WASHINGTON — Journalists across Myanmar are risking their own safety in support of two colleagues sentenced this week to seven years in prison.
Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested last December for violating the dusty Official Secrets Act in an apparent set-up by police. The journalists had been investigating Myanmar Army’s role in a massacre of a group of Rohingya Muslim men as part of what the United Nations has called a genocide.
Following the verdict, The Myanmar Times published an image of spear piercing a newspaper with the question “Who’s next?” while the 7 Day Daily blacked out part of its front page.
Eighty-three civil society groups in Myanmar issued a statement calling for the government to “unconditionally release Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, protect freedom and promote accountability” while reporters and free press advocates voiced opposition to the ruling using the Twitter hashtag #ArrestMeToo.
Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, called the sentencing “a new press freedom low for Myanmar.”
“The process that resulted in their convictions was a travesty of justice and will cast Myanmar as an anti-democratic pariah as long as they are wrongfully held behind bars,” he continued. “We call on Myanmar’s civilian authorities to immediately release the journalists.”
Vice President Mike Pence, part of an administration that has mostly worked against the freedom and safety of the press, broke from the pattern to Tweet: “Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo should be commended—not imprisoned—for their work exposing human rights violations & mass killings. Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy.”
The Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, once heralded as the champion of democracy in Myanmar after serving 15 years under house arrest during the military dictatorship, now holds the equivalent of a prime minister’s position. But she has refrained from criticizing the military, which still holds enormous power.
Approximately 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar after the military embarked on a campaign of murder, mass rape and burning of villages — detailed in a new UN report that calls for six senior military leaders to stand trial and found Aung San Suu Kyi “contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.”
Anti-Muslim sentiment is rife in Myanmar, where an anti-Muslim movement led by Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu known as “969” took hold of the country just as a series of democratic reforms enticed the US and EU to ease economic sanctions against what had been a pariah state.
Hate speech has thrived on Facebook as the country has become more connected. Last month Facebook banned the accounts of several military officials for stoking hate against the Rohingya.
“The poisonous posts call the Rohingya or other Muslims dogs, maggots and rapists, suggest they be fed to pigs, and urge they be shot or exterminated,” Reuters reported.
Ethnic and religious strife runs deep in Myanmar, and Rohingya Muslims living in Rakhine, the poorest state in the country, have borne decades of discrimination, violence and economic strong-arming.
Government officials don’t even use the term “Rohingya.”
Instead the preferred term is “Bengali,” which implies that this ethnic group with centuries of history living in western Myanmar is actually a foreign community from across the border in Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi has acknowledged anti-Muslim violence in an equivocal way, pointing also to violence committed by Muslims against Buddhists, who make up about 90 percent of the population.
Journalists Wa Lone, 32 and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were both drawn to cover the atrocities in Rakhine out of a sense of journalistic and personal responsibility. They are both Buddhists, and Kyaw Soe Oo hails from Rakhine’s capital of Sittwe. Both men are married with young daughters.
Wa Lone testified during the trial that police told him, “You are both Buddhists. Why are you writing about ‘kalars’ at a time like this?” using a common slur against Muslims, Rohingya and South Asians in Myanmar.
But for the two reporters, the exposure of wrongdoing at a critical time was precisely the point. And the #ArrestMeToo campaign seeks not only to free Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, but to draw attention to the peril for all of Burmese society if journalists can be thrownowing in jail for doing their jobs.