Danny Fenster’s release highlights Myanmar junta’s despicable behaviour
Following US journalist Danny Fenster’s return to the United States after six months in a jail in Myanmar, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has retraced the week of events that led to his release – a week in which Myanmar’s generals used him as a bargaining chip in the most contemptible manner.
“You become worried that it’s never going to end.” This was how Danny Fenster summed up how he felt during his 176 days in prison, speaking yesterday as he waited on the tarmac of the airport in Doha, Qatar, for his connecting flight to the United States.
The week was marked by many twists and turns in the fate of this journalist, who took over as editor of the magazine Frontier Myanmar a year and a half ago after working for the Myanmar Now news website for several years.
What with his utterly arbitrary arrest, the later addition of preposterous new criminal charges and his sham trial, Fenster was clearly nothing more than a toy in the hands of Myanmar’s generals. And the developments surrounding his fate in the past few days exposed the extent to which the military commanders who seized power in a violent coup last February are ready to brazenly manipulate the rule of law.
“As a foreign journalist, Danny Fenster was clearly used as a bargaining chip by the junta’s leaders during secret negotiations with their foreign interlocutors,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“Armed with an utter contempt for press freedom and the rule of law, the generals sought to tip the scales in their favour by accusing Danny Fenster of the worst crimes in order to get more in return for his release. Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing took Machiavellian politics to their extreme, revealing himself as a ‘tyrant-in-chief’ given to the most despicable practices.”
Week of developments
- 3 November
After more than five months in Insein prison, which is located in a Yangon suburb, Danny Fenster suddenly found himself being charged with illegal immigration under section 13.1 of Myanmar’s immigration law, which punishes foreign citizens who enter the country illegally or remain after their visa expires.
The charge was questionable, to say the least, as Fenster was arrested in possession of a valid visa as he was about to leave Myanmar aboard a flight to the United States. This charge carries a possible five-year prison sentence.
- 10 November
The Yangon military prosecutor’s office decided to dig up two new charges against Fenster – “treason” under section 124a of the penal code, and “terrorism” under section 50a of the terrorism law, a charge punishable by imprisonment for life.
Fenster is the only journalist to have been held under these laws, which are traditionally used by the military to criminalise calls for autonomy by Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. All other journalists imprisoned in Myanmar are being held under section 505a of the penal code, under which publishing or broadcasting information liable to endanger the armed forces is punishable by three years in prison.
- 12 November
Two days after these new charges, a military court established within Insein prison tried Fenster on three charges previously brought against him – threatening the interests of the armed forces, violating immigration law and illegal association.
This last charge, which is also mainly used against pro-autonomy movements, was added by the prosecutor’s office on 4 October. Fenster was given a combined sentenced of 11 years in prison, the maximum permitted by these charges.
- 15 November
At around 8 a.m. Yangon time, the junta’s press office announced that Fenster would appear before a new court the next day on the treason and terrorism charges.
At the same time, the head of the junta, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, was meeting with former US ambassador Bill Richardson, who had arrived in Naypyidaw, the administrative capital, a few days earlier in a private capacity – officially to negotiate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Burmese population.
Then, in a dramatic development at midday, the junta announced that Fenster was being pardoned on “humanitarian grounds.” A few hours later, he could be seen on the tarmac at Naypyidaw airport in a photo posted online by Richardson. Officially expelled from Myanmar, he was about to board a flight to Doha, the first stage of a journey to New York’s JFK, where he was finally reunited with his family yesterday.
No information has emerged about what Myanmar’s military got in return for releasing Fenster. The junta said that two Japanese emissaries, Hideo Watanabe and Yohei Sasakawa, were involved in the negotiations. The Japanese government has denied any direct involvement but Japan continues to be one of Myanmar’s leading commercial partners.
The last foreign journalist still being held in Myanmar, Fenster was subjected to a particularly long imprisonment. Another US citizen, Nathan Maung, spent just over three months in prison before being released on 15 June. The Japanese reporter Yuki Kitazumi was released on 14 May after being held for less than a month.
According to RSF’s barometer, 43 professional journalists and three bloggers are currently being held in Myanmar’s prisons.
Myanmar is ranked 140th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.