The amnesty granted to two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists imprisoned in Myanmar was good news and a tribute both to their courage and to the many journalists, national leaders and human rights organizations that had campaigned for their freedom. But the release of U Wa Lone, 33, and U Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, on Tuesday was hardly an admission by the government that their arrest and trial were a gross injustice and an assault on the press to begin with.
The two Reuters reporters were arrested in December 2017 after uncovering details of the gruesome murder of 10 Rohingya men and boys, followed by the burning and looting of their village by security forces, as part of a widespread military crackdown on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, that drove more than 700,000 to flee across the border to refugee camps in Bangladesh. The evidence the reporters gathered, subsequently published by Reuters, was indisputable and acknowledged even by Myanmar authorities.
That did not prevent the military-controlled government, however, from arresting the pair on obviously concocted evidence, subjecting them to brutal intimidation and interrogations and charging them under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The reporters were both sentenced to seven years in prison, and the penalty was confirmed by the Supreme Court only last month.
The government has insisted that its campaign against the Rohingya was precipitated by attacks on Myanmar security forces by Rohingya militants. But the 15-month crackdown went far beyond any police operation and turned into a campaign of killings, rapes and torching of villages against a minority long held in disdain by the Buddhist majority as aliens who have no place in Myanmar. A United Nations fact-finding mission declared in August 2018 that the atrocities “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”
Reporting on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya remains effectively off-limits, and even the word “Rohingya” is banned. According to the independent online newspaper The Irrawaddy, a number of journalists have been prosecuted under various criminal laws, such as the Unlawful Association Act, the State Defamation Act and, like in the case of the Reuters reporters, the Official Secrets Act. The Irrawaddy itself was recently sued by the military under the Telecommunications Act, which criminalizes online defamation, for its coverage of fighting between government troops and an insurgent group known as the Arakan Army. According to the World Press Freedom Index, compiled by the organization Reporters Without Borders, Myanmar was in 138th place out of 180 countries.
Mr. Wa Lone and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo were released without explanation in an amnesty granted by President U Win Myint to 6,520 prisoners, so there was no way to gauge whether the gesture augured a change in government policies toward the Rohingya or the news media. More likely, the government simply responded to international pressure. Officials of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, where the Rohingya are from, are meeting in Myanmar this week to discuss progress toward protecting and reintegrating the Rohingya minority.
Sadly, any discussion of the state of affairs in Myanmar invariably comes to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate whose 15 years under house arrest once made her an icon of human rights and democracy. When she was released in 2010 and came to head the civilian government, hopes rose that she would bring her ideals with her. Instead, justifying the military’s actions has become the hallmark of her leadership. According to Human Rights Watch, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was unhelpful and evasive over the plight of the Reuters reporters and has echoed the military line on the Rohingya.
Still, it just may be that the release of the two reporters does herald a new approach by the government. Until that is somehow confirmed, however, the pressure on Myanmar - and on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi - to stop the persecution of the Rohingya and the assault on the press must not let up.