On Tuesday, two Reuters journalists, U Wa Lone, 33, and U Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were released from prison on the outskirts of Yangon under an amnesty announced by Myanmar’s President Win Myint. Mass presidential pardons around the time of the traditional new year (which began on April 17) are common in the country.
Why were the journalists put in jail?
The arrest and trial
On December 12, 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were called by a police officer to a restaurant in Yangon. After the meeting, as the journalists were leaving, the officer shoved two rolled-up pieces of paper into their hands. As soon as they were outside the restaurant, the reporters were arrested, and the papers, which they hadn’t even seen, were taken away.
The following day, Myanmar’s government said the two journalists had violated The Official Secrets Act, enacted by the Raj in 1923 for pre-Independence India. Over the weeks and months that followed, the Myanmarese regime ignored demands from the United Nations, United States, United Kingdom, Myanmarese journalists, and a number of independent international observers to free the arrested jouralists.
During court proceedings before Judge U Ye Lwin, a police officer testified that the chief of police had ordered that “secret documents” should be planted on the reporters, and they should be charged with possessing them.
In July 2018, the court framed charges against the reporters under The Official Secrets Act. On September 3, 2018, the judge ruled that the journalists were not doing “normal journalistic work”, that the “top-secret documents they were holding can be useful to the enemies of the country”, and sentenced them to seven years in jail.
On January 11, the High Court in Yangon upheld the conviction and sentence of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. On April 23, the Supreme Court rejected the journalists’ final appeal.
When they were finally freed on Tuesday, the journalists had spent more than 500 days behind bars.
The reporters’ story
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested while working on a report on the killing of 10 Muslim Rohingya men in cold blood by the Myanmarese army and Buddhist villagers in the coastal village of Inn Din in the country’s restive Rakhine province on September 2, 2017.
According to a report published by Reuters on February 8, 2018 with the headline ‘Massacre in Myanmar’, under the bylines of the two reporters who had already been jailed, two of the 10 Rohingya were hacked to death by the Buddhist villagers, while the rest were shot dead by soldiers.
“The killings… marked another bloody episode in the ethnic violence sweeping northern Rakhine state, on Myanmar’s western fringe. Nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their villages and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August (2017). None of Inn Din’s 6,000 Rohingya remained in the village as of October,” the Reuters report said.
The report was accompanied by pictures of the 10 men — including two high school students of ages 17 and 18 — kneeling in a row in a field ahead of their execution.
It contained, for the first time in a report on the sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing in Rakhine, interviews with Buddhist villagers who confessed to torching Rohingya homes, burying bodies and killing Muslims, and testimonies and descriptions from paramilitary personnel that implicated members of the Myanmarese military in the crimes.
The Rohingya accuse the army of arson, rapes and killings aimed at rubbing them out of existence in this mainly Buddhist nation of 53 million,” the Reuters report said. “The United Nations has said the army may have committed genocide; the United States has called the action ethnic cleansing. Myanmar says its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.”
In April 2019, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, along with their Reuters colleagues, were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their investigation.