On January 11, the appeal of two Reuters reporters sentenced to seven years in jail was rejected, a decision with far reaching consequences for Myanmar’s reputation and freedom of expression. The ruling conveyed a determination to bury the truth about the ethnic clearance operations that drove 730,000 of the Rohingya minority group into refugee camps in Bangladesh in 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from grace continues due to her ongoing failure to speak out for the human rights of these refugees or condemn the military for its actions. In contrast to her silence, in August 2018 the UN determined that the circumstances surrounding the mass exodus amounted to genocide.
Inside Myanmar, it doesn’t appear many people are losing much sleep over the plight of the Rohingya and there is little enthusiasm for their repatriation. In 2017 I was struck by how many liberals I met in Yangon exhibited a blind spot over the Rohingya issue. Activists and intellectuals who had been ardent critics of the military rallied in support of Aung San Suu Kyi and bought the military’s line that what happened in Rakhine was purely retaliation for a terrorist attack on state security forces by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). No matter that ARSA was a lightly armed, poorly organized ragtag band posing little real threat to the government and the military’s operations were vastly disproportionate. The alleged atrocities were brushed off as anti-Myanmar propaganda while the bad press and stripping of awards only enhanced the embattled Lady’s stature.
But the worm has turned as of late 2018. The ruling National League for Democracy’s (NLD) supporters — activists, intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, and politicians — have become deeply disillusioned. The turning point was the trial of two Reuters reporters in 2018. They had been arrested in December 2017 for possessing secret documents. During the 2018 court proceedings, however, the reporters’ lawyer proved that the documents were not secret. Then a police captain testified that he was ordered to plant the information on the reporters and frame them. The military’s narrative depicting these reporters as traitors blackening the name of the nation collapsed.
The real problem was that the reporters had been investigating military and police atrocities in Rakhine state against the Rohingya, gathering testimony and photographic evidence. So essentially state security was hoping to intimidate other journalists from doing their jobs by going after the Reuters reporters. Their lawyer Than Zaw Aung told me that during the trial, the military court-martialed seven soldiers for the execution of 10 Rohingya based on the evidence produced by the Reuters reporters, inadvertently lending credibility to their case.
How could the judge arrive at a guilty verdict in September 2018 given the damning testimony exonerating the reporters? Than Zaw Aung complained that Aung San Suu Kyi should have been held in contempt of court because she influenced the verdict by thrice publicly stating that the reporters had violated the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and insisting the case was not about press freedom.
Maung Saungkha, a young democracy activist, maintains that press freedom is receding dramatically under Aung San Suu Kyi. He was the first person prosecuted under Article 66D of the 2013 Telecommunications Law for defamation. He posted a poem on Facebook suggesting he had a tattoo of then-President Thein Sein’s image on his penis and that on his wedding night his wife was inconsolable. Apparently, prosecutors didn’t have a sense of humor or understand poetic license. And nobody bought the defense that if such a tattoo existed it would be a vivid gesture of patriotic loyalty. While on trial, the “Penis Poet” spent seven months in the notorious Insein prison before the judge set him free. Although not required to present evidence in court, I was assured that he has no tattoos and is unmarried.
Maung Saungkha asserts that the previous military linked government was far more media-friendly precisely because it knew it lacked credibility whereas The Lady has been very aggressive in going after her critics. Subsequently, he established Athan (Voice) to monitor press freedom in Myanmar and found that the previous military backed government only prosecuted 11 reporters while the NLD has gone after more than 160 as of November 2018.
Maung Saungkha was incredulous in October 2018 when Aung San Suu Kyi gave an interview in Tokyo scoffing at allegations of a press crackdown. Ironically, on the night she returned from Japan three reporters were jailed for “defaming” the head of the Yangon regional government, her protégé, over a shady bus contract.
The NLD and The Lady seem to have forgotten how freedom of expression was once a core value during their struggle for democracy. Former supporters believe she has become increasingly authoritarian, isolated, and intolerant of criticism. One editor told me that the military quietly advised her to arrange for a pardon of the Reuters reporters, but she refused. Their last chance for justice my well be an appeal to the Supreme Court submitted on February 1.
Why doesn’t Aung San Suu Kyi criticize the military for its outrages? Her dwindling number of defenders suggests she is remaining silent to safeguard Myanmar’s fragile democracy, arguing that speaking out would raise the danger of a military coup; she calculates that the fate of her nation is more important than that of the Rohingya. Others say she hopes to get the military’s agreement to amend the constitution to remove the proviso that bans her from becoming president. Critics scoff at the prospects of either scenario and grumble that she even vets what issues NLD members can raise in Parliament, rarely delegates, and relies on a small inner circle of advisors mostly with military ties.
The costs of undermining the rule of law, muzzling the media, and whitewashing the Rohingya problem are mounting as investments and tourism slide and Myanmar is back in the global doghouse. As the economy stagnates, it is clear that not only democracy withers in darkness.
Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan and co-editor with Tina Burrett of Press Freedom in Asia (Routledge 2019).