Cause and Karma
by Amy Doffegnies
I N T E R V I E W
Ko Swe Win was strolling home after a dinner hosted by the United States Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel when he was set upon by three thugs from the shadows. Shouting “Are you Swe Win?” they threatened to punch him. Luckily for the editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now, a bilingual news website, he was steps away from his Yangon apartment. A neighbour intervened and his attackers ran off . at was in March this year.
Today, we met in a teashop down the road from his office on Seikkanthar Street in Yangon. Over sweet tea, and in between power cuts, the thirty-nine-year old journalist recounted the events of that night with a smile as rain bucketed down outside. He has reasons to believe the attack — coming hot on the heels of a lawsuit that was led against him — was connected to his work as a journalist. It also came after he had crossed swords with U Wirathu, the leader of the controversial ultra- nationalist Buddhist association MaBaTha.
The story goes back to the murder of U Ko Ni, a prominent lawyer and adviser to the ruling National League for Democracy, who was assassinated by a hired gunman outside Yangon International Airport in late January 2017. Even though Ko Ni’s killer was apprehended, leading to the arrest of several former army officers, no clear motives have been established for the crime, and speculation is rife that the military, which is opposed to the constitutional changes the Muslim lawyer was working on before he was murdered, may have played a hand.
Amonth a er the killing, U Wirathu, an extremist known for his Islamophobia, thanked Ko Ni’s assassin on his Facebook page. Myanmar Now reported on Wirathu’s explosive comments, quoting a prominent monk who accused Wirathu of violating parajika — a Buddhist monastic code. Swe Win, writing under his Facebook pseudonym “Ba Kaung”, reposted the story with these blunt words: “U Wirathu is said to have violated the most important rules of the monk. at means his monkhood is finished.”
That set off a storm. Wirathu threatened to sue Swe Win if he didn’t retract and apologise. The journalist held firm, and soon afterwards, a Wirathu follower led a complaint against him. The police accepted the defamation report under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, where, if found guilty, Swe Win could face three years in jail. Since 2013, seventy- two people, including fourteen journalists, have been charged under this law.
More recently, three reporters were arrested and charged with “unlawful association” — a colonial-era law which the military frequently used to suppress freedom of speech and silence its critics when it ran the country for more than half a century. It’s the latest in a string of arrests and detention of journalists and activists since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the national election in April 2016. Suu Kyi has not spoken out against these arrests, a fact that has not gone by unnoticed. Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy, told the New York Times, “ The return of the climate of fear is very disturbing.”
Three months after the attack near his apartment, Swe Win is trying to put the affair behind him. “I deliberately tried to forget … I became too obsessed with all the details. I tried to break my invisible attachment with Wirathu; the hate attachment, we call [it] in Burmese-Buddhist language. Attachments can mean love, but also anger; they’re like strings.”
Why did you run the story of Wirathu’s comments in Myanmar Now and then share it on Facebook?
There is always some hesitation in our newsroom to write about sensitive topics … when it comes to MaBaTha and when it comes to the army, people are quite reluctant to pursue these topics.
I decided a story should be written about Wirathu’s Facebook post because I felt that this was not just [about] somebody running amok on social media. MaBaTha was powerful during the five years of President Thein Sein. It has quietened down since the election [but] we cannot let it rear its head again. Wirathu said something totally inappropriate for a Buddhist monk. Wirathu said something that we should take seriously.
Iwas also getting a bit emotional because a few days before, I had met Ko Ni’s family members, including Ko Ni’s wife. I also met the family members of the taxi driver who followed Kyi Lin [the assassin] at the airport and got shot on the spot.
Then … a Buddhist monk came out eulogising the killers. This was not an ordinary death, an accidental death, this was a deliberate crime. As a citizen, as a journalist, as a human being … [I] have the duty to condemn, to denounce such an inhumane action. Our story was published twenty-four hours after Wirathu made his Facebook post.
What did you do when you were told that the complaint had been filed against you?
Ididn’t sleep that night, thinking that I could be taken into custody at any point. As soon as you are taken in you are deprived of [the means of] defending yourself. I wrote a Q and A in a Facebook post — an interview with myself [laughs]. As reporters will not be able to interview me [when I’m] jailed, so I answered the five most interesting questions about myself. Many newspapers published my interview on their front pages.
Do you think that the media outcry helped your case?
The extensive media coverage did make the authorities think twice about punishing someone [based on] a groundless accusation. I think it did help. At the same time, what I wrote had no defamatory element … I was just quoting [the story].
But I will be very careful [from now on]. My objectives as a journalist would have been thwarted if I was jailed. And given the prevailing realities, you have to be careful about using social media.
