10 December 1999
Burmese journalist Daw San San Nweh wins 1999 RSF - Fondation de France Prize
(RSF/IFEX) - The following is an RSF press release:
Daw San San Nweh (Burma) wins 1999 Reporters Sans Frontières - Fondation de France Prize
The annual Reporters Sans Frontières - Fondation de France prize has been awarded to Burmese journalist and novelist San San Nweh. Currently held at Tharrawady prison, she was arrested in Rangoon on 5 August 1994 and sentenced two months later to ten years in jail for "publishing information harmful to the state".
The prize will be presented on:
Friday 10 December 1999, at 11.30 am,
at Espace Electra, 6, rue Récamier, 75007 Paris
At the age of only 15, San San Nweh became correspondent for three national newspapers. Two years later she was the first Burmese woman to receive a journalist's training. Before her arrest, she was editing several women's magazines, particularly Gita Pade-tha and Einmet-hpu. She became politically active in the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Her reputation as a writer goes beyond Burma's borders. Since 1974 she has published 12 novels, over 500 short stories and about 100 poems. On 6 October 1994 Daw San San Nweh was found guilty of "publishing information harmful to the state" with a view to "fomenting disorder". She was sentenced to seven years in jail, the maximum provided for by the emergency law, and then to a further three years for "giving biased viewpoints" to French journalists in April 1993. She is also accused of "providing information about the human rights situation to the United Nations' special rapporteur for Burma".
Now 55, San San Newh is struggling against illness and isolation. She is suffering from liver disease and eye problems because of the very harsh conditions at Insein prison, Rangoon, and the torture she has endured. She was recently moved to Tharrawaddy prison, 100 miles north of Rangoon, to continue serving her sentence. Friends and relatives who have tried to bring food or money for her have been threatened by the MIS (the Burmese secret service). Her mother is her only source of support because her husband has died since she was imprisoned and her elder daughter, also a writer and political activist, is in prison too.
Thirteen journalists are currently imprisoned in Burma in appalling conditions. Most of them are serving long prison sentences. They suffer cruel treatment from prison guards and endure the harsh conditions shared by all 2,000 prisoners of conscience in the country. One journalist died in jail in 1998. A photographer is thought to have died under torture in September 1999. U Win Tin, a well-known journalist and brilliant intellectual, is dying in his cell. Since 1962 the junta, outlawed by the rest of the world, has consistently and with exceptional violence crushed the slightest attempts to launch a free press.
U Aung Ko, a Burmese dissident, will receive the prize on behalf of San San Nweh. He is known for his part in John Boorman's film "Rangoon", in which he played a dissident teacher who introduces an American woman tourist to the realities of life in Burma and to Buddhist wisdom. U Aung Ko has been working for democracy in Burma for over 20 years. He has lived in France since leaving Burma, where he worked as a French-Burmese interpreter, in 1975.
The Reporters Sans Frontières - Fondation de France prize, worth 50,000 francs, has been awarded annually since 1992 to journalists who, through their work or attitudes, have demonstrated their devotion to press freedom. The winners were:
- 1992 : Zlatko Dizdarevic of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodenje.
- 1993 : Chinese journalist Wang Juntao of Economic Weekly.
- 1994 : Rwandan journalist André Sibomana, editor of the magazine Kinyamateka.
- 1995 : Chris Anyanwu, editor of the Nigerian Sunday Magazine.
- 1996 : Turkish journalist Isik Yurtçu, former editor of the pro-Kurdish daily Ozgür Gündem.
- 1997 : Raúl Rivero, founder of the independent news agency Cuba Press.
- 1998 : Syrian journalist Nizar Nayyouf, editor of the monthly Voice of Democracy.
This year, six other journalists were on the jury's shortlist: Veton Surroi, editor of the Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore (Kosovo); Jesús Barraza, editor of the weekly Pulso (Mexico); Najam Sethi, editor of the English-language weekly Friday Times (Pakistan); Grigory Pasko, a former journalist with the Russian navy newspaper Boyevaya Vakhta (Russia); Amal Abbas, editor of the independent daily Al-Rai Al-Akhar (Sudan); Taoufik Ben Brick, correspondent of the French news agency SYFIA and the French daily La Croix (Tunisia).
