American journalist Nathan Maung, editor of Kamayut Media, was released from Myanmar prison on June 15. (Photo: Nathan Maung)

American journalist Nathan Maung describes alleged abuse during Myanmar imprisonment

When armed authorities raided the office of news website Kamayut Media in downtown Yangon, Myanmar on March 8, editor Nathan Maung’s initial reaction was to plead not to be shot.

The American journalist and his Myanmar colleague Hanthar Nyein were arrested, blindfolded, and taken to a military interrogation center, where for more two weeks they were interrogated, abused, and beaten before being sent to Yangon’s Insein prison, Maung told CPJ in an email. 

Both were charged under Article 505(a) of the penal code, a broad provision that punishes the dissemination of information or “false news” that could agitate or cause security forces or officials to mutiny, and other criminal provisions, as CPJ documented. It carries a prison sentence of up to three years. 

According to CPJ’s preliminary research, dozens of reporters have been detained while covering anti-coup protests or in newsroom raids since the military staged a democracy-suspending coup on February 1 this year. 

Maung was released from prison on June 15 and deported to the United States after the charges against him were dropped. Hanthar Nyein is still in detention under the charges. In an interview with CPJ, Maung elaborated on his arrest, detention, and why he believes Myanmar’s junta is detaining journalists. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Myanmar’s Ministry of Information did not reply to CPJ’s emailed request for comment on the allegations of abuse made in this interview. CPJ was unable to independently confirm the allegations but torture in Myanmar custody has long been documented by groups such as the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. 

What were the circumstances of the March 8 police raid on Kamayut Media’s bureau and your initial arrest?

Hundreds of protesters were blocked by the military in Yangon’s Sanchaung Township on March 8, and my producer Hanthar Nyein and I were working very hard for our journalists and friends not to be arrested.

We also knew that it was no longer safe in our office, so we decided to leave the next day and prepared our packs. Unfortunately, about 30 soldiers and seven military trucks blocked the streets around our office and started to enter our bureau.

We were shocked and waited in our newsroom. Ten minutes later, they destroyed our door and entered the room, pointing guns to our heads. I shouted, “Please don’t shoot us.” And they took us downstairs and checked our names with their list.

They took everything from our office, including cash, shoes, and jewelry. They blindfolded us and took us to the Yay Kyi Ai military interrogation center in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township.

Why did junta authorities target your news organization? Was there a specific report that put you and your organization in their crosshairs?

Our Kamayut Media has been targeted since 2012 when we started to report on communal crises in Rakhine State and other places caused by the military and their associated groups.

Kamayut Media has been promoting human rights journalism and focuses on structural and cultural violence that leads to physical violence. Since the coup, we have done reports from the ground on the protests, made several interviews with anti-junta CRPH [Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a legislative body in exile opposed to the military coup] members, especially leading democracy activist Min Ko Naing, who made an exclusive interview with us.

What kind of treatment did you and your colleague Hanthar Nyein face while in detention? 

When I was taken into a room, I was blindfolded and sat on a chair, and then they handcuffed me. I was listening to Hanthar who was sitting down on his knees nearby me. I stated my name and my father’s name, and I believed Hanthar could hear my voice.

Five minutes later, I was taken outside and walked down with two soldiers who dragged me to a house where I spent four days, sitting on a chair while blindfolded and beaten on my head and shoulders several times.

Without letting me sleep, they interrogated me for three days. I requested water, which they allowed me only on the third day. I had food only on the fourth day. I could hear screaming in the air and kept meditating.

I was relieved that Hanthar and I were alive when they moved me to another cell, where I heard Hanthar’s answer to my call. 

On my sixth day, I was taken to another cell and Hanthar was taken to a different place. They did their interrogating on our eighth day in detention.

Hanthar was badly tortured. He told me later that they burned his skin with a lit cigarette and put both his legs on a big ice block. Hanthar didn’t reveal his iPhone password, as they demanded, and he was beaten so badly to surrender his password.

Interrogators told him to take off his shirt and pants and attempted to rape him, so he finally gave up. By unlocking his phone password, his nightmare didn’t finish.

They found several photos of Hanthar with [detained pro-democracy leader] Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw, Min Ko Naing and foreign correspondents who were working with him for several years.

On our eighth day, our blindfolds were finally removed, but we were still handcuffed. We found ourselves in different houses. After 13 days, I was taken to another house while Hanthar remained in the same house.

On March 23, after 15 days at the interrogation center, we were taken together to the special police detention center, where police officers came and took us to the Insein prison at 10:30 p.m.  

How were you and Hanthar Nyein treated while at Insein prison?

At first, we were staying with 80 other detainees in the same room in the attached prison of Insein central jail. On April 5, 2021, they transferred me to the main central prison where I was in solitary confinement near other high profile political detainees … including ministers Thura Aung Ko, Soe Win, Winston Set Aung, and Kyaw Win. 

Hanthar was locked in a cell with a criminal for four days in the attached prison where NLD [National League for Democracy, the ruling party toppled in the February 1 coup] top leaders and ministers were held. I had a first phone conversation with the U.S. embassy on April 5, 2021, and then again on April 26.

I reported to the consul that I was in solitary confinement and not allowed to walk outside the cells. Hanthar was transferred to our cells on May 5, 2021.

How did prosecuting authorities justify the 505(a) charges leveled against you? What was your sense of the court process?

The 505(a) charges against me and Hanthar were for allegedly attempting to cause disunity and undermine the armed forces. They also leveled 505(b), Telecommunication Act 33(b) and Libel 66(d) against me.

What were the circumstances of your release? Do you think your American citizenship was a factor?

I was released because I am a U.S. citizen and the junta was under pressure from the U.S. government and ASEAN delegation [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a 10-member regional bloc] for my release. If all cases against me were dropped, Hanthar should be released with me, but he remained in prison.

More broadly, why do you think the junta is jailing so many journalists over their news reporting?

Of course, the junta is obviously tearing apart all democratic instructions, including media and civil society. They are targeting the media and journalists for their reports on what is happening in Burma.  

They thought the anti-coup “Spring Revolution” would die if there is no media present on the ground. They believe the Civil Disobedience Movement happened because of the media. 

Is there any hope for the future of press freedom in Myanmar under military rule?

There is no hope at all for press freedom in Burma under the military’s rule. I believe that the media has a bigger role to play to promote human rights journalism and it is a sense of duty to highlight the humanitarian crisis which is emerging in the country.

As resistance forces are growing day by day inside the country, the international community will witness the huge impacts of civil war and refugees fleeing their homes. 

Burma needs a free press now more than ever to report on the military’s abuses and tell their victims’ stories.

[Editor’s note: “Burma” was Myanmar’s name before the previous military regime changed it in 1989, a decision that many citizens and some countries, including the United States, do not recognize.]