A freelance photojournalist from Myanmar has died in military custody after being arrested last week while covering protests, according to his colleagues and a friend of his family.
Ko Soe Naing is the first journalist known to have died in custody since the army seized power in February, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. More than 100 journalists have been detained since then, though about half have been released.
Koe Soe Naing, who was a graphic designer as well as a freelance journalist, was arrested Friday when he and a colleague were in downtown Yangon taking photos during a “silent strike” called by opponents of military rule.
It was the biggest nationwide protest in several months, and the streets were virtually empty as people answered the call to stay home and businesses to shut down for six hours.
Ko Soe Naing is not the first detainee to die in government custody. There is no clear total, but the others reported dead while in custody have been 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 that suggested the individuals had been tortured, according to human rights activists.
Journalists have mostly been targets for arrest, as the military-installed government has sought to clamp down on the free flow of information. In addition to detaining media workers, many outlets have been forced to close or operate underground, with their staff always at risk of arrest.
Ko Soe Naing and his colleague have been covering the crisis in Myanmar for months, with their work depicting anti-military protests and brutal crackdowns by security forces sometimes picked up by foreign news agencies.
After his arrest, Ko Soe Naing was sent to a military interrogation centre in Yangon’s Eastern Botahtaung Township, said colleagues familiar with his case.
His family was informed on Tuesday morning that he died at the 1,000-bed Defence Service General Hospital in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township, said the colleagues and a family friend, who spoke to the Associated Press (AP) news agency on condition of anonymity as giving such information could make them targets for arrest.
His body was reportedly then cremated the same day at Yangon’s Yay Way Cemetery in North Okkalapa Township, said the family friend, who was not told if the body had any visible injuries.
The Irrawaddy news website quoted a source as saying that Ko Soe Naing “was in good health” until his death was reported.
Since the army takeover, interrogation centres across Myanmar have been increasingly using torture against detainees, an AP investigation revealed.
Many of the centres were built and used under a former period of military rule, while others have been set up on military bases or even community buildings.
🔴BREAKING🇲🇲#Myamnar: #RSF is appalled to learn that freelance photoreporter Soe Naing – abducted by the military while covering a silent protest in Yangon on Friday- died in custody this morning, after a violent interrogation. 53 journalists are in jail.#WhatsHappeningInMyanmar pic.twitter.com/ur1BEYGypU
— RSF (@RSF_inter) December 14, 2021
An army defector told the AP that he witnessed soldiers torture two prisoners to death at a mountaintop interrogation centre inside an army base in Chin state.
The Paris-based freedom of the press organisation Reporters Without Borders tweeted that the group was “appalled to learn that freelance photo reporter Soe Naing – abducted by the military while covering a silent protest in Yangon on Friday- died in custody this morning, after a 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 the Democratic Voice of Burma, a broadcast and online service.
It said he had been arrested on December 11, right after he had given a report that alleged that soldiers had carried out arson on the homes of three supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party.
On Monday, the New York-based organisation had called on the authorities to release three journalists from Shan State who were recently sentenced to prison for their work and to drop all charges against them.
Since the February 1 coup, there have been at least 1,339 people killed, according to the human rights monitor Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Almost 11,000 others have been arrested.
On Friday, the Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP) filed a complaint before 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 Hague tribunal to open a criminal investigation “into the widespread and systematic use of torture as part of the violent crackdown against the protest movement” in the Southeast Asian country.