Joy, relief as Singaporean cameraman returns after two months in Myanmar prison

Singaporean cameraman Lau Hon Meng with his friends from the Adam Road Presbyterian Church at Changi Airport on Dec 29.
Singaporean cameraman Lau Hon Meng with his friends from the Adam Road Presbyterian Church at Changi Airport on Dec 29.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Lau Hon Meng and his wife shed tears as church friends gather for a prayer on his safe return at Changi Airport T2 on Dec 29, 2017.
Lau Hon Meng and his wife shed tears as church friends gather for a prayer on his safe return at Changi Airport T2 on Dec 29, 2017.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Lau Hon Meng receives a hug from his pastor from Adam Road Presbyterian Church.
Lau Hon Meng receives a hug from his pastor from Adam Road Presbyterian Church.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Cheers and shouts of joy erupted as Singaporean cameraman Lau Hon Meng walked out of the Changi Airport Terminal 2 transit area.

The 43-year-old arrived home on Friday (Dec 29) evening from Yangon, along with Malaysian documentary producer Mok Choy Lin, 47, after the duo spent two months in a Myanmar prison for flouting a colonial-era aircraft law by filming in the country with a drone.

About 40 friends from the Adam Road Presbyterian Church were waiting for Mr Lau, with a bright blue banner that read: "Praise the Lord, welcome home Lau".

Tearful hugs and embraces were exchanged as Mr Lau was welcomed home by his wife, his son who just turned one on Thursday, and friends - just in time for the new year.

"I'm so happy to be home, I just want to praise God because he made it all possible," Mr Lau told The Straits Times.

The group later said a quick prayer together before singing a thanksgiving song and leaving the terminal.

"It's a great delight to have him back... he's had a very difficult time," said Mr Lau's pastor Chris Chia, 58.

Ms Mok, a Singapore permanent resident, left quickly and did not speak to the media.

Both Mr Lau and Ms Mok were detained by Myanmar police on Oct 27 near the country's Parliament building in the capital Naypyitaw and subsequently slapped with a two-month jail term.

Myanmar journalist Aung Naing Soe, who was interpreting for them, and their driver Hla Tin were also jailed.

The four - who were supposed to be jailed till Jan 9 - were also facing pending customs and immigration charges.

But on Thursday, the Myanmar authorities dropped the charges and told the four that they would be released from prison. AFP reported that those additional charges carried between three and five more years in prison.

Defence lawyer Khin Maung Zaw told The Straits Times by phone that the group were released on Friday morning.

"They were released at 7am, and the two foreign journalists were escorted by immigration officers to the airport," he said, adding that the two Myanmar nationals were released to their families at the prison gates.

A Myanmar police official told Reuters on Tuesday that the charges were being dropped because the four did not mean to endanger national security. Also, Myanmar wanted to improve relations with Singapore and Malaysia.

The four people were detained while on assignment to produce a documentary for Turkey's state broadcaster Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT).

 

After their first conviction on Nov 10, they were sent to Yamethin prison in central Myanmar.

TRT's English-language subsidiary, TRT World, had said that Mr Lau and Ms Mok entered Myanmar on journalist visas and had "shot in various locations with conventional cameras as well as with a drone, up until Oct 27".

The detention of the four had raised concerns over press freedom in Myanmar.

AFP reported on Friday that at least 11 reporters have been arrested in the country this year.

While Myanmar has no specific law on drones, individual authorities have tried to restrict drone usage over their premises.

Drones have been used by photographers, and also by the authorities to gather meteorological data and conduct structural checks on bridges.

Mr Lau is a freelance cameraman, while Ms Mok is a veteran in Singapore's broadcasting sector, having produced, written and directed shows such as Under One Roof and Phua Chu Kang. She was at one time Channel NewsAsia's vice-president of international production.

She has also worked for the National Geographic Channel as its director of regional production.