Aung San Suu Kyi’s remark that the two Reuters journalists convicted and jailed for seven years each are being punished “not… because they were journalists… [but] because… the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act” is an empty defence of the indefensible. The two Myanmar nationals, Wa Lone and Kway Soe Oo, were arrested as they investigated a chilling story of how the Myanmar Army lined up 10 Rohingya men in a coastal village in north Rakhine, tied them to each other, got villagers to dig graves for them, and then shot them. The army was forced to admit that such an event had taken place and said they had punished the soldiers responsible for it. But instead of being commended for bringing this horrific massacre to light, the two journalists were put on a trial in which evidence that favoured them was not considered.
It is well understood that Myanmar is not a full democracy. While the 2015 elections gave Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy a majority, civilians have to share power with the Myanmar military, which continues to control many vital areas of governance. Suu Kyi has to walk a tightrope held by the military. Constitutional reforms to reduce the military’s role cannot take place until the military itself agrees. Even so, for a leader who continues to be revered in her country, and who won a massive mandate, all for her two-decade stoic resistance of the junta, Suu Kyi seems to have turned her back on that history all too easily. Pakistan’s military-civilian tussle shows that civilian leaders do not win these battles, but unlike in Pakistan, the Myanmar military is deeply unpopular, giving civilian leaders more leeway. But disappointingly, Suu Kyi, who holds the title of State Counsellor and is the de facto head of government, has decided to go with the flow.
Since the 2015 election, the media in Myanmar has had to keep up a struggle for its freedoms. An astonishing number of media professionals have been penalised under laws they had hoped would cease to exist. The conviction and sentencing of Wa Lone and Kway Soe Ooo is a sign to the media to fall in line or face the consequences. Even if the two are freed under a possible presidential pardon, the terms of engagement have been set. If Myanmar believes that this is the best way to deal with the pressing problems that beset it, including its refusal to grant citizenship to the Rohingya, it cannot be more mistaken.