December 12, 2017 was supposed to be a routine day at work for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – local Reuters correspondents in Myanmar assigned to report on the Rohingya crisis. However, it turned out to be a fateful one as both found themselves in police custody that night soon after being invited to a dinner by local police officials in Yangon.
After seven long months in jail and pre-trial hearings, the duo now stands charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, accused of collecting and obtaining “secret documents pertaining to the security forces with the intention to harm national security”. Trial proceedings are to begin on July 16.
The government claims that the journalist duo was in possession of classified state documents, and thus threatened national security. The veracity of this claim remains sub judice and the details of the arrest, obscure.
The arrests of Lone and Soe Oo have now become one of Myanmar’s most landmark civil cases in recent history. The case has become particularly significant in light of the country’s ongoing democratic transition that is already mired by allegations of war crimes, continuing ethnic wars, a tottering peace process and a hugely powerful military establishment.
The exact circumstances of the arrest of Lone and Soe Oo remain unclear at this point. The events that followed, however, tell a sketchy tale of coercion, intimidation and obfuscation.
On January 10, the same day the pre-trial hearings began, the Tatmadaw (military), in a starkly rare admission, revealed that its troops had murdered ten Rohingya Muslims in the northern Rakhine State during the August 2017 insurgent attack. About a month later, Reuters published a detailed investigation report on these brutal killings that took place in the village of Inn Din and revealed that the two arrested journalists had been investigating the said incident.
A day later, the Myanmar government announced that it would take action against the troops responsible for the extrajudicial killings, while clarifying that the decision was not on account of the Reuters report.
The case took a sensational turn in April when a prosecution witness, police captain Moe Yan Naing, told the district court that the arrest was staged to implicate the two journalists. He claimed that the police had set a trap by handing over sensitive documents to the pair and then arresting them for the possession of those documents.
Less than 24 hours later, the captain’s family was evicted from its police housing in Naypyidaw, and ten days later, Naing was sentenced to one year in prison under the Police Disciplinary Act.
The whole case, which directly concerns one of the most respected news organisations in the world, has drawn much international attention and outrage. Condemnations and calls for release have poured in from various quarters, including the UN, human rights groups, foreign governments and even the Pope. In March, the case got a major profile boost as celebrity international lawyer Amal Clooney joined the journalists’ legal defence team.
There was much anticipation that the case would be dismissed in the pre-trial stage. However, the court’s decision to move it into the trial phase by confirming the prosecution’s charges sent alarm bells ringing across concerned quarters, escalating concerns about freedom of the press in Myanmar.
A rude throwback
The arrest and charging of Lone and Soe Oo is a jarring throwback to the repressive days of the military junta when forced censorship and detention of journalists was common practice.
The timing of the arrest (during the peak of the Rohingya crisis), case details made public by Reuters and other news agencies and captain Naing’s testimony all indicate a sinister ploy to intimidate two journalists who were on the verge of spilling uncomfortable truths about the military’s ‘counterinsurgency operations’ in northern Rakhine.
We already know that the Myanmar government, particularly the military, is highly averse to opening up northern Rakhine – now deemed as the scene for serious war crimes like rape, arson, extrajudicial killings, torture and forced expulsion – to the rest of the world, not the least through a foreign media organisation with a strong global readership.
So, if the journalist duo was indeed investigating the Inn Din killings, as Reuters claims, it is fairly clear why the military and the government would want them behind bars: to first keep the skeletons from falling out of the closet to save face and then, fish them out on their own terms. But for now, this is mere speculation.
What the case more crucially reflects is the stunted nature of Myanmar’s democratic transition.
Since Myanmar embarked on its much-touted transition to democracy in 2016, several cases have emerged where journalists have been hounded, intimidated, charged and sued by the military or individual citizens. The Telecommunications Act – specifically the section on defamation – has been the most widely used piece of legislation to facilitate these anti-press drives.
Threat to democracy
All of these show that free and fair polls, a popularly-elected government and a Nobel laureate as head of state aren’t sufficient conditions to establish a real democracy. Deeply-entrenched institutional practices, combined with outdated and draconian legislation, can systematically destroy key pillars of a democratic society, especially a nascent one.
The case against Lone and Soe Oo, thus, cannot be brushed off as a one-off. It must be seen as symptomatic of how the Burmese state, despite a transfer of power, continues to use the legal framework to neutralise critical and dissenting views. Changing this restraining status quo would require not just attitudinal changes from the government but across-the-board legislative reforms by the parliament.
However, under the current setup where the military retains 25% seat-share in the union and state legislatures and controls key ministries (like home, defence and border affairs), full-spectrum parliamentary reforms remain a far cry in Myanmar. This is in addition to the de facto influence that the powerful military wields over the state apparatus – something that the ruling National League for Democracy has shown little willingness to challenge.
The final outcome of the trial of Lone and Soe Oo would, to a large extent, determine the qualitative nature of Myanmar’s new democracy. A conviction would surely taint the credibility of State Counsellor and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has already faced intense flak for her complicity in perpetrating war crimes against the Rohingya. More than that, it would greatly close the space for a free press in a country that has just opened up to independent media beyond state control. For an aspiring new democracy, this is bad news.
Angshuman Choudhury is researcher and coordinator at Southeast Asia Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.