laid to rest in a traditional Buddhist ceremony on Nov. 8. But she says she has been stalked by officers from the country’s notorious military intelligence unit ever since. Her family, she says, has received a stream of threats and abuse from strange accounts on social media.

A representative for the Myanmar government declined to answer questions for this article. “This is an ongoing investigation, and I don’t want to give any comment,” said Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office.

The government has yet to acknowledge that Par Gyi was a reporter.  

‘Now we are a little bit freer in our reporting [than under military rule], but if you criticize the government strongly, you will get into trouble.’

Aung Htun Linn

managing editor, Myanmar Herald

His death comes amid growing fears over a clampdown on free speech in Myanmar, which has resulted in several lawsuits against journals that criticize the government. Two activists who organized unauthorized protests in support of Par Gyi have been slapped with charges. Ten people employed by news organizations remain behind bars, five of them serving seven years in prison with hard labor for an article that accused the army of operating an illicit chemical weapons factory. Two other court cases are ongoing.

“Now we are a little bit freer in our reporting [than under military rule], but if you criticize the government strongly, you will get into trouble,” says Aung Htun Linn, managing editor at The Myanmar Herald.

The weekly journal is being sued for defamation by the Ministry of Information for printing an interview with a leader of the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, who accused Thein Sein of acting “insane.” It is the first time a journal has been sued under Myanmar’s newly minted Media Law, ostensibly intended to protect freedom of speech.

The government has defended its record and insisted that the media must act responsibly. Reacting to criticisms over its handling of the chemical weapons story, presidential representative Ye Htut says, “even the United States government would respond with the same action.”

Aung Htun Linn fears the situation may deteriorate as the 2015 elections approach.

During his trip, Obama told local news journal The Irrawaddy that Par Gyi had been “tragically and senselessly murdered.” But he did not raise the case with Thein Sein, and campaigners say the United States has abandoned its diplomatic leverage over Myanmar.

“Unfortunately the U.S. government seems more interested in crowing about their supposed foreign policy success and advancing commercial interests than really standing with the Burmese people against unchecked abuse of power,” says David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch.

“Par Gyi’s brutal murder sends a snarl of warning to the media to stay away from the military’s violation of rights and their business interests. It doesn’t bode well for a media sector already in deep concern over an escalation of government harassment.”

His death is being investigated by Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission, which has a poor track record of exposing abuses perpetrated by the army. But its secretary, Sitt Myaing, has insisted that the investigation will be independent. In a phone interview, he says that Par Gyi was “a freelance journalist” but one with “close ties” to the DKBA and its political wing, the Klohtoobaw Karen Organization.

The commission is set to disclose the results of its investigation in the coming weeks, when it submits its findings to Thein Sein. Sitt Myaing would not comment on whether Par Gyi was murdered, saying only that the commission would “seriously consider this important point.”

The human rights commission has been accused of pro-government bias and neglecting to investigate rampant abuses in ethnic minority areas.

“When they questioned me, I felt like a criminal,” says Ma Thandar, sitting in her tiny cluttered house in western Yangon. “So far, they are on the government’s side.”

Her walls are adorned with pictures of Par Gyi with his family, Buddhist ornaments and colorful posters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom her husband served as a bodyguard during the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Upon hearing news of his death, Suu Kyi wrote to Ma Thandar. “I remember that he worked with us during the democracy movement ever since he was a student,” reads the somber handwritten note. “All of us who endured hardship during that period share our condolences for Par Gyi. I hope your family obtains justice.”

Related News

Press Freedom

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Press Freedom

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter