Could Myanmar finally be suffering real consequences for its brazen attacks on press freedom and other human rights outrages? Just possibly. A senior trade official, Aung Naing Oo, told Reuters news agency in Singapore that the worldwide publicity and outrage at the conviction and seven-year sentences handed down on September 3 to two Reuters journalists could have a chilling impact on foreign investors, whose interest in the country has been already dwindling for two years.
It doesn’t necessarily happen elsewhere, that the arbitrary arrest and jailing of journalists has economic impact. At the end of last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists documented 262 cases of imprisoned journalists around the world, with Turkey, China, and Egypt as the top offenders. Certainly, in China’s case, the country’s human rights abuses have no obvious impact on economic performance.
But perhaps Myanmar is different, because of the vulnerability of its struggling economy, in addition to the sheer brazenness and transparent fabrication of the case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, which is closely linked to the outrageous abuses against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority in the Rakhine State, where about 700,000 have been forced to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, and at least 10,000 killed.
Before their detention on December 12 last year, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had reported from the Rakhine State and had documented a massacre by the Myanmar military of 10 Rohingya men, obtaining rare photographic evidence of the crime. Called to an urgent dinner meeting by a police official he did not know, Wa Lone brought along his colleague Kyaw Soe Oo. As they were leaving, police handed the two some rolled-up papers. But upon leaving the restaurant, before they even had a chance to look at the papers, there were arrested under the archaic, colonial-era, Official Secrets Act, for possessing what turned out to be planted secret documents.
One brave police officer testified in court that police were acting under orders when they planted documents in order to entrap the two journalists. That officer is now in jail for violating the Police Discipline Act. So perhaps it’s not really a surprise that the judge in the case, U Ye Lwin, did not himself dare to break discipline, chose to ignore the clear exonerating evidence and deliver a conviction with a harsh sentence.
The case and conviction are about much more than two journalists and their work. It’s instead an unmistakable message to all journalists operating in Myanmar not to expose the misdeeds of Myanmar’s military leaders, who, according to a UN fact-finding mission, should face trial in an international court for genocide.
Strangely absent from the global furor over the case is the voice of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose position as State Counsellor makes her the most powerful civilian official in Myanmar. Her only comment on the case came in June, when she indicated it was being handled according to due process. She still has the authority to intervene and free the two after an obvious sham conviction. Perhaps she could partially restore her once elevated reputation as a democracy advocate and a human rights icon, even as she has ignored the international outcry about treatment of the Rohingya people. It’s not clear if she believes her own words, or if she’s just accepted the reality that the military continues to call the shots in Myanmar.
Last month, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on three military commanders, a border guard and two military units for their involvement in “ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya people. Could it be the start of more to come?
At least in the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the expressions of outrage – the negative publicity that so concerned Aung Naing Oo - show no signs of abating with, just in the U.S. government, strong statements coming from US Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel, UN Ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyUS rejoins UN Human Rights Council, reversing Trump exit Smarkets betting site makes Trump favorite in 2024 Nikki Haley gets lifetime post on Clemson Board of Trustees MORE, and most recently Vice President Mike Pence.
Of course, this needs to be kept in perspective. For decades the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar military likes to call itself, ruled Myanmar as an isolated pariah nation, seemingly without concern for the nation’s stifling poverty. Perhaps military leaders think that further leaning toward neighboring China for support will deliver them.
Only a few years ago Myanmar held out the promise of a genuine transition to democracy, with human rights protections and press freedom. It’s important to keep that promise alive. So far, Myanmar’s rulers’ attempts to muzzle the press, to hide crimes, and protect criminals have had the opposite effect: bringing more and more international attention and opprobrium. Now’s not the time halt the pressure.
Steven Butler is the Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. He reported from Asia for 20 years, and was foreign editor at the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau.