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News Organizations in Myanmar Receiving Threatening Messages Over Rakhine Coverage

Thar Lun Zaung Htet, editor-in-chief of Khit Thit Media who has received three threatening messages, said the senders are issuing the threats for specific purposes and that news professionals must be cautious about what may happen after they receive such mail.

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Myanmar journalists of the privately owned Eleven Media Group work in the company's newsroom in Yangon, Oct. 12, 2018. RFA

Prominent news organizations in Myanmar have received threatening messages from unknown senders warning them not to refer to the ethnic military the Arakan Army (AA) currently engaged in hostilities with government troops in western Myanmar’s troubled Rakhine state as an “insurgent group.”

Fighting between the AA, which is fighting Myanmar forces for greater autonomy in Rakhine state and is supported by ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, and Myanmar forces reignited in late 2018 and exploded in early January after Arakan soldiers conducted deadly attacks on police outposts in northern Rakhine.

The Myanmar government has labeled the AA a terrorist group and instructed its forces to crush the fighters.

Since April 1, journalists at Myanmar’s Eleven Media Group, 7Day Daily, Mizzima, The VoiceDemocracy Today, and Khit Thit Media have received the threats via social media messengers and email, warning them that they will face mine attacks if they continue to refer to the AA as insurgent group.

The threatening messages say that the AA is not an insurgent group, but an Arakanese army carrying out a revolution for the “Father Nation.”

“The news media needs to stop portraying the Arakan Army incorrectly to misinform the Rakhine public and other ethnic groups,” the messages say. “Otherwise, the news media organization will see damage and we will blow up your newsroom by mine attacks.”

Khin Saw Wai, a lower house lawmaker from the Arakan National Party (ANP) who represents Rakhine’s Rathedaung constituency, told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an earlier report that the AA had sent envelopes with bullets to village authorities in Rakhine state.

Kyaw Zaw Lin, chief editor of Eleven Media Group, said he reported the incident to the police and other authorities when he received a threat.

“We have never experienced such kinds of threats coming from an armed group,” he said. “We have reported them to the relevant authorities. We alerted international organizations working on press freedom. We also filed a case with the police force.”

Myint Kyaw, joint secretary of the Myanmar Press Council, cautioned journalists to refrain from taking actions that could give more attention to the senders, who remain unknown.

“I agree that we should report this to law enforcement officers such as the police force,” he said. “We should take that kind of action. But these are threats coming from an unidentified source. As a media council, if we take action further than that, it will amplify the source’s message. We might be realizing the source’s real goal if all media and authorities take the threats seriously.”

“As for our media council, as an intermediary between the press and law enforcement authorities, we have a plan to issue alerts on the issue to all parties concerned,” he added.

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“This fake news was intentionally spread to instigate fear among the public,” he said. “Because we have had such experiences in the past, we must question what is happening now. It was not a single incident. It happened multiple times between 2012 and 2014.” Pixabay

Just like in 2012

Kyaw Min Swe, a consultant for the Myanmar journal The Voice who recently received a threat, recalled the allegations of “fake news” that inflamed Buddhist-Muslim communal conflict in religiously and ethnically divided Rakhine in 2012 that left more than 200 people dead and displaced more than 140,000, saying that he is suspicious about the real intention of those who are sending threats to the media.

Religiously-motivated riots that started in Kyauk Ni Maw village quickly led to murder and arson amid widespread public fear that was intensified by the spread of fake news on social media, he said.

“This fake news was intentionally spread to instigate fear among the public,” he said. “Because we have had such experiences in the past, we must question what is happening now. It was not a single incident. It happened multiple times between 2012 and 2014.”

“Given the examples and incidents that occurred in this country in the past, I suspect that it is true with the [current] case too,” he said. “I suspect this is an attempt to instigate a public sensation.”

Thar Lun Zaung Htet, editor-in-chief of Khit Thit Media who has received three threatening messages, said the senders are issuing the threats for specific purposes and that news professionals must be cautious about what may happen after they receive such mail.

“[Those] behind these threats must [belong to] an organization with specific purposes,” he said. “They seem to be very knowledgeable and well organized. I see this as only a first step.”

“We don’t know what the second and third steps will be,” he said. “There could be many possibilities, given the fact that the rule of law is very weak in this country.”

Thar Lun Zaung Htet also said that actual attacks could occur, putting the safety of journalists at risk given current hostile attitudes towards the media by a pro-government public.

