Photographer dies in custody in first journalist death since Myanmar coup

Soe Naing was arrested while shooting a silent protest in Yangon.

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Photos of Soe Naing shared by his colleagues and social media show the spectrum people live in Myanmar from everyday moment to lives under the military regime.

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A freelance photographer arrested by junta troops on Human Rights Day has become the first journalist to die while in detention since the military seized power in Myanmar more than 10 months ago.

Soe Naing was detained on Dec. 10 while documenting a nationwide “Silent Strike” boycott against junta rule to mark the United Nations day to honor human rights in Yangon’s Latha district.

News of Soe Naing’s death surfaced on social media Tuesday and was confirmed by family members, according to sources who were close to the photographer.

Photo of Soe Naing shared by his colleague.
Photo of Soe Naing shared by his colleague.

“Just this morning, Ko Soe Naing’s cousin confirmed his death to his best friend. … His friend also contacted Soe Naing’s wife. She also confirmed his death,” a family friend told RFA’s Myanmar Service on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.

“His friend is not in a position to talk to the media, so I am talking on his behalf. Soe Naing’s funeral was held in the Mingalardon area.”

One of Soe Naing’s colleagues also said he had received confirmation of his death, and suggested without elaborating that the photographer was killed during an interrogation by security forces.

“We didn’t believe at first because there is no reason for them to beat a photojournalist to death,” said the colleague, who declined to be named.

“However, around 4:00 p.m., someone from our internal network updated us that a family member had confirmed his death.”

The colleague said that an hour later, word spread that Soe Naing’s body had already been cremated by the authorities.

“No one got a chance to see the body or be present at his cremation,” he said. “Now, Ko Soe Naing is gone without a trace.”

Attempts by RFA to reach Soe Naing’s relatives went unanswered on Tuesday, as family members had turned off their phones for safety reasons, sources said.


Seasoned photographer

According to the colleague, Soe Naing was a seasoned photographer who had covered many events and protests since the military removed Myanmar’s democratically elected National League for Democracy government in a Feb. 1 coup.

In the weeks and months since the coup, security personnel have committed human rights abuses including arbitrary arrests, rape and killings. More than 8,000 civilians have been arrested and 1,339 killed by junta authorities since February, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, mostly during non-violent protests of the coup.

“Even when the military started suppressing the protesters and the protests turned into guerilla-like flash mobs, he still covered these events,” Soe Naing’s colleague told RFA.

“He was calm and focused on his work. He was never involved in these protests. He only focused on covering the events. There is no reason for him to be killed. I can’t understand why they killed him.”


‘Escalation in terror’

Soe Naing’s death was addressed in a statement by Paris-based journalist watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, which called on the international community to condemn what it called an “escalation in terror against reporters” and to implement sanctions against the junta leadership.

“With Soe Naing’s death, a new tragic threshold has been crossed this morning in the terror that Myanmar’s military are using against journalists,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of the group’s Asia-Pacific desk.

“His death must serve as an alarm signal and push the international community to impose new targeted sanctions on the military junta that has been running the country since February, starting with its chief, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. The world can no longer look on without doing something.”

Reporters Without Borders noted that at least three other journalists had been arrested by authorities in recent days, including freelance photographer Zaw Tun on Dec. 10, and Democratic Voice of Burma reporter Aung San Lin and regional reporter Min Theik Tun on Dec. 12.

Junta spokesman Gen. Zaw Min Tun did not respond to requests by RFA for comment on the arrests.

At least 57 journalists are currently imprisoned in Myanmar, according to Reporters Without Borders.  The group ranked Myanmar 140th out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, published in early 2021.

Reported by Tin Aung Khine and Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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