I’ve written in these pages many times about writers and journalists in Myanmar who, over the years, have been imprisoned or persecuted by the military junta. These have included various appeals for the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. Since the Nobel Peace Prize laureate took office in 2016 as state counsellor (a position akin to head of government), human rights and free expression have appeared to be improving. However, the recent persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine state has aroused worldwide horror. The media within Myanmar has effectively been silenced and Suu Kyi herself has come under scrutiny for not condemning the attacks, which many see as ethnic cleansing and a form of genocide.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo managed to investigate the ethnic violence in Rakhine state and contributed to a Reuters exposé released in February this year. The Reuters report documented the execution of ten Muslim Rohingya men in the village of Inn Din, whom the military accused of inciting political unrest. The two reporters were arrested on 12 December 2017 and charged the following day. The military admitted to the killings in January. Nevertheless, on 3 September, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, after more than eight months in detention, were found guilty in a Myanmar court of obtaining classified documents illegally with the purpose of harming the state under Section 3.1.c of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The pair were sentenced to seven years in prison. They have always maintained their innocence.
PEN has called the conviction a ‘travesty of justice’ and ‘a grave setback for Myanmar’s aspiring democracy’. PEN reports that the hearings revealed a lack of evidence against the two journalists: the documents they are accused of wrongfully possessing are not secret and there is no proof of their intent to harm the country. Furthermore, a police officer testified that the Reuters journalists were deliberately framed by the authorities.
A number of Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups have fought for years with the government, seeking autonomy or independence. In Rakhine, the conflict involves Mro and Diagnet communities, along with the Rohingya, people of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths. Hundreds of villages have been affected and thousands of people displaced. Northern Rakhine has been under military control since 2012. The Rohingya, dismissed by some in Myanmar as interlopers from Bangladesh, have faced decades of discrimination and are denied citizenship.
In August last year, following a Rohingya militant group attack on more than thirty police posts, a brutal military crackdown was launched in the far west of Rakhine. The United Nations criticised the army’s response to the attacks – citing evidence of murder, imprisonment, torture, rape, sexual slavery, persecution and enslavement – as ‘grossly disproportionate to actual security threats’. The UN has since called for top military figures to be investigated for genocide.
At least 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the past twelve months. According to PEN, restrictions imposed by the military have ‘made it hard for media professionals, journalists, aid workers, human rights experts and representatives of international organisations to move around freely, observe the situation on the ground, or make independent assessment of what exactly is happening’. PEN has repeatedly urged the Myanmar government to allow members of the international and domestic press free access to Rakhine state, pointing out that their own citizens and the rest of the world have the right to seek, receive and impart information about the conflict there.
Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, has said the conviction of the Reuters’ journalists was in accordance with the rule of law: ‘They were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because … the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act.’ She concluded that they had ‘every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment was wrong’. Suu Kyi clearly recognises the need to improve the administration of justice in Myanmar, and some reforms have been made by her government. But the judicial system remains corrupt, with unduly harsh sentences handed down, and judges are susceptible to political and military pressure. This is a legacy of the country’s authoritarian past.
PEN believes that the court’s decision is ‘a blatant attempt to intimidate the press’ and stop independent reporting on the violence in Rakhine state. In May, dozens of literary luminaries, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jonathan Franzen, and the journalists Christiane Amanpour and Bob Woodward signed an open letter urging the Myanmar authorities to release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Amnesty International claims that both men are prisoners of conscience.
Readers might like to send appeals to the Myanmar authorities expressing deep concern at the sentencing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression; urging the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the journalists and revoke the convictions against them; requesting that they repeal or amend all laws – including the 1923 Official Secrets Act – that impose arbitrary restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and bring Myanmar legislation into line with international human rights law and standards; and seeking assurances that the journalists will not be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment while in detention.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Kyaw Zwar Minn
Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
19A Charles Street, London W1J 5DX
Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe
Ministry of Home Affairs, Office No 10
Nay Pyi Taw, Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Fax: +95 67 412 439