The morning after you were attacked, you were also summoned for interrogation at the police station regarding the defamation case. What happened during the interrogation?
Ihadn’t slept that night. My two-year-old baby was crying; my wife was crying. I had spent the whole day, from 10am until 2pm, at the court giving testimony on the attack …Then the police in Mandalay [where the complaint was filed] called me and said that they wanted to interview me at 3pm about my 66(d) complaint. I was not prepared.
[ The] conversation [with the police] got heated because I was getting angry. Two days after Wirathu’s disciple submitted the complaint, the Sangha Council had issued a ban on Wirathu, saying he can no longer preach for one year. The council members said that Wirathu [had] been inciting riots between different religious communities. I said, look at the statement released on the Ministry of Religious Affairs website. [But] the police said, no, we are not interested in that statement.
Iwas getting very upset and the police said, “Let me explain to you the parajika.’” I said, “Don’t explain to me. You have no authority to interpret what is parajika. Are you a monk or a policeman?”
He said it is a serious offence for a person to accuse a monk of violating the parajika. I told the policeman he was not being fair in this case. The conversation became heated to the extent that we could no longer proceed. [It was] taking place in the full glare of the cameras. [It was] very stressful, [so] we stopped. My lawyer asked for a second round of investigation.
In the subsequent round of police questioning over a week later, the Religious Affairs Ministry issued a statement clearing Swe Win of any wrongdoing, citing his action as that of a responsible journalist doing his job.
This was not the first time that Swe Win has been recognised for his reporting work. In September 2016, he received the President’s Certificate of Honour for his investigative reports exposing the abuse of two teenage maids by their employers in a Yangon tailor shop.
The exposure led to an investigation by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, which was subsequently mishandled, resulting in the resignation of three of its members.
Born in 1978 in Yangon, Swe Win attributes his passion for journalism to his father, who was a voracious reader. “My father was very much addicted to news, so I got that legacy from him.”
At twenty, he was arrested for distributing subversive literature and sentenced to twenty-one years in prison. After serving seven, he was released in 2005 following an amnesty. Soon after, he enrolled in a journalism course at the University of Hong Kong and since 2007 has worked as a senior reporter for the Irrawaddy Magazine and freelanced for international publications such as the New York Times.
He joined Myanmar Now in 2015 and became its editor-in-chief in 2016. He tells me of his lifelong dream to be published in the New Yorker, but he fears his time is running out. “Burmese life expectancy is very low,” he said. “If you go to the graveyard you will see, people live for just sixty or sixty-five years.”
In a media culture where questions are usually limited to clari cation of o cial information, Swe Win has developed a reputation for asking difficult questions. “I was abrasive since I was young,” he said.
You have taken great personal risks in your life both as a student activist and as a journalist. Who or what has influenced you in your work over the years?
Ithink, the spirit of defiance against something you think is unfair or unjust. You want to speak out when somebody is getting bullied. You don’t know how to be quiet. You just want to stand up and say this is unacceptable, whatever the consequences. That is just a natural instinct, a human reaction. It’s not just about democracy.
The entire atmosphere of society [in Myanmar] was unfair. We were being ruled unfairly. You find that this is all linked with the military rule. For example, we could never listen to BBC. Why? The question is why. Why [was] our university like a prison? Students who belonged to one department were not allowed to visit another. Any sort of association was not allowed on campus. Poetry association? Not allowed. Sport? Not allowed. Any sort of movement that would encourage assembly of the students was discouraged.
Did your time in prison influence your decision to become a journalist?
No, I was addicted to news since I was sixteen years old. I wanted to publish a newspaper for my family [laughs]. I thought of publishing a small newspaper just for my town. I followed the news every day, so everything became a drama. I followed all the political events and the characters … I followed the first Iraq war [through] BBC radio and VOA [Voice of America] when I was in fifth grade. I followed the Monica Lewinski affair and Clinton’s impeachment on my radio. When I was a teenager, I [was] able to listen in English. The unconscious part of my mind is always telling me how to strategise news production. News consumption is in the blood.
Iwas forced to quit while I was in jail because you have nothing to read. I suffered a lot; not just because I was tortured, but because I no longer had access to newspapers or radio. I saw myself like an insect, like a worm, I was sort of wriggling in pain, hungry for the news in those days.
Books I read before I was jailed I was trying to recall and re-write on plastic sheets we took out from snacks and held up to the light; we didn’t have writing materials. Two years later I gave up. I managed to suppress the reading desire. It was killed; it was never reborn.
Ifeel very sorry about that. Before prison I spent some time reading Shakespeare and nineteenth-century English books. Our advantage in [Myanmar] is that we can [relate] as we have some identical scenes. Most of the neighbourhoods in Yangon, I would say, are still very much Dickensian; many families in debt. If you go to the prison, you will find many Dickensian characters.
