Abduction in Myawaddy Forest
Two Myanmar journalists were held captive for 24 hours. They were investigating construction projects at the Thai-Myanmar border.
FRONTIER Myanmar’s journalist Naw Betty Han is no stranger to Myawaddy, a town at the Myanmar-Thai border. In this year alone, she has travelled at least nine times to the town that lies 406 kilometers—or about eight hours’ drive—from the capital Yangon.
But unlike the previous trips, she ran into troubles during her last trip. On March 4, on Bridge I located close to the border, Betty who was at the time with Myanmar Times’s photographer Ko Mar Naw were stopped by two security personnel who wore headgear that had Chinese letters written on them.
The two guards accused them of photographing the guard post of the Karen military’s Border Guard Force (BGF) which controls the Kayin area. “We explained that we were only taking pictures of the construction activities in the area,” Betty said in a telephone interview with Tempo last Thursday.
The guards were not satisfied with their answer. They took them around to several places—at one point subjecting them to beatings—before finally holding her in a small shed in the middle of the rubber forest. They were only released the next day.
The detention sparked outcry. On March 10, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned BGF which is affiliated with the Myanmar national army Tatmadaw over the incident. “Clearly there was more than one person responsible for this attack on the media and all must be held accountable,” announced the Brussels based-organization.
In an attempt to defuse the situation, BGF invited the Myanmar Press Council to the Kayin state to offer explanation. According to one of the board members of the Myanmar journalists organization, BGF chalked up the incident to misunderstanding among its military personnel and assured that they were open to media coverage in the area.
Kayin BGF Chief Col. Saw Chit Thu said that there was no instruction to detain or interrogate reporters. “We arrested the person who was involved in this incident, who went beyond official orders, and they will be punished. I also instructed the troops not to do this in the future,” he said as quoted by The Irrawaddy.
BEFORE joining Myanmar Frontier, Betty Han was a senior reporter with Myanmar Times. Prior to that, she worked for Democratic Voice of Burma as a video journalist in 2014 and as a political and news reporter for the Hinthar weekly in 2016. She has frequently been assigned to cover news regarding border affairs on topics surrounding BGF’s legal and illegal businesses including the construction of a new Chinese town, Shwe Kokko.
Kayin BGF which has 6,000 troops was established in August 2010 with 12 battalions from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and one battalion from Karen Peace Front based in Haungtharaw. Kayin BGF is one of the several BGFs at Myanmar’s borders formed by armed ethnic factions who had allied with the Tatmadaw.
The DKBA was founded in 1994 by the Buddhist majority faction of the Karen National Union (KNU) which had been rebelling against the government since 1949. DKBA then joined forces with the Tatmadaw and turned against their former brothers in arms. In exchange, they were given control over several border areas which were previously under KNU’s control.
Betty’s articles published during the period December, 2019-January, 2020 touched upon topics on various border activities. In the edition of December 16, 2019, she wrote about BGF-owned businesses, from construction projects to tourist facilities. In the January 18 edition, she shed light on the business of smuggling beer from Thailand to Myanmar through border guard posts under BGF.
Betty explained that she went to the border in early March for a different project. “We were investigating Chinese workers staying illegally in Myawaddy. They entered the country illegally through the border areas under BGF’s watch,” she said.
On March 4, she and Ko Mar Naw reached Bridge I near the border when two soldiers suddenly came upon them. Prior to their arrest, she had observed many Chinese workers around the construction sites there. From what she observed from outside, she estimated the number to be around 1,000 with actual number expected to be higher. “According to our investigation, these illegal workers are protected by BGF and working for the construction of a casino and Shwe Kokko.”
When the two guards accused them of taking photos of the guard post near the bridge, Betty and her friend reasoned that they were only shooting the project activities there. Then the guards asked them to follow them to the nearest security post for further explanation. Betty and Mar Naw were loaded into a black car. At one stop, the men called out their friends. “I didn’t know where it was because we were blindfolded with black cloths all the way,” Betty recalled.
Before reaching the next stop, Betty managed to send a few short text messages to her colleague at the office. The first message said that she had been taken by BGF at Bridge I. The second message reads: “If you get this message, please call the police.” As soon as they found out Betty was sending messages, her captors immediately snatched her mobile phone away.
The men then took them to a rubber forest. She guessed from the time it took—20 minutes from the city—that the location was not far from Myawaddy. There she saw another car coming. It seemed there was also a military post there. The newly-arrived personnel quickly swarmed Betty and Mar Naw and the beating began.
Mar Naw said the men beat him several times and kicked him in the face until his nose bled. “I apologized to them several times and pleaded with them not to hit me. But they didn’t stop,” Mar Naw told The Irrawaddy. “They also hit my face,” Betty added.
The soldiers then took Betty and Mar Naw to another place in a small truck. After a while, they arrived at a place where the guards kept a small shed of about 2 x 2 meters. The captors put Betty with her hands tied behind her back in the shed whereas Mar Naw was taken to a different place. Betty lay on the floor until the next morning. “I didn’t eat anything during my captivity there,” she said. “They gave me a bottle of water but did not untie my hands, so I couldn’t open it.”
Betty’s ordeal ended the next day on March 5 when she was taken to the BGF office located in a Myawaddy casino complex. Her company had apparently met with the BGF leader. The leader said that the detention took place without his knowledge. “BGF’s commander apologizes and vows to punish the perpetrators,” he said.
Betty said that on March 15, BGF announced that five people had been jailed for their action. She has been advised to rest at home to heal her mental trauma. However, the incident will not deter her from taking the next step. While recuperating at home, she is currently wrapping up the article about her kidnapping and illegal Chinese workers.