Myanmar must not allow the case of a journalist killed in 2014 while in military custody to sink into impunity, the International Press Institute (IPI) said in a statement on April 4 after police dropped their investigation into the incident.
Aung Kyaw Naing, better known as Ko Par Gyi, was shot in October 2014 while under military arrest near Kyaikmayaw, southeastern Myanmar. Authorities had arrested Ko Par Gyi in late September on charges of belonging to a rebel group, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA). At the time of his arrest, Ko Par Gyi was returning from covering violent clashes between the Myanmar army and the DKBA near the Thai border, according to IPI.
Military officials claimed that Ko Par Gyi had been killed while struggling with a prison guard in an apparent attempt to seize the latter’s gun. However, an examination of Ko Par Gyi’s body in November 2014 revealed he had suffered, in addition to five gunshot wounds, a cracked skull, broken ribs and a broken arm.
Myanmar human rights activists and journalists, as well as Ko Par Gyi’s wife, Ma Thandar, have cast doubt on the military’s version of events, according to IPI.
On November 27, 2014, a military court secretly acquitted two soldiers of culpable homicide. The decision was not made public until May 2015, shortly after the Kyaikmayaw Township Court ordered a civilian inquest into the incident, according to a previous IPI special investigation. After hearing the testimony of nearly a dozen witnesses, the Kyaikmayaw court reportedly concluded that Ko Par Gyi died of “unnatural causes”.
However, Kyaikmayaw police announced on March 21, 2016 that they had shelved an investigation into Ko Par Gyi’s death, reportedly after a court ruled the investigation had been a “mistake”.
The announcement came shortly before Myanmar’s first civilian president, Htin Kyaw, assumed office on March 30. In an interview with the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, the country’s new information minister, the writer Pe Wyint, called the move “totally unacceptable” and vowed to keep working “to bring this case to justice”.
Ma Thandar and her lawyer, Robert San Aung, have already announced their intention to appeal the decision.
IPI Director of Press Freedom Programmes Scott Griffen said the decision to drop the investigation bode ill for Myanmar’s ability to hold those responsible for crimes against the media to account.
“If Myanmar is serious about its commitment to upholding democracy and human rights, then it must move aggressively to prevent impunity for the killings of journalists,” he said. “Failure to ensure truth and justice in the killing of Ko Par Gyi will only embolden enemies of the press and raise the likelihood that similar events will occur in the future.”
He added: “We strongly urge the relevant court to reverse this decision and allow for a serious investigation to proceed. Myanmar’s new national government, as well as national and local law enforcement, should provide the necessary support to make sure this case is not simply tucked away and forgotten.”
IPI held its 2015 World Congress in Yangon, during which then-Information Minister U Ye Htut promised “irreversible reform” on media freedom. Soe Myint, the editor-in-chief and managing editor of Myanmar’s Mizzima Media, told an audience at this year’s World Congress in Qatar that media freedom in Myanmar had progressed significantly in recent years, but that its future remained uncertain. In a separate piece for IPI’s website, Myint laid out a vision for the country’s media landscape moving forward.
According to IPI’s Death Watch, Ko Par Gyi remains the first journalist in Myanmar to die in connection with his or her work since IPI began recording such deaths in 1997.