Daw San San Nweh (Burma)
Scheduled for release in 2004
Journalist, author and political activist.
Date of arrest
5 August 1994
Daw San San Nweh was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment by a civilian court sitting inside Insein prison on 6 October 1994. A second charge cost her another three years. She is therefore serving a sentence of ten years.
Daw San San Nweh was accused of "producing and sending anti-government reports to diplomats in foreign embassies, foreign radio stations and foreign journalists passing through the country" and of "receiving, collecting and distributing publications issued by organisations exiled in the jungle". Daw San San Nweh was also accused of meeting former members of the Democratic Party for a New Society (a political group banned by the SLORC, then the ruling junta) with a view to "fomenting disorder" and of talking - filmed from behind - to two French journalists for a documentary made in April 1993. Meanwhile, her daughter, Ma Myat Mo Mo Tun, was accused of recording "libellous documents and letters" on a computer diskette for Khin Zaw Win, another opponent of the military government (probably a diskette found on him when he was arrested).
The authorities also allege that she gave information about the human rights situation in Burma to Yozo Yokota, the United Nations special rapporteur for the country.
Place of imprisonment
She is currently being held at the prison in Tharrawaddy, the town where she was born. She was moved there after several years at Insein prison, Rangoon
Conditions of imprisonment
Conditions at Tharrawaddy should be less harsh than at Insein prison, where torture and ill-treatment are common and several political prisoners have died in the past. San San Nweh suffered various health problems during her time at Insein, but it is believed that her health has improved somewhat following the move.
On various occasions the prison authorities have refused to allow her visits, which are usually permitted every two weeks. Her family, especially her mother, and friends who have tried to help her financially have been threatened by prison guards. The publisher of one of her books was even imprisoned for a month after trying to help her.
Circumstances of arrest
San San Nweh was arrested in Rangoon at the same time as her daughter, writer Ma Myat Mo Mo Tun; journalist Sein Hla Oo; and Khin Maung Swe, an executive committee member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and a member of parliament. The arrests were apparently connected with that of Kin Zaw Win a few days earlier.
San San Nweh was charged under article 5 of the emergency law with "publishing information harmful to the state" with a view to "fomenting disorder".
She was also charged under article 14 of the law on illegal organisations with "giving biased opinions" to two French journalists passing through Burma in April 1993.
She was tried by a civilian court. She was told she could have the services of a lawyer but refused the offer for fear that the lawyer might suffer reprisals for handling her case.
Widowed, four children
Her husband died while she was in prison. Her children now have no regular income because of her imprisonment.
Date and place of birth
28 August 1945 at Tharrawaddy, a town 60 miles south of Rangoon. Her parents are U Tin Maung and Daw Sein Pu.
She has been writing since the age of 13 and was local correspondent for several newspapers (The Nation, Botahtaung, Pyithuowe) while still at school. She continued to work as a reporter until 1966, when she married Tun Nyunt Oo, a columnist with Kyeimon and Hanthawadi, and moved to Rangoon. The couple had four children. In 1962 she was the first Burmese woman to receive full training as a journalist.
She published her first novel in 1974 but it was the third, "Prison of Darkness", which was highly critical of Burmese society and the dictatorship of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), that made her famous. San San Nweh has written a total of 12 novels, over 500 short stories and about 100 poems, some of which have been banned by the Burmese censors.
In 1988, at the time of the pro-democracy demonstrations, she published two magazines, Gita Pade-tha and Ein-met-hpu. Known in intellectual and journalistic circles for her strength of character and her excellent writing, she became involved with the NLD and with a group of intellectuals, including journalists Win Tin, who is still in prison, and Tin Moe, who was released in February 1995. Together they devised the slogan "Our duty is to oppose illegal decrees". On 21 July 1989, as she was travelling the country as a representative of the NLD, she was arrested and kept in solitary confinement at Insein prison. She was freed in April 1990.