After two years the authorities allowed us to read Buddhist literature. I found a greater light in them.
Photograph: Thet Htoo
As editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now, what qualities do you value in your reporters?
You should be aware of the fragile nature of human life and have sensitivity to suffering, abuses. And love for the facts, the truth. If you are not sensitive to the suffering of the people, how can you write?
How do you choose which stories are more important than others?
Any case where somebody is being bullied, exploited. Cases that involve physical injury or death, unlawful detention, miscarriage of justice. Any story that is involved with human suffering should be prioritised, even the case of a vegetable seller downstairs from our office, we should care about. The tendency in our media culture [is to] never want to write about small things. I think this is the wrong approach.
The greatest advantage of a journalist is that you can take action immediately without having to seek permission from anyone … I think, how can I approach the story, how will my story question the attitude of the executive branch … how will my story question the policy of the legislative branch, the sensibility of this particular law. Through all the stories you can serve as a balancing act … that’s how I find peace in [my] job, not in the big [stories] but in the little stories.
Given the changes in the media in Myanmar in the last five years, what are you most encouraged by?
Changes have started since [President] Thein Sein [2011-16]. New publications [are] mushrooming. We are happy about that. What is good about media freedom after Aung San Suu Kyi came to power is a decreased sense of fear. It may not be true to some other journalists, but it is true to me.
Access to information still remains as difficult as during Thein Sein, but now you have greater moral authority to demand information from government departments. That’s good.
[It’s] still very difficult to do investigative reporting. The level of transparency has not increased dramatically, even though this is the era of Suu Kyi. Her cabinet, including herself, remain very tight-lipped on many issues. I think it is much to do with the fragility of the nascent reconciliation process: they want to tell you, but they think that this may cause damage.
In your day-to-day work, is this your biggest obstacle, the lack of access to information?
Exactly: the continued lack of transparency on the part of the government. Even though the level of fear amongst journalists might have decreased, as long as the rule of law remains fragile, people are reluctant to give information, even the general public, including the MPs.
Many people in Myanmar have pointed out that over the last year the arrests of journalists, especially under the defamation law, have increased. Do you think the media landscape has improved since the NLD took office?
Idon’t think it has grown worse. The problem is, progress is still not tangible. You have a lot of expectations … [and] these expectations did not turn into reality. Nobody, including journalists, thought that things would change overnight, [but] we want to see genuine, incremental progress.
For example, we want the Ministry of Information to stop operating as the propaganda machine of the ruling government. That has not happened yet. It still remains the mouthpiece of the Suu Kyi government, the army. Just abolish the Ministry of Information: it has too much money, too many people.
What do you see as the most important reform to be made to improve press freedom?
Judicial reform. If you say judicial reform it may be a lofty idea, so instead of yearning for some lofty things, we can suggest some practical steps. Replace the chief justice; replace the attorney-general. If the new government is in control of the departments under the chief justice, then judicial reform will take place. Both the chief justice and the attorney-general are retired army officials, appointed by the previous government.
The chief justice plays an important role in the judicial sector, because they have authority over judges at the township level, the regional level, etc. I think there should be some sort of transitional team between Aung San Suu Kyi and military generals. Courts are controlled by the chief justice and the chief justice is not an appointee of Suu Kyi’s government; this is the problem; the army controls. Just change the chief justice and three or four people under him.
Why is that the most important thing?
Because the judges make the final decision, so if the courts are in the proper hands, then the judges will not have fear about their decisions. Because there is widespread suspicion that the generals [intervene] in the court system, in the chief minister’s office. For example, if I wrote a story and the army sued me, accusing me of committing libel, then I [wouldn’t] need to [worry], I’d just go to court and the judge would say this is not tantamount, then I am free.
It would prevent journalists from being prosecuted unfairly. Once the courts are fair, under the control of a civilian minister, our democracy will improve, which means our press freedom will improve. So I pray for that.
You have talked about discovering meditation in prison. Do you still find it important in your day-to-day life?
Exactly, because you learn to peacefully resign yourself to whatever circumstances you find yourself in. If you are too absorbed, obsessed with the past, that gives you nothing but pain [laughs].
That’s the best thing that I had in prison. I came to believe in karma, not just for individuals. I came to believe in what I call collective karma, the karma of the society. I came to believe that justice is always there, an invisible system, a natural law of justice. So I am not as agitated as I was during my younger days [laughs]. Even with Wirathu, I try to consider that justice is always there, that you don’t need to worry.
By Amy Doffegnies
Amy Doffegnies is a PhD student at UNSW, Canberra