“They could be murdered, physically attacked, arrested, or get into trouble anytime,” he said. “I view this threat as the first step of what could be coming. Not long after this, the second or third steps will come. Journalists must be extra cautious about what they are reporting.”

AA spokesman Khine Thukha denied that his outfit had sent these threats to the media and said it would conduct a probe into the matter.

“We strongly denounce the intimidation of the media by sending them threats,” he told RFA. “This is a very cowardly act [by someone] who is using our identity because they are too scared to reveal their own.”

“As an organization, we will conduct an investigation and take necessary actions to track down the [senders],” he added.

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Supporters of the Myanmar military have also sent threats via email to four news organizations, including Radio Free Asia, demanding that they stand with the military. The messages also included death threats for journalists who are seen as siding with the AA. Pixabay

“The AA doesn’t have any reason to send such threats to the news media,” Khine Thukha said. “We want you to know these are not ours.”

Support only the military

Supporters of the Myanmar military have also sent threats via email to four news organizations, including Radio Free Asia, demanding that they stand with the military. The messages also included death threats for journalists who are seen as siding with the AA.

The same message carried in the emails was posted by a Myanmar military supporter group under the name Patriot Soldiers Group.

A message received by RFA tried to influence RFA’s editorial policy, demanding that the media to show support for “the only military” in the country in reporting on the Rakhine conflict and not report with bias favoring the AA.

It also warned that those who failed to comply with the demand would face the same fate as Ko Ni, a prominent human rights attorney and advisor to the country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was assassinated in January 2017.

Also Read: Unexpected Deaths of Innocent Civilians: Fearful Villagers in Rakhine Fleeing From Their Homes

Some have speculated that Ko Ni was targeted for being an outspoken critic of anti-Muslim attitudes held by Myanmar’s Buddhist nationalists and the country’s powerful military.

Major General Tun Tun Nyi from the Myanmar military’s committee denied that army officials were behind the threats.

“Sending anonymous emails that contain threats is a criminal offense, and whoever is doing it shouldn’t have done it,” he told RFA. “I think the sender is trying to implicate the military and further complicate issues that are already complicated.” (RFA)

Next Story

Archaeologists Demand Myanmar’s Army to Remove Heavy Guns From Ancient Rakhine Temple Complex

AA soldiers said it took the seven women and children from the housing quarters with them as they retreated early Wednesday to save them from possibly being killed, though the wife of one police official was shot dead by ethnic forces.

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Flood-affected Myanmar villagers eat a meal while taking shelter inside a pagoda in Mrauk-U township, western Myanmar's Rakhine state, Aug. 5, 2015. RFA

Archaeologists want Myanmar forces to remove their artillery from a temple complex in a historically significant area of war-torn Rakhine state’s Mrauk-U township, saying that artillery shells fired from inside the zone have damaged ancient monuments.

Residents have reported that national troops have fired artillery from the archaeological zone towards areas where they thought that members of the rebel Arakan Army (AA) are hiding since the two sides began fighting in the township more than a month ago, they said Friday.

Members of the Mrauk-U Archaeological Zone Protection Association sent a letter to Rakhine state Chief Minister Nyi Pu on April 9, objecting to the military’s shelling from the archeological zone.

The letter mentioned that government troops placed artillery launchers on Sat Yone Mountain, Nga Pi Thel Ma hills, Nate Bu Zar pagoda hills, Amyint Taung fortress, Shwe Taung hill, Yadanar Mann Aung pagoda hill and other mountains where the Ye Hla Nga-Mann walls are located, and fired shells almost every day.

The letter also asserted that some security forces stationed in the area dug up trenches and used the stones from ancient monuments as bunkers.

“They have placed the artillery in a row,” said Khin Than, chairwoman of the Mrauk-U Heritage Trust. “Residents from nearby neighborhoods could see they had used stones from monuments to build bunkers. This is not something hidden from view. All are in plain sight. All the residents of Mrauk-U can see where they are placing the huge guns.”

Township archaeologists have concluded that there could be damage to the monuments in the eastern part of Mrauk-U as well, but they cannot visit the area for safety reasons, she added.

Brigadier Colonel Win Zaw Oo of the Myanmar military’s information team denied that government forces placed artillery launchers in the township’s archaeological zone.

“Where are they referring to?” he asked. “We never placed any launchers anywhere. We haven’t placed heavy artillery in any of the places [they] mentioned.”

