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World

Journalists On Trial In Myanmar

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Three journalists in Myanmar appeared in court this morning. They've been charged with the crime of unlawful association. It's a charge. Amnesty International calls farcical. The government's charges stem from a meeting between the journalists and an armed ethnic group, one of several regional insurgencies in the country.

POPPY MCPHERSON: It seemed to a lot of people that it was part of a deliberate strategy by the military to stop people seeing what's going on in those areas.

MARTIN: That's the voice of Poppy McPherson. She's a freelance journalist who is based in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for the three reporters, all Myanmar nationals, to be released. McPherson explained why they were arrested in the first place.

MCPHERSON: These journalists were traveling back from a drug-burning ceremony held by an ethnic rebel group. And they were stopped and detained and then eventually charged with unlawful association, basically for communicating with these rebel groups.

MARTIN: I understand you know one of the reporters that's been arrested. What can you tell us about him?

MCPHERSON: He is an absolute hero. His name is Lawi Weng. He's an extremely experienced conflict reporter.

MARTIN: Have you had any contact with him since he was arrested?

MCPHERSON: No. The only chance they've had to speak to the media has been this one rush interview during a court appearance in which they said how distressing it was that this is happening under Aung San Suu Kyi's watch in the civilian government.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize laureate who spent 15 years on house arrest, came to power a little over a year ago. And there was all kinds of optimism that under her leadership Myanmar was going to become a more open society. Has she weighed in on the arrest of these journalists?

MCPHERSON: No, she hasn't weighed in publicly at all, which is not surprising because she hasn't weighed in publicly on any of the great number of human rights abuses that have happened during the time of her rule.

MARTIN: Is she just a figurehead? I mean, does she actually have any power?

MCPHERSON: She is the head of the civilian government, but the military still controls some of the key institutions. They obviously control the army, the home ministry, which is overseeing the police. But she does hold power. There's this struggle, I guess - from the outside anyway, that's how it seems - between the civilian and the military arms of the government.

MARTIN: What's your thinking on why Aung San Suu Kyi has not weighed in?

MCPHERSON: I think people in the West have idolized Aung San Suu Kyi and built her into a figure which she might not be. I think that people pinned their ideas onto her and built her into this human rights activist, which, actually, she's not really ever claimed to be. She'd always claimed to want to free the country. And she said herself, she's a politician. She's a pragmatist. And I think their absolute priority - or so it seems from the outside - is to stop the military completely retaking control of the country. Well, that's at least what people who give her the benefit of the doubt believe.

MARTIN: Poppy McPherson is a freelance journalist based in Yangon. And we've been talking about the situation in Myanmar, the arrest of these journalists and their trial. She joined us via Skype.

Poppy, thanks so much.

MCPHERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.