A Myanmar freelance photojournalist has died in military custody after being arrested while covering protests last week, according to his colleagues and a family friend.
Ko Soe Naing is the first known journalist to die in custody since the military seized power in February, toppling the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. More than 100 journalists have since been detained, although around half have been released.
Koe Soe Naing, a graphic designer and freelance journalist, was arrested on Friday as he was with a colleague in downtown Yangon to take photos during a “silent strike” called by opponents of the military regime.
It was the biggest national protest for several months, and the streets were virtually empty as people answered calls to stay home and businesses closed for six hours.
Ko Soe Naing is not the first inmate to die in government custody. There is no clear total, but the other deaths in custody were political activists and members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.
In several cases where the bodies could be seen, they bore marks suggesting the individuals had been tortured, according to human rights activists.
Journalists have mostly been the target of arrests as the military-installed government has sought to suppress the free flow of information. In addition to detaining media workers, many outlets have been forced to close or operate underground, with staff still at risk of arrest.
Ko Soe Naing and his colleague have been covering the crisis in Myanmar for months, with their work documenting anti-military protests and brutal crackdowns by security forces sometimes picked up by foreign news agencies.
“A terrible death”
After his arrest, Ko Soe Naing was sent to a military interrogation center in eastern Botahtaung Township in Yangon, colleagues familiar with his case said.
His family was informed on Tuesday morning that he died at the 1,000-bed Defense Service General Hospital in Mingaladon Township in Yangon, said colleagues and a family friend, who spoke to the news agency Associated Press (AP) on condition of anonymity giving such information could make them targets of arrest.
His body was then believed to have been cremated the same day at Yay Way Cemetery in Yangon, North Okkalapa Township, said the family friend, who was not told if the body had any visible injuries.
The Irrawaddy news site quoted a source as saying that Ko Soe Naing “was in good health” until his death was reported.
Since the military takeover, Myanmar’s interrogation centers have increasingly used torture against detainees, an AP investigation has found.
Many centers were built and used under a former period of military rule, while others were set up on military bases or even community buildings.
🔴BREAKING🇲🇲#Myamnar: #RSF is appalled to learn that freelance photojournalist Soe Naing – kidnapped by the military while covering a silent protest in Yangon on Friday – died in custody this morning after violent interrogation. 53 journalists are in prison.#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/ur1BEYGypU
— RSF (@RSF_inter) December 14, 2021
An army defector told the AP he saw soldiers torture two prisoners to death at a mountaintop interrogation center inside a military base in the state of Chin.
Paris-based press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders tweeted that the group was “dismayed to learn that freelance photo reporter Soe Naing – kidnapped by the military while covering a silent protest in Yangon Friday – died in custody this morning after violent interrogation.
Ko Soe Naing is survived by his wife, who could not be contacted, and a four-year-old son. The current situation of the photographer arrested with him was not known.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Tuesday called for the immediate release of Aung San Lin, a reporter for Democratic Voice of Burma, a broadcast and online service.
He said he was arrested on December 11, shortly after reporting that soldiers had set fire to the homes of three supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.
On Monday, the New York-based organization called on authorities to release three Shan state journalists recently sentenced to prison for their work and drop all charges against them.
Since the February 1 coup, at least 1,339 people have been killed, according to the association for assistance to political prisoners, responsible for monitoring human rights. Nearly 11,000 others were arrested.
On Friday, the Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP) filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing military leader Min Aung Hlaing of committing crimes against humanity for overseeing a deadly crackdown on protesters and activists.
MAP urged the court in The Hague to open a criminal investigation “into the widespread and systematic use of torture in the context of the violent crackdown against the protest movement” in the Southeast Asian country.