Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuter’s journalists unjustly imprisoned in Myanmar, have been released. I have written a short piece for the New Statesman, commenting on how presidential pardons do nothing to tackle the underlying injustice, and perpetuate the chill on freedom of expression.
Pardons have a particular place in judicial systems. There may be unusual circumstances where a person has indeed broken the law, but the sentence imposed is inappropriate. A pardon asserts that the conviction was correct, but alleviates the punishment.
That is wholly unsatisfactory in cases where the law has been abused, as it was in the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Although they are out of prison, there has been no acknowledgement by the state that the convictions were a clear miscarriage of justice. In fact, the pardon reasserts the just opposite – that there was nothing wrong with the imprisonment.
I just noticed that the International Observatory for Human Rights put up a video last month, publicising the demonstration they did outside the Embassy of Myanmar in September. The ‘occasion’, so to speak, was the ridiculous jailing of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. I was at the demo, representing English PEN, and am featured briefly in the video, calling on The British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to put pressure on Aung San Suu Kyi.
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.
As any news report worthy of the name will have told you this morning, the Burmese military junta have imprisoned the democracy campaigner and PEN Honorary Member Aung San Suu Kyi. The reason given in an apparent breach of her house arrest conditions, after an American man swam a lake and visited her. As a correspondent at the Burma Campaign UK HQ just put it to me in an e-mail:
It seems Burma is the only country in the world where you can be sent to jail for someone breaking into your house.
Good luck, of course, to the Buddhist monks, nuns, and the growning number of Burmese citizens who are protesting against their excessive junta. Last month, OpenDemocracy published an article by Yury Drakakhrust on the Algebra of Revolution:
How many protesters in the streets does it take to bring an authoritarian government down? … The model comprises two elements: the level of popular support for the opposition (dissidents) and the number of people who can be mobilised for action (activists).
The Burmese situation seems quite positive, since as a religious group the Buddhists can mobilise a great deal of ‘activists’. But unlike the weak governments of Eastern Europe (which Drakakhrust uses as examples), the junta in Burma is much more entrenched. This would presumably alter the equation. But other factors should tip the balance in the other direction. This BBC quote gives some hope:
Aung Naing Oo, a former student leader in Burma who was involved in the 1988 uprising and who now lives in exile in the UK, believes the junta cannot stop the 2007 protesters. “Nobody knew what was happening in 1988,” he told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four. “There was only very little information about the killings. Now with the internet and the whole world watching I think its a totally different story now…”