Burma holds 4 journalists for chemical weapons report

Bangkok, February 3, 2014 – Four journalists and a news executive in Burma were detained by police over a newspaper cover story about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory in the country’s central region, according to local news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the arrests and calls for the journalists’ immediate and unconditional release. 

Lu Maw Naing, a reporter for the local-language Unity weekly news journal, was arrested and detained by Special Branch police on Friday evening in Pauk Township of the country’s central Magwe Division, according to local reports.

Police told his wife, Ma Lwin, the following day that he would not be allowed bail because he faced potential charges of exposing state secrets, the reports said. He was later transferred to a Special Branch police facility in Pakukku District. Dissemination of state secrets carries the potential death penalty under Burmese law, the reports said.     

Three other Unity journalists–Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw and Sithu Soe–and the news journal’s chief executive officer, Tint San, were arrested and detained for interrogations on Saturday, according to the local reports. It was not immediately clear where the three reporters and business executive were being detained, the reports said.

Authorities confiscated copies of the news journal from local newsstands, according to the news reports. 

“The fact that journalists can be charged with revealing state secrets shows how desperately Burma needs meaningful legal reform,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. Weapons proliferation issues are central to Burma’s political narrative and journalists should not be threatened or arrested for reporting on topics of national and international importance.”

The January 25 report claimed that the secret facility was built in 2009 and consisted of underground tunnels situated on more than 3,000 acres of land in Magwe Division. Local villagers quoted in the report said Chinese technicians were frequently seen at the facility and that its workers told reporters they were producing chemical weapons.

The report claimed that several senior military members, including former ruling junta leader Senior General Than Shwe and current Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing, have visited the facility.

The censorship action comes days ahead of a scheduled academic seminar on weapons proliferation topics featuring international speakers in the old capital city of Rangoon.