Amnesty International prisoner of conscience status
France 2, France Culture, Le Figaro, Elle, Les Clés de l'Actualité, L'Indépendant, Internazionale (Italy), El País (Spain), Le Soir (Belgium), Journalisten (Sweden).
Report on the state of press freedom in Burma
Thirteen journalists left to die in Burmese jails
Win Tin and Myo Myint Nyein, two well-known journalists, have been forced to sleep on the concrete floor, with no mattresses or blankets, in tiny cells normally used as kennels for soldiers' dogs. Their guards accused them of giving information about the prison conditions to the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in Burma. This ill-treatment bears witness to the appalling conditions being endured by the 13 journalists currently in prison in Burma. Most of them are serving long sentences. They suffer cruel treatment from prison guards and endure the harsh conditions shared by all 2,000 prisoners of conscience in the country. One journalist, U Saw Win, died in jail in 1998. Another, photographer U Thar Win, is thought to have died under torture in September 1999. What these journalists have in common is their commitment to the cause of democracy and their refusal to submit to the millstone of censorship that the army imposes on the press. Since 1962 the junta, outlawed by the rest of the world, has consistently and with exceptional violence crushed the slightest attempts to launch a free press.
Thirteen journalists in prison
Most of the 13 journalists in prison in Burma have some connection with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), either as officials, activists or sympathisers.
The situation in Burma makes it difficult to gather information about what has happened to journalists in prison. The authorities have never officially given any information about how many are being held or their state of health. Some have been moved to the provinces without their families being informed.
U Win Tin, editor of the newspaper Hanthawathi, is one of the most respected Burmese journalists and intellectuals. He was arrested on 4 July 1989 and sentenced to three years' hard labour for "harbouring a criminal wanted for arrest" under article 216 of the penal code. The "criminal" in question was thought to be a young woman who had had an abortion, which is illegal in Burma. His sentence was reportedly increased to ten years in January 1993. U Win Tin is only due for release in 2008. His health has worsened considerably over the past few months. He is still thought to be held at Insein prison, Rangoon, where conditions are particularly harsh. Aged 69, he has often been interrogated by the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), but has always refused to denounce the Representative Committee of the People's Parliament (the opposition parliament in exile), which the junta has made a condition of his release.
San San Nweh has been a journalist for 30 years and was jointly editing several women's magazines when she was arrested in 1994 - along with her elder daughter - and sentenced to ten years in jail. The government accuses her of having a conversation with two French journalists in April 1993. According to recent information, she is being held at Tharrawaddy prison, about 100 miles north of Rangoon, after spending several years at Insein. Aged 55, she is reported to be suffering from liver disease and an eye infection. Her mother is her only source of support because her husband has died since she was imprisoned. Friends and relatives who have tried to help her by bringing her food or money have been threatened by the MIS and the publisher of one of her books was recently jailed for a month for giving her financial support.
U Sein Hla Oo, a journalist with the daily Botahtaung and a well-known short story writer, was arrested in 1994. He is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence for translating Aung San Suu Kyi's book "Freedom from Fear"into Burmese. He is being held at Myitkyina jail, in the north of the country. His wife, who had been allowed to visit him every three months, has been refused permission to see him since August 1999. Aged 61, U Sein Hla Oo is suffering from heart disease and is believed to have started receiving treatment at the prison hospital.
Myo Myint Nyein and Sein Hlaing, both independent journalists, worked chiefly for magazines. They were arrested together in September 1990 and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for publishing an "anti-government propaganda" leaflet entitled "What has become of us?" In November 1995 they were sentenced to an additional seven years after books were found in their cell at Insein prison. Myo Myint Nyein was moved to Tharrawaddy prison and is reported to be in good health. Sein Hlaing is thought to be still at Insein. His family has not been allowed to visit him since August 1999.
U Moe Thu has worked as a reporter for the economic magazine Dana as well as being a recognised author. He was arrested in May 1996 under article 10 (a) of the 1975 State Protection Law, which means that he can be kept in jail indefinitely without trial. Aged 69, he is currently being held at Insein prison where he is suffering from stomach trouble and heart disease.
