The release of Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone brought good news to their families and supporters, as they finally taste freedom after over 16 months in prison. They should never have been in prison in the first place, and their release should not represent benevolence on the part of the Myanmar government, but should be remembered in the context of the huge miscarriage of justice that led to their imprisonment. Their reporting on the atrocities committed against the Rohingya by the Myanmar military is an example of bravery in the face of military, government and often, broader public opposition.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released on 7 May, 2019 as part of the third presidential amnesty around the New Year period that included 6,250 prisoners. They were reunited with their family as domestic and international media organizations, human rights groups and supporters welcomed this good news. Speaking on his release Wa Lone said “I’m really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. I can’t wait to go to my newsroom. I am a journalist and I am going to continue to be.”
Yet the pair should never have been in prison at all. They were set up by the police in a sting operation and were charged under the Official Secrets Act, in possession of secret documents that the police had handed to them just moments before their arrest. Their appeal was denied and they spent a total of 511 days in prison. Their real crimes, in the eyes of the authorities, was their fearless reporting for the Reuters news agency on the violence committed against the Rohingya in Rakhine State by the Myanamr military, whose leaders the UN Fact Finding Mission stated should be tried for genocide. The story they were working on at the time of their arrest was a massacre of 10 Rohingya civilians at Inn Dinn Village, committed by security forces with help from local villagers. Their reporting won a Pulitzer Prize and a UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize.
While Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were imprisoned because of their reporting on the Rohingya, journalists and media organizations reporting on the escalating armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA), also in Rakhine State, are facing pressure. While many media organizations have been covering the conflict, displacement and human rights violations in Rakhine State, the Myanmar military has deemed such coverage to be unfair and not balanced, and has thus pressed charges. In a recent press conference, the Secretary of the Myanmar military’s True News Information Team stated that the military had “lost patience” with the media.
Three media organizations have now had cases filed against them by the military. The Irrawaddy and Radio Free Asia are facing criminal defamation charges under the notorious Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law – a favored tool of both the National League for Democracy government and the military to attempt to silence criticism. In Rakhine State, the Special Branch – an intelligence unit which comes under the purview of the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs – has opened a lawsuit against the editor-in-chief of the Sittwe-based, Development Media Group (DMG) under Article 17(2) of the Unlawful Associations Act. This section of another notorious law – a classic Myanmar military tool that has been used to lock up people in ethnic areas for many years- stipulates that “whoever manages or assists in the management of an unlawful association, or promotes or assists in promoting a meeting of any such association, or of any members thereof as such members, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term [which shall not be less than three years and more than five years and shall also be liable to fine].” The DMG has extensively covered the armed conflict and the abuse and violence of the Myanmar military in Rakhine State, and is widely read in the area.
The importance of the media in exposing the truth behind the Myanmar military’s actions is of huge significance. In a world of mis- and disinformation, and a country that has only known military propaganda for decades, factual reporting, such as that of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is essential. The reaction on certain social media accounts that brands them as traitors only speaks to the deep rooted false and dangerous narratives that their reporting seeks to counterbalance. Their imprisonment was a huge miscarriage of justice and as the Myanmar military intimidates more media on their reporting of the armed conflict with the Arakan Army, notions of a “transition to democracy” which certain international actors, such as the UN in Myanmar, still unfathomably cling on to, have become largely delusional. Until the truth of the Myanmar military’s actions is able to be freely reported on in the country, no transition towards democracy or steps towards accountability will be able to be taken. Until then, Myanmar must rely on the brave actions of people such as Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
By Amnesty International
By Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
By Human Rights Watch
By Human Rights Watch
By Rohingya Action Ireland
By Southeast Asian Press Alliance
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”