A ‘sad day for Myanmar’

Two Reuters journalists have been found guilty in Myanmar of illegal possession of official documents and sentenced to seven years in prison. It is an egregious abuse of power by the Myanmar government. It is especially outrageous that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the real leader of the country, has turned a blind eye to this miscarriage of justice, even though she was similarly punished as a dissident. The silence of other governments is equally shameful.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested and charged with violating the Official Secrets Act, a colonial-era law that controls access to information. They were investigating the campaign of brutality — some call it ethnic cleansing — against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of whom have been forced from the country. The government crackdown followed attacks by an underground Rohingya guerrilla group on Myanmar security forces in August 2017. The military responded forcefully: Human rights groups allege widespread abuses including rape, torture, murder and the torching of Rohingya villages.

The two journalists were covering the response — in particular the murders of 10 Rohingya men and boys — and claim that they were given documents by police officers and arrested moments later. Their claim to have been set up was confirmed during the trial when a policeman called as a prosecution witness testified that a superior ordered him to plant documents on the journalists. That officer was then jailed for violating police regulations. Despite this, the contradictory testimony of other prosecution witnesses and the fact that documents given to the journalists were not secret, the trial proceeded and concluded with convictions.

The verdicts have been roundly condemned. The editor-in-chief of Reuters, where the two men worked, called the outcome “a sad day for Myanmar,” and was “designed to silence their reporting and intimidate the press.” Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile who is the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, called the trial a “travesty of justice.”

There is much to ignore or obscure. Last month, the U.N. International Independent Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, established by the Council on Human Rights, concluded after an investigation lasting more than a year that war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide occurred in Rakhine state against Rohingya and recommended that top Myanmar commanders be charged with genocide. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the findings “deserve serious consideration” and called for accountability for the “horrendous persecution” of Rohingya in Myanmar. The governments of Sweden and the Netherlands urged the Security Council to refer the crimes to the International Criminal Court.

That will not happen. The Myanmar government rejects the accusations. Instead, it established its own Independent Commission of Inquiry, which will provide its own report within a year. It is led by Rosario Manalo, a former Philippines deputy foreign minister, and includes former Japanese Ambassador to the U.N. Kenzo Oshima, as well as two Myanmar members.

More valuable than a second investigation, however, is the cover provided to the Myanmar government by China and Russia. Both instinctively recoil from international interference in domestic affairs. China has called for bilateral talks between Myanmar and Bangladesh, where most of the Rohingya have fled, and has urged the international community to be patient and focus on poverty alleviation in Rakhine, where the Rohingya lived.

Japan’s response has been muted. In January, Tokyo offered ¥330 million in aid to help resettle returning Rohingya and last month Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Bangladeshi counterpart agreed on a set of proposals to deal with the crisis. While helpful, the suggestions — calling on Myanmar to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, for example — are mere palliatives. Asked at the end of August about the findings of the U.N. investigation, Kono refrained from commenting, saying he did not have a good understanding and then pressed Myanmar to “steadily conduct” its own panel.

That reticence reflects a geopolitical calculation that it is more important to check the spread of Chinese influence in Myanmar than protect against human rights abuses. There may be times when that logic is defensible, but this is not one of them. The evidence at the trial was clear: This is a miscarriage of justice that is plain for all to see. There is deep anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, a feeling that even colors the thinking of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate like Suu Kyi. Some claim she is merely quiet because she is powerless against a military that retains command of the real sources of power in Myanmar; that imbalance of power never silenced her campaign for her rights. And if true, it is even more important that Japan and other like-minded nations speak up in defense of justice and equal rights for all in Myanmar.