Sonny (Khin Maung Win), 40, a photographer and cameraman for the NLD, was arrested in June 1997 for filming an interview with Aung San Suu Kyi. He was sentenced to seven years in jail in August 1997 for "knowingly publishing false information". He is being held at Myitkyina prison in the north of the country. The prison authorities recently told his family that he was no longer on their list of prisoners. He has not been seen for several months.
U Tha Ban, a journalist with the daily Kyemon (the Mirror) was arrested in March 1997 and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for helping a student leader to write a book entitled "The History of Burmese Students". Aged 65, U Tha Ban is being held at Insein prison. He is reported to have trouble walking and to be suffering from eye problems. His family has asked for him to be examined by an ophthalmologist but their request was turned down by the authorities.
U Soe Thein (Maung Wontha), a journalist with the daily Botahtaung, was arrested in May 1996 under article 10 (a) of the 1975 State Protection Law. He is being held at Insein prison and is reported to be suffering from high blood pressure.
Ohn Kyaing, a journalist with the dailies Kyemon and Hantawaddy, was imprisoned in 1990 and later sentenced to a total of 17 years. He is currently being held at Taungoo prison, 125 miles north of Rangoon. His family have been forced to sell their home and land to help him.
Aung Zin Min, 50, a journalist with the magazine New Style, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1996 for publishing articles in support of democracy. He is currently in Tharrawaddy prison.
U Thein Tan, a journalist with Kyemon and Hantawaddy, was arrested in 1990 and sentenced to a total of ten years in jail. According to some sources, his health has deteriorated recently. He is 60.
Cho Seint, independent journalist, was arrested in 1996 and sentenced to seven years in prison for his commitment to democracy. He is being held at Tharrawaddy prison.
Extremely harsh prison conditions
As well as difficult conditions, prisoners have to endure physical and mental torture. Most of the journalists jailed in Burma are also suffering from serious illnesses. The authorities either refuse to allow prisoners proper treatment, or put it off. One jailed journalist, U Saw Win, deputy editor of the daily Botahtaung, died on 7 August 1998 after a heart attack. Aged 59, he was apparently not given correct medical care by the Tharrawaddy prison authorities. Elected as a member of parliament for the NLD in 1990, he was arrested a year later and sentenced to ten years in jail.
It seems likely that U Thar Win, a photographer with the government newspaper Kyemon, died during interrogation by the MIS on 26 September 1999. U Thar Win, 43, was arrested along with seven other journalists after the daily published a photo of General Khin Nyunt alongside a story headlined "The world's most famous crook". They were all released but lost their jobs. According to some sources, the photographer was a democrat who had managed to "infiltrate" the government newspaper.
All the journalists in prison have been beaten or even tortured during interrogation. Information about the torture endured by prisoners of conscience has been available for a few years because of accounts by some who have managed to flee into exile. Beatings, cigarette burns (particularly on the genitals), electric shocks, isolation in tiny cells, death and rape threats have all been reported. The lastest information available suggests that these practices are far from having disappeared.
U Win Tin, Myo Myint Nyein, Sein Hlaing and U Sein Hla Oo are chained up and kept in solitary confinement for periods of at least three months. San San Nweh has still not been allowed to see her 24-year-old daughter, who was arrested at the same time in 1994.
The prison authorities may suspend visits from friends and family without explanation, withdraw medical treatment or restrict the right to showers. Prisoners of conscience have to make do with food rations that are very low in calories. Many have developed eye infections and heart problems. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been visiting Burmese prisons since September 1999. Following the visits, food rations have been reduced, prisoners moved to jails in the provinces and conditions generally have worsened for prisoners of opinion.
