Myanmar needs to do more than just release journalists
After spending 511 days in prison, two award-winning Reuters journalists – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – are now back with their families and friends in Myanmar. It was a long struggle.
International pressure played a significant role in getting them released. They became symbols of press freedom across the world. Their release is not a guarantee of freedom of speech and expression in Myanmar. Though they were released, the image of Myanmar and its Foreign Minister and Counsellor Aung San Sue Kyi got tarnished.
Both journalists are from Myanmar itself. They were arrested in December 2017 for their reporting on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by security forces in the Rakhine state during an army crackdown that began in August 2017. They were arrested under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act (OSA). The Rakhine is a Muslim majority state of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Kyaw Soe Oo is from the Rakhine state and was born in a Buddhist family. They were sentenced to seven years imprisonment last September and the High Court confirmed it in January. In April, even the Supreme Court rejected their final judicial appeal to overturn their sentence. Last year, they were given prestigious Pulitzer award for their reporting on the massacre of Rohingya.
The Rohingya Muslim is an ethnic minority community, which continuously faces persecution and violence in Myanmar.
Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed in military operations.
Around 7,50,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh. The international community expected Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Sue Kyi to intervene but she failed to fulfil the expectations and disappointed the international community. Surprisingly, she had defended their detention saying they were not imprisoned for their reporting but for breaking OSA.
Myanmar, in a real sense, is not a fully democratic country but it’s a quasi-democratic nation and military still enjoys more power. The country is ruled by the military and civilian under an awkward power-sharing agreement. Aung San was released from house arrest in 2010 and her party National League for Democracy (NLD) came into power in 2015. Human rights and political activists along with the international community had a lot of expectations from Aung San.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were released from Insein prison, outside earlier capital Yangon, as part of Presidential pardon for 6,520 prisoners. Their relatives had petitioned President U Win Myint and Aung San to release them. The authorities release many prisoners around Myanmar’s traditional New Year 17th April.
Though the Reuters journalists are released, freedom of expression and journalists are under constant threat in the country. Dozens of political activists are behind bars and many face criminal defamation charges. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group, only 20 of more than 23,000 prisoners released since last month in the government’s amnesty were political prisoners. U Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, a well-known filmmaker and rights activist, was arrested last month for a Facebook post criticising country’s military-drafted Constitution.
The World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders (RSB) has put Myanmar at 138th place out of 180 countries in its report released earlier this month. The same report has put India at 140th place.
Myanmar needs to respect freedom of expression. Aung San should be more assertive on the rights of the Rohingya community. The international community has high expectations from her and she should fulfil it. No journalist should suffer the way both Reuters journalists suffered.
Freedom at Risk
- The journalists were arrested in December 2017 for their reporting on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims by security forces in the Rakhine state during an army crackdown that began in August 2017.
- The World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders has put Myanmar at 138th place out of 180 countries in its report released earlier this month.