By MOE MYINT / The Irrawaddy
RANGOON — A former soldier and two reporters were arrested by police at Taungpon Gyi border checkpoint in southern Arakan State along with the three Rohingya men who they are accused of smuggling from the state capital Sittwe on April 16.
The three men—two from Arakan State and one from Tharrawaddy District in Pegu Division—are being held in custody along with three other Muslim Rohingya from Sittwe who were not carrying the necessary identification for leaving the region, said police official Win Hlaing.
The arrests have stirred accusations of unethical practice from other media groups, who claim the two reporters work for an organization that is tainting the image of journalists in Burma. However, the umbrella group of the reporters’ agency, Myanmar Crime Reporters Association (MCRA-Central), has rebutted the claims.
According to police, the three suspects planned to take the Rohingya men on motorbikes from Sittwe to Taungup Township—a distance of more than 450 kilometers—but were arrested on Taungup valley road.
People need a ‘pink card’—denoting full citizenship—or permission from the authorities to travel around and outside the region.
Previous attempts at granting full citizenship to small numbers of Muslim Rohingya have been met with protest in Arakan State. There are an estimated 1 million Muslims in the region who self-identify as Rohingya and who are today largely stateless.
Many within the Buddhist Arakanese community, and in Burma’s government, describe the self-identifying Muslim Rohingya as “Bengali,” implying that they are migrants from Bangladesh.
Without citizenship, Muslim Rohingya are unable to own land, form political parties, or act as civil servants.
The official leading the investigation, U Khin Maung Htwe, told The Irrawaddy the three suspects received 800,000 kyats from the three Rohingya men as an advance payment for transporting them into lower Burma.
Police have charged the three suspects under articles 367 and 370 of the Burma Penal Code, anti-trafficking legislation that jails people for at least seven years and can also fine them.
The immigration department will process the three men who were allegedly smuggled, said U Khin Maung Htwe, adding that these are the first arrests for smuggling made this year.
Taungup’s immigration office could not be reached for comment, but attempting to enter or travel in Burma without a permit can result in a maximum of five years imprisonment, a minimum fine of 1,500 kyats, or both.
Several pictures on social media showed the six men handcuffed at the border checkpoint.
Claims of Unethical Journalism
One of the pictures also showed the suspect from Tharrawaddy District’s ‘special crime reporter’ identification card, issued by Shu Daunt (Perspective) agency, an offshoot of MCRA, said police.
The MCRA has more than 20,000 crime reporters nationwide and hires former police officers to train its members in crime prevention and investigative journalism, according to an advert in a weekly crime journal.
Myanmar Press Council member U Myint Kyaw said the MCRA has been registered with the government for over a decade and that the former military regime’s home affairs minister, Tin Hlaing, is a well-known patron.
“A lot of people in the organization are not real reporters but instead government informers and former police officials,” said U Myint Kyaw.
He claimed the press council has received informal complaints that some MCRA members are extorting money from illegal businesses in return for not exposing the firms.
“Asking for money could damage the trust between the public and journalists,” said U Myint Kyaw. “It would go on to harm freedom of press in the country.”
He called on other journalist organizations to protest against unethical activities that he said occurred among some MCRA members.
Myanmar Journalist Network’s (MJN) general secretary U Zayar Hlaing said that members of the organization should follow Burma’s laws and the code of conduct for journalists.
He added that unethical journalism, including reporters asking sources for money, is widespread in Burma.
“Journalists have a responsibility to solve this problem, which could harm the image of the media industry,” he said. “The relevant authorities also need to help address the issue. I urge the public to tell the media organizations if their reporters bring up money. Don’t hesitate to complain.”
MCRA chief executive Thet Naing Oo rejected claims that his organization’s reporters were corrupted and extorted money from shady firms.
“Every big organization has good and bad people,” he said. “We expel anyone if they are jailed.”
Shu Daunt (Perspective) agency has about 4,000 journalists across Burma, he said, and it has expelled about 100 journalists for unethical practices over the past years, including some who were jailed for reportedly being involved in illegal logging.
In some of these cases, said U Thet Naing Oo, other media outlets hired the people after their release from jail.