This week, two Reuters journalists working in Myanmar were found guilty of breaking official secrets laws and sentenced to seven years in prison. Officials from the British Embassy in Yangon attended the trial and report that there was scant evidence that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had done anything wrong. They have clearly been imprisioned as a means of silencing their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
I wrote about the convictions, and how (I think) the campaign for their release should be run, in an article for the New Statesman.
A frustrating fact about human rights campaigning is that the release of a celebrated political prisoner usually happens not because the law is amended, but on the whim of an authoritarian politician. The power to arbitrarily censor is retained, and anxiety remains among activists and journalists, over what can and cannot be said. Fear and self-censorship persists, and tragically, many other people remain in prison. Presidential pardons rarely extend to equally deserving prisoners who have less of an international profile.
Elsewhere, my friend and colleague Salil Tripathi writes on the same issue, and does not hold back in his criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi:
More importantly, this episode lays to rest the enduring myth surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi—once a human rights icon, now increasingly seen as complicit in grave abuses. Once upon a time, she spoke eloquently about freedom from fear. Many hoped she would continue to speak truth to power and bring the fairy tale—of a peaceful Myanmar where rights were respected—to its logical end. Many were willing to wait. She won by-elections to the parliament in 2012 and her party, the National League of Democracy, swept the polls in 2015.
The constitution didn’t allow her to become president, so the post of state counsellor was created for her, which made her the de facto ruler of Myanmar, even though the generals continued to call the shots. She did not challenge them. In 2013, she told BBC Radio that since her father, Gen Aung San, was the father of the Burmese Army, each soldier was like her father’s son, and by implication, her sibling. Inconvenient facts, such as her long incarceration and an attempt on her life, were forgiven and forgotten. She became a willing accomplice of the army and its conduct, which has included continuation of Myanmar’s many internal conflicts, the persecution of Rohingyas, and a peace process in tatters. International criticism, including honours being withdrawn, hasn’t bothered her.
In that catalogue of culpability, jailing two journalists may seem like a small matter. But it isn’t. It shows who holds real power in Myanmar and how unwilling and incapable she is to assert the moral authority she once had in such abundance.
Salil and I stood together outside the Embassy of Myanmar on more than one occasion, protesting the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. A while back, I wrote about why that is something I do not regret.