Underground news versus the propaganda press
Since the 1988 coup d'état no independent media have been allowed in Burma. The press, and in particular the three dailies (two published in Burmese and one in English), are under the direct control of the junta. About 50 privately owned weeklies and 40 or so monthlies are published, but many subjects are taboo: examples are human rights, the events of 1988, the activities of the opposition, and prostitution. The owners have to obtain a publishing licence from the generals' advisers. Most of these publications are of low quality, printing mainly reports and pictures about film stars, singers and dancers. All magazines are also forced to print an article submitted by the MIS in every issue.
The junta has been trying for several years to gain tighter control of journalistic and intellectual circles, usually by "buying" them from the opposition. The army has offered land and social benefits to journalists who work for official media. Those who join the official Association of Journalists receive a bonus worth about 1,000 euros. A journalist is recognised as such after writing 20 poems or 12 articles in the Burmese language. According to the government, there are 12,000 writers and journalists in the country at the moment. Independent sources put the figure at only 1,000.
Only programmes broadcast on shortwave by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the radio station Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB, based in Oslo) give Burmese listeners access to news other than propaganda. Those stations are very popular with the Burmese, who listen to them in secret. The punishment for such a "crime" is prison. Newsletters and magazines are also published by Burmese people living in exile in Thailand and distributed secretly in Burma. Three of these independent newspapers appear regularly in Burmese: Khit Pying (New Era Newspaper), Moe Joe and The New Light of Myanmar (which was deliberately given the same title as the junta's English-language daily). They contain mainly political news put out by the various opposition groups. A person found in possession of one of these newspapers is liable to a severe jail sentence. In 1994 the well-known writer Ma Thida and 11 other people were arrested and sentenced to 20 years in jail for reading and distributing Khit Pying in Rangoon. Only Ma Thida has since been released. Burmese people are now afraid to read a newspaper or magazine published by journalists in exile. Recently a group of journalists living in exile issued a series of reports on human rights and civil society on cassette tapes that can easily be distributed, hidden or erased.
Before 1995 the border police and MIS did not stop and check businessmen arriving from Bangkok. Since then, however, the MIS has kept a close watch on the border between Thailand and Burma. Anyone found in possession of an opposition magazine is liable to be tortured and given a severe prison sentence. Few people therefore are now willing to take the risk of bringing underground publications into the country.
Dozens of Burmese journalists have left the country after being imprisoned or threatened by the military. One was Maung Tha Ya, a writer who also publishes the magazine Thaya. Everything he has written has been banned by the military government. He managed to flee the country in 1999 by pretending to be a trader. Tim Moe, a well-known journalist, poet and founder of various magazines with U Win Tin, was also sentenced to exile after four years in prison. The same thing happened to Win Khet, a well-known columnist who spent several years in Burmese prisons.
As for foreign journalists, they are regarded with suspicion by the junta. Visas are hard to obtain and since January 1998 five foreign journalists have been thrown out of the country. Several others have been arrested and interrogated by the Burmese police. The authorities accused them of taking too great an interest in human rights, or of making contact with members of the opposition.
Reporters Sans Frontières calls on the Burmese military government to:
1. release immediately and unconditionally the 13 journalists imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
2. ban the use of torture and ill-treatment in prisons, interrogation centres and police stations,
3. stop using "confessions" extracted under torture as evidence at trials,
4. respect international standards concerning fair trials (presence of a lawyer, the right to appeal, the defendant being informed of the charges, etc.),
5. repeal laws that are damaging to press freedom: the Printers and Publishers Registration Law of 1962, a blatant instrument of censorship, the Television and Video Law and the Computer Science Development Law of 1996, which allow drastic censorship of broadcasting and electronic media, the Emergency Provisions Act of 1950, which is used to give journalists severe prison sentences, the Official Secrets Act of 1923 and the State Protection Law of 1975, an emergency law that gives the army sweeping powers,
6. sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, article 19 of which guarantees freedom of expression,
7. allow a delegation from Reporters Sans Frontières to go to Burma.
Reporters Sans Frontières calls on the European Union to:
1. broaden the scope of sanctions against the Burmese government as defined in 1996 and extended by the Declaration of 30 October 1999,
2. do everything possible to give the United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in Burma the means to investigate violations of freedom of expression.