The release of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar after more than 500 days behind bars is to be celebrated, but they should never have been arrested or imprisoned in the first place. Political change in Myanmar has not led to a loosening of restrictions on individual freedom. More must be done to press that government to promote democracy and human rights.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December 2017 while working on a story about the killings of Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar, by security forces in Rakhine state. While some Rohingya have lived in the country for generations, Myanmar’s government considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Human rights groups have likened the situation in Rakhine, where at least 10,000 Rohingya have been killed and hundreds of thousands of others forced to flee across the border, to ethnic cleansing. The government has insisted that security forces are fighting a bitter struggle with a Rohingya militant group and any violence was a response to the militants’ provocations.
The two reporters found a mass grave that contained the bodies of 10 Rohingya villagers. They subsequently met a policeman who gave them documents and were immediately arrested and charged with violating the Office Secrets Act, a colonial-era law established in 1923.
At trial, the government’s case fell apart. Defense attorneys argued the papers were neither secret nor sensitive. A whistleblower in the police department testified that police officials had arranged for the two men to be set up. That courtroom confession earned that witness a one-year jail term for violating the Police Disciplinary Act. The court ignored the evidence of entrapment and sentenced the journalists to seven years in prison.
They were released this month as part of a general amnesty by President Win Myint, in which more than 6,500 other prisoners were freed to mark Myanmar’s new year festival in April. Applause was muted, however, since the two men should never have been arrested, and because freedom of expression remains a hazardous exercise in Myanmar. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (ATHAN), a Yangon-based group that defends human rights in Myanmar, argues that another 25 political prisoners are imprisoned in the country and 283 other individuals await trial.
Meanwhile, the government has borrowed a page from other regional governments and increasingly resorts to courts to restrict freedom of speech. ATHAN says there have been 173 cases of defamation brought against Myanmar citizens since a law was enacted in 2013 that creates that option. The abiding limitations on expression and the government’s campaign against the Rohingya have dismayed those who believed Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is senior counselor the Myanmar government, would govern in a manner consistent with her own human rights campaign. The transition to civilian leadership has not created more space for human rights and Suu Kyi’s failure to lead in this area has been particularly bitter. Throughout the Reuters case, she backed government policy. Defenders say that she has no power over such cases and did not want to spark a conflict with the military. Those who have met her to discuss the case say she has been a vehement supporter of a hard-line position and denies that there are any problems with the legal process. ATHAN notes that 140 of the 173 defamation cases that have been brought under the new law occurred since her party has come to power.
This case raises anew the question of how to deal with repressive governments. Japan has long taken the position that public criticism should be muted and pressure applied behind closed doors. It thus abstained in December 2017 from backing a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution that condemned the Rohingya situation, preferring instead to endorse a fact-finding mission. The Japanese logic is reinforced by fears that a hard line against Myanmar’s human rights abuses will push it closer to China, which has no such concerns. That reflects both geopolitical and business concerns: Myanmar is a critical country in the region, central to East-West trade and communications throughout Southeast Asia, as well as a possessor of extensive natural resources. Tokyo has extended considerable overseas development assistance and Japanese companies are eager to invest there, especially in infrastructure projects.
Myanmar’s need for foreign capital is one potential way to push for reform. Foreign direct investment has slowed, dropping for three consecutive years and one-third of the peak recorded in 2015. While the economy grew 6.8 percent in 2017, that is well below the 7 to 8 percent forecast of the World Bank; growth is thought to have dropped further to 6.2 percent last year. With elections in 2020, Japan and other countries should be doing more to press and to shame the Myanmar government into progress on human rights.