Today, on World Press Freedom Day, I recall the vivid experience of walking down a street in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city, and watching freedom of expression flower before my eyes. At that time, in November 2015, the country was gradually emerging from decades under one of the world’s harshest and most insular dictatorships. Burma’s long-suffering reporters were happy to seize the opportunity, and I was seeing the results: Street vendors were offering a dizzying array of newspapers and magazines where once only the gray prose of the state-run propaganda outlets had reigned.
I was visiting Burma, which is also known as Myanmar, to report on its first free election in a generation — one that predictably yielded a victory for Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered leader of the opposition to military rule. Despite her triumph, it was clear Burma would still need many years to build democratic institutions. But there was, in that moment, the hope that a relatively free press could help the country, at very least, to finally know itself. After all, that is what a pluralistic media environment is supposed to provide — a space for public airing of a society’s problems and ways to tackle them.
How different things look today. Many of those newspapers and magazines I saw in 2015 still exist, but the sense of euphoria is long gone. One need only consider the dismal case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two heroic Burmese journalists who are now in prison. Their crime? Breaking a news story about the Rohingya, the long-persecuted Muslim minority group. Last year, the Rohingya were targeted in a huge ethnic-cleansing campaign that ultimately drove more than 700,000 members of the group into exile in neighboring Bangladesh. The United Nations and many international observers are referring to it as “genocide.”
On August 25, ostensibly responding to a few scattered attacks on security forces by Rohingya insurgents, the Burmese military unleashed a campaign of terror against Rohingya villages, which included killings and rapes, as well as the burning of countless homes. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, working for the Reuters news agency, responded by doing their jobs — despite their obvious awareness of the possible dangers they might face.
On Feb. 8, Reuters published an extraordinary special report carefully documenting the September killings of 10 Rohingya men. The article, which was published under the bylines of the two Burmese journalists as well as two of their foreign colleagues, clinically details the events surrounding the massacre. Among other things, the reporters revealed that the operation’s commanders told members of the security forces to dress in civilian clothing to disguise their roles. In other words, those giving the orders were trying to cover up their responsibility for the atrocities.
By the time the report appeared, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had already been detained. They were arrested in December for allegedly violating Burma’s Official Secrets Act, a harsh law dating back to the British colonial era. They each face up to 14 years in prison. There is little doubt that Burmese state security was retaliating against the two men for casting light on its criminal behavior.
Last month, a police whistleblower testified at the two men’s trial. He told the court that the journalists had been “set up” by security forces, who had arranged for two policemen to offer Wa Lone “confidential documents” during a meeting at a restaurant. The two journalists were arrested immediately afterwards. Shortly after giving his testimony, the whistleblower was himself arrested for “violating police discipline” and his family was immediately evicted from their government housing. The signal being sent by the authorities is clear: Do not defy us.
In a hopeful sign, the court yesterday accepted the whistleblower’s testimony. But none of this bodes well for the future of democracy in Burma. Many Burmese, who harbor long-established prejudice against the Rohingya, appear to approve of the military’s campaign to expel the group. Suu Kyi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for her heroic opposition to the military junta, has notably failed to say anything against the atrocities. Her defenders say she is boxed in by the still-powerful military. Critics accuse her of a catastrophic moral failure.
Needless to say, a country cannot claim to be making progress towards democracy when it is systematically victimizing one of its own minority groups. The protection of minorities is a fundamental principle of any democratic state. This is exactly the sort of problem a free press should be exposing to public view. That Burmese officialdom feels compelled to punish those who have done so reveals a fundamental disconnect between the country’s democratic aspirations and its grim reality.
If the Burmese government — and its de facto leader, the once-revered Suu Kyi — are serious about moving toward an open society, they should start by shutting down the farcical trial of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. Given the magnitude of Burma’s current crisis, however, even that would be a small step toward redemption.