Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has vehemently defended the imprisonment of the two Reuters journalists who were given seven-year jail terms after reporting on the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Rahkine state.
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority group from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. Their origin can be traced back to the 15th century when thousands settled in Myanmar from the Arakan Kingdom. Practising a variation of Sunni Islam, there is reportedly one million Rohingya in Myanmar. The government of Myanmar has, however, refused to recognize them as one of its ethnic groups. They do not get legal protection from the government. The processes for them to get a citizenship is incredibly hard and often impossible. Given their persecution, thousands have fled the region in boats. Due to violent riots, since 2012, over 110,000 Rohingya left Myanmar and headed to countries like Thailand and Malaysia.
Reuters published a special investigation earlier this year that featured Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo's bylines. It documented the killing of 10 Rohingya men reportedly carried out by Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops. Reuters described the groundbreaking report as the first time that soldiers and paramilitary police had been implicated in testimony from security personnel.
The report used photographs, reporting and interviews conducted in Myanmar and Bangladesh to reconstruct the final moments of the dead men, who were fishermen, shopkeepers, teenage students and a religious teacher.
Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Thursday, defended a court’s decision last week to sentence two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison in a trial widely seen as farcical and a major setback for free expression in the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi had initially remained silent over the case, which was widely condemned by international governments and the UN as an aberration of justice and a symbol of the major throwback of freedom of expression in Myanmar. In her first public annotation since the verdicts were announced to Wa Lone, and Kyaw Soe Oo last week, Aung San Suu Kyi insisted their imprisonment was justified and that the case had “nothing to do with freedom of expression”. She said Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo “were not jailed for being journalists” but for breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and the international community have said they were targeted for their investigation into the human rights abuses and mass killings of the Rohingya in Rahkine state by the Myanmar military. The violence, which the UN has condemned as both genocide and ethnic cleansing, sent more than 700,000 Rohingya fleeing over the border to Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi openly exhorted people to read the judgment and “point out where there has been a miscarriage of justice”. “I wonder whether very many people have actually read the summary of the judgment which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all, it had to do with an Official Secrets Act.” She added that the “rule of law” means that “they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment was wrong”.
During her 15 years under house arrest in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who now states counsellor, was the country’s greatest defender of freedom of the press. However, the eight-month trial of the Reuters journalists was widely decried as being a farce by the UN, the US government and human rights activists worldwide. The pair says they were framed by the police and, during the trial, witnesses who supported their story were imprisoned.
In her comments in Hanoi on Thursday, Aung San Suu Kyi conceded that her government could have handled the situation in Rakhine state better. The military began their brutal crackdown after members of the Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, attacked several Myanmar police posts and a military base in August 2017.
“There are of course ways in which, with hindsight, the situation could’ve been handled better,” said Suu Kyi. “But we believe that in order to have long-term security and stability we have to be fair to all sides. We can’t choose who should be protected by rule of law,” she said.
However, in the last year, several bodies have withdrawn major honours from her, for failing to protect the Rohingya minority. These groups include a major British trade union, the London School of Economics, the US Holocaust Museum, Dublin and at least four UK cities.
Our assessment is that Suu Kyi remains nearly as popular as ever in Myanmar and is seen as a fortress against both military encroachments into politics and international condemnation. We believe that Aung San Suu Kyi has fallen from grace in the international community over the violence against the Rohingya over the past year. She won the Nobel peace prize in 1991 for her years speaking out for democracy and freedom of expression in Myanmar whilst under house arrest.