Kyaw Aye Thein, Rakhine state’s planning and finance minister who oversees the Mrauk-U archaeological zone, said government officials have reported the issue to military commanders on the front line through Colonel Phone Tint, the regional minister for border affairs and security.

“We make all decisions as the Cabinet,” Kyaw Aye Thein said. “When we get the letter, we will make a decision and take action.”

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Archaeologists have yet to conduct assessments on how extensive the damage is but were told that the fractures were caused by vibrations from the shelling, he added. Pixabay

Cracks in ancient temple

Than Htike, director of Mrauk-U’s Archaeological Research Department, told RFA’s Myanmar Service on Friday that archaeologists found that the shelling caused cracks in Ko Thaung Temple, the township’s largest temple whose name means “Shrine of the 90,000 Images of the Buddha,” a reference to the number of Buddha statues the massive 16th-century structure held.

“During field studies conducted by my staff, we found that there was some damage to ancient monuments due to vibrations in the surroundings of the Ko Thaung Temple,” he said.

Archaeologists have yet to conduct assessments on how extensive the damage is but were told that the fractures were caused by vibrations from the shelling, he added.

“We have received the preliminary findings from the engineering team,” he said. “We haven’t done any detailed studies yet.”

Khin Than said she has been working on a report on the cracks in the Ko Thaung Temple.

The military’s information committee said the shelling by its troops was in response to shooting by AA soldiers, who took cover among the ancient temples and pagodas.

But Brigadier General Win Zaw Oo, spokesman for the military’s Western Regional Command which is responsible for Rakhine state, told RFA that claims by archaeologists that shelling by Myanmar forces damaged the ancient monuments are illogical, and he dismissed them as a pretext.

“I would like to ask them why numerous ancient temples in [central Myanmar’s] Bagan still survive despite intense vibrations from two or three passenger planes landing daily in the area,” he said, adding that pressure and vibrations from shelling is not that great.

“They are using it as an excuse to blame us,” he said. “This is not a reasonable claim.”

‘All are in plain sight’

Archaeologists and residents say the clashes have become an obstacle to efforts to have the zone listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020.

Officials held a meeting on submitting the nomination for the Mrauk-U region to UNESCO on March 28, during which Khin Than said weapons fired by government troops in the archaeological zone produced vibrations of levels five to seven on the Richter scale, used to measure the magnitude of earthquakes.

Vibrations at those levels can damage ancient temples built some 500 years ago, she added.

Hundreds of ancient but well-preserved temples and pagodas that dot the township’s hills are remnants of a powerful ethnic Rakhine coastal kingdom that existed in Mrauk-U from the 15th century to the late 18th century.

The empire ruled over what is now Rakhine state and the Chittagong division of neighboring Bangladesh, before it was taken over by the Burmese following an invasion.

AA releases relatives

In a development related to the fighting in Mrauk-U, the AA on Friday released seven family members of police officers whom the ethnic military abducted earlier this week during a clash with Myanmar forces, AA spokesman Khine Thukha said.

Arakan fighters attacked a police battalion headquarters and residential unit on late Tuesday and early Wednesday, sparking a backlash from government troops who conducted an aerial assault.

AA soldiers said it took the seven women and children from the housing quarters with them as they retreated early Wednesday to save them from possibly being killed, though the wife of one police official was shot dead by ethnic forces.

The family members of the policemen were released at a location near Mrauk-U Hospital, Khine Thukha said, insisting that the AA rescued rather than kidnapped them.

“We were not kidnapping them,” he told RFA. “When our troops were retreating, the Myanmar military was bombing the area with three fighter jets. … The women and children in the building were at risk, so we took them to a place of safety. Afterwards, we released them safely and in dignity.”

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The military’s information committee said the shelling by its troops was in response to shooting by AA soldiers, who took cover among the ancient temples and pagodas. Pixabay

But Major General Tun Tun Nyi from the military’s information team disagreed.

“They attacked the police battalion compound and killed some people,” he said. “They abducted the police’s family members as hostages, and now they are making up these stories as a pretext. They returned the victims because they feel bad about what they had done.”

Also Read: Know Which Gene in Your Body Could Help Brain Heal Itself After A Stroke

RFA as unable to contact the women and children for comment.

Fighting between Myanmar and Arakan forces intensified early this year after the AA carried out deadly attacks on police outposts in Rakhine in its quest for autonomy in Rakhine state. The assault prompted the Myanmar government to brand the AA a terrorist group and order its military to crush it. (RFA)