By Vipul Gupta
Since the allegations of a state-led ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims surfaced in November 2016, Myanmar has been at the centre stage of the refugee crisis. Despite extensive evidence of military-led persecution of the Rohingya population available in the international media, Myanmar has been vehemently defending its position citing “alternative facts” about the timeline of events. Myanmar, in the zest to control this apparent information leak regarding the Rohingya crisis, has denied several international organisations and media houses access to the violence-hit state of Rakhine.
The case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo:
Two Reuters reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 were arrested under Myanmar’s Officials Secrets Act on 12th December 2017. The arrest took place immediately after the journalists met two police officials in a restaurant in Myanmar’s capital city of Yangon. Having been arrested under the act, the two face a minimum of 14 years in prison, if they are found guilty by Myanmar’s judicial system.
Myanmar police allege that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe were in possession of secret government documents pertaining to operations of security forces in Rakhine. The two investigative journalists denied having knowledge of any such documents, and have asserted that the documents handed to them by the two ‘unidentified’ police officers were neither opened, nor asked for.
It is important to mention here that one of the two investigative journalists, Wa Lone, previously won an honourable mention from Asia’s press watchdog, the Society of Publishers in Asia, for his report on the October 2016 violence that erupted in the state of Rakhine. He has since been working on several stories related to the mass exodus of around 650,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bangladesh, and the Myanmar military’s role in the matter. Before their arrest, the duo was investigating the role of Myanmar’s army in the looting and burning a Rohingya village, during which ten men were killed and subsequently buried in a nearby mass grave.
While in custody
According to Reuters, before the two journalists were presented in court, they were kept detained at an undisclosed location for two weeks. Although no official comments have been made regarding this matter, the only people who have met Lone and Soe since then—their family members—have openly expressed their resentment against the state, for meting out injustice against those who seek to expose the crimes of the military. The families of the journalists confirmed that the two were treated with dignity and had not undergone any torture while in custody.
However, the most concerning aspect about the arrest, which has raised eyebrows is that there still is no information available regarding the two police officials who passed the alleged government secret document to the journalists. The police claim to have arrested two of its officials. However, Reuters reports that the arrested officials, are not the ones thatthe two journalists met on the night of their arrest. The question now remains—is Myanmar using its Colonial-era law just to clip the wings of international media covering Rohingya crisis?
The plight of Rohingya Muslims – some perspective
This is the first time after Myanmar’s transition to democracy, that anyone has been charged with the colonial-era Officials Secrets Act. This speaks volumes about the power structure in the current administration, where the military still enjoys authoritative powers, and the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government acts only as a shadow government. The same power divide was visible in the handling of the military-targeted violence against Rohingya Muslims when Aung San Suu Kyi’s government fought tooth and nail to defend military’s role in burning several villages in the Rakhine state.
All of this happened despite tremendous pressure from foreign governments, who called for Suu Kyi’s government to take action against the persecution of the Rohingya population. This in turn, challenged the Myanmar political leader’s her credibility in the international community.
The last time someone was charged with the Officials Secrets Act was in 2014, when a journalist from Myanmar’s Unity Five was arrested and later sentenced to 10 years in jail. He was found guilty of publishing an article that revealed the existence of an alleged secret chemical weapons factory. Though he was given amnesty soon after Suu Kyi came to power, larger concerns about the malicious use of the colonial-era law have once again gained ground.
International and national support
Currently, Myanmar is ranked 131 (out of 180 countries) in the Freedom of Press Index. It is often alleged that the high ranking military officials largely control the domestic media. However, the recent arrests have garnered support from all sections of local and international media. A global campaign to release Wa Lone and Kway Soe was started on the100th day of the arrest, and was supported by many international media houses, including Reuters, Time, the Guardian, and the Economist.
Several key foreign dignitaries, including Britain’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs Boris Johnson, have raised the issue of the journalist’s release with Suu Kyi. The US embassy in Yangon tweeted that for Myanmar’s successful transition to democracy, it is essential to have a free press. The Danish and Swedish Embassies released similar statements, and the EU and UN ambassadors too made public comments on the issue. What still remains unanswered is whether the democratically elected government led by Suu Kyi, is in any position to take charge of the situation, and if so what has her administration done so far?
On April 4, the jailed reporters’ lawyers asked a Myanmar judge to dismiss the case against them, citing inefficient evidence, Reuters reported. Since January, the Yangon court has been holding preliminary hearings to decide if the two reporters will be charged under the Official Secrets Act. The judge’s decision on the case is expected to be announced next week.
Meanwhile, after the hearing on Wednesday, Wa Long told journalists gathered outside the court that he “not a traitor”.
“We only did our work as reporters. I want the people to understand that and want to tell them that I never betrayed the country,” he added.
“We followed the news and uncovered the Inn Din story. The reason why we did it is to give the vitally important information to the country,” Kyaw Soe Oo said.
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