In many ways the fate of the two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is intertwined with the fate of the political transition of Myanmar. The arrests on December 12, 2017 followed by farcical legal proceedings are clear symptoms that the window of democratic progress in Myanmar is closing rapidly.
I first met Wa Lone in a teashop in Yangon in late 2012. A mutual friend had introduced us and I found myself thrown into a spirited conversation on Burmese politics, democracy, education, and naturally, one of Wa Lone’s favorite topics, literature. Since then we have worked together on research projects, published articles — our latest dealt with the systematic discrimination of Muslims in Myanmar for a Swedish journal — and have devoted our spare time to book projects.
Neither Wa Lone nor Kyaw Soe Oo has been afraid of speaking truth to power. Their reporting on the atrocities committed by the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, in Rakhine state has gained them respect and recognition from fellow journalists. In 2016, Wa Lone was awarded a joint honorable mention from the Society of Publishers in Asia for his reporting on the Rohingya crisis. Kyaw Soe Oo, himself an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist who grew up in Sittwe, has made a name for himself through his investigative work on racial segregation in Rakhine state.
But speaking truth to power in Myanmar is not without reprisals. At least 29 journalists have been detained in Myanmar since 2016 and 21 journalists have been charged under Section 66(d) of the 2013 archaic Telecommunications Law. Section 66(d), the most controversial element of the law and the section used to curtail journalists and online activists, provides three years imprisonment for “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network.”
The legal wording is intentionally vague and has more and more come to be used to prosecute individuals for posting sarcastic commentaries aimed at sullying the Tatmadaw and its leader General Min Aung Hlaing, or the ruling party the National League of Democracy (NLD) and its leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi. According to the press freedom index of Reporters Without Borders, Myanmar ranked 131st out of 180 nations in 2017 and Freedom House labeled the Myanmar press in 2017 as not free.
It did not look as dire for press freedom when then-President Thein Sein initiated his reform package in 2010. The pervasive pre-publication censorship regulation was lifted in 2012, the censorship board dissolved, and a press council founded. New media licenses were issued, allowing for privatization of radio and TV channels, as well as for regional ethnic media publications. Foreign journalists and exiled publishers who had been blacklisted for decades were suddenly issued visas and allowed re-entry.
However, after Rohingya Muslim militants, affiliated with the newly established Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked military posts in Rakhine on October 16, 2016, and again on August 25, 2017, both times met by a violent military response, the situation for press freedom in Myanmar has severely deteriorated. The attacks triggered a widespread military crackdown, resulting in hundreds of villages burnt, thousands of recorded rapes, and 640,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. The humanitarian crisis led the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Reights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to call the military operation a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
On the ground in Rakhine last year, interviewing survivors and investigating allegations of mass killings, were Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.
The arrests of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo come as no surprise to the journalist corps of Myanmar. After all, there is only a handful of Myanmar reporters who have covered military operations during an extensive period of time, and most have been targeted. Minzayar Oo and Hkun Lat, two award-winning photo journalists, were detained for two weeks in September 2017 and accused of espionage after covering the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. After extensive international pressure, the Bangladesh authorities, more susceptible to international criticism than Myanmar, released the journalists. In July 2017, three journalists, among these Lawi Weng, were arrested in northern Shan state when reporting on a drug-burning ceremony in an area controlled by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and charged under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act. Many others have been threatened or have had relatives and friends threatened by security and military intelligence officers.
When Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on December 12, two policemen had invited them for dinner. The policemen gave them documents that they claimed to have secured from their last posting in Rakhine. According to Wa Lone’s wife, the journalists had no time to look at the documents before police stormed in and arrested them. The operation was well planned and well executed.
The law that the journalists are charged under, the Official Secrets Act, is a colonial law from 1923, used by the British to curtail Burmese nationalism. The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. The paragraphs in the Official Secrets Act are intentionally vague, and to be found guilty of an “attempt to commit” an act is enough. According to the Minister of Information, the police arrested the journalists for “possessing important and secret government documents related to Rakhine state and security forces, obtained illegally and with the purpose of sharing the information with foreign media.”
The Myanmar judicial system is corrupt and dysfunctional. When Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesperson Zaw Htay told Reuters that “your reporters are protected by the rule of law,” it offered little reassurance. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were detained for two weeks without access to a lawyer or being allowed to contact their family members. No official arrest order was issued, and only when the Ministry of Information posted a photo of the two in handcuffs was their arrest confirmed.
The whole affair reminds me of a similarly absurd court hearing that took place in May 2009 at the North Yangon District Court. The accused, who was not allowed to participate in the hearing and was detained at the infamous Insein Prison, was judged guilty of having accepted illegal papers from a foreigner (who voluntarily had swum across Inya Lake to end up in her compound) and was sentenced back to years of house arrest. Same prison, same corrupt judicial system, same unjust prison sentences.
When Wa Lone was led out of court on January 10, he said: “They are charging us like this to stop us finding the truth. Their actions are wrong and unfair.” The outcome of the trial will inform us about the kind of future Myanmar is heading toward.
Sarah Schulman is a political scientist and Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. She is based in Yangon, Myanmar and New York, United States. Sign the online campaign to free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.