YANGON – The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) has urged the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government to “seriously consider all aspects of the larger interest of the country” amid mounting local and international criticism of the jailing of two Reuters reporters.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were imprisoned for seven years on Monday for breaching the Official Secrets Act over their coverage of the conflict in Rakhine State.
The MNHRC statement followed a press conference given by the jailed reporters’ wives, Pan Ei Mon and Chit Su Win, on Tuesday. The commission said it had been closely observing the case of the two reporters since it received a complaint letter from the wives in December. It adds that officials of the MNHRC attended a series of trial hearings to observe whether the accused’s basic rights were being upheld. The commission urged the government to protect the basic rights of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, including their right to appeal and hold legal consultations with their lawyers.
Two days ago, Yangon’s Northern District Court analyzed the claims and counterclaims of the prosecutor and defense lawyers, respectively, regarding a number of accusations against the reporters. The reporters were accused of possessing “top-secret” documents at the time of their arrest last December in Yangon, including the travel itinerary for Vice President U Myint Swe’s trip to strife-torn northern Rakhine; the phone number of Arakan Army (AA) Brigadier-General Nyo Tun Aung (the AA is a non-signatory of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement); a map related to Pope Francis’ visit to Myanmar; and northern Rakhine security clearance operations reports. Taking into consideration all of the above matters, the judge concluded that the reporters had violated the Official Secrets Act’s Section 3 (1) (c) and sentenced them to seven years’ imprisonment.
In fact, the pair was investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine State’s Inn Din village by a group of local villagers, police and Army troops last December. When the reporters returned to Yangon from northern Rakhine, they contacted Police Captain Moe Yan Naing, who had recently been transferred from Maungdaw Township, to clarify some facts about the Inn Din killings. At that time, the Myanmar authorities were bluntly denying that security forces had committed any mass killings during the operations.
The following month, the Army announced that seven soldiers had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor in a remote area of Myanmar for participating in the mass killing. The United Nations says the military crackdown has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
Police were aware that two reporters were investigating indiscriminate killings by security forces, so Police Brigadier General Tin Ko Ko instructed a police constable to set the reporters up by handing them some of the “top-secret” documents and immediately arresting them. Pol. Lance Corporal Naing Lin and a colleague contacted Wa Lone and arranged to meet the reporters at a restaurant in Mingalardon’s Htauk Kyant area. Unexpectedly, the two reporters were given two newspaper-wrapped packages, but as the lighting was dim at the restaurant, the police suggested the reporters read the documents at a later time.
After handing over the packages, the police abruptly left. The reporters had taken just a few steps outside the restaurant when they were immediately handcuffed by a different group of Yangon police officers. They were taken directly to the Aung Tha Pyay interrogation camp, and a couple of days later police announced that the two had been arrested for possessing top-secret documents linked to northern Rakhine State and charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The two detainees attended a number of trial hearings over a period of nine months. While the two reporters were charged over the possession of the documents, the prosecutor made several late submissions to the court, adding information found by investigators on the two reporters’ mobile phones, including the phone number of a senior AA leader.
In terms of the MNHRC statement, commission member U Yu Lwin Aung told The Irrawaddy over the phone on Wednesday that the statement was issued with the aim of finding a better solution—for both the government and the jailed reporters—based on a more rigorous approach that does not violate the existing laws of Myanmar and is arrived at using the legitimate powers of the ruling party. To make it happen, legal experts and relevant departments of the government should initiate a consultation meeting to find an appropriate solution, he said.
“Strictly maintaining its stance will not bring about a positive impact,” U Yu Lwin Aung said.
Defense lawyer U Khin Maung Zaw, who joined the reporters’ wives at yesterday’s press conference, told the journalists they were extremely disappointed with the judge’s decision because the plaintiff witnesses’ testimony, including that given by police, appeared to contain discrepancies and falsehoods. A key plaintiff witness, Police Capt. Moe Yan Naing, even told the judge that the reporters had been set up. Another lawyer, U Than Zaw Aung, told the journalists that the defense team would exhaust all options in trying to obtain the immediate release of his clients, including appealing to the higher court.
“This will remain as a black spot on our country’s history,” U Khin Maung Zaw said.
Wa Lone’s wife Pan Ei Mon, who recently had the couple’s first child, said, “I went to see my husband in prison yesterday and he told me that he had not expected this kind of result. He was very upset about having been trapped and having to serve a long prison sentence.”
She repeatedly said, “He has done nothing wrong and I want him to come home quickly.”
Chit Su Win, the wife of Kyaw Soe Oo, recalled that one day before his conviction, she visited her husband in Inn Sein Prison and her husband had returned all his clothing to her as he ultimately trusted in the judicial system. She said a seven-year sentence was totally “unjust”.
She said, “My husband is a good man and I’m proud of him. My overwhelming concern is for the possible trauma my daughter will suffer. She even asks me sometimes why her father has been away from us for so long. Is he no longer in love with mommy?”
In discussions with foreign diplomats or exclusive media interviews, senior NLD leaders including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have frequently said that the outcome of the Reuters reporters’ trials would be “up to the judiciary”. They have refrained from saying anything supportive of the journalists, saying that could be regarded as contempt of court.
As of this week, the judiciary has done its part. To return the jailed reporters to their families and newsrooms, there is a potentially “life-saving” provision in the Constitution—Section 204. It stipulates that the president has the ultimate power to grant a pardon and that he can also grant an amnesty with the recommendation of the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC). Lawyer Than Zaw Aung told reporters he had heard some top NLD leaders, during foreign trips and at forums, discuss possible presidential pardons for the pair.
However, family members and defense lawyers were not confident of an immediate release, based on comments by the country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, during an exclusive interview with Japan’s NHK on June 8, that the two reporters “were not arrested for covering the Rakhine issue” and even that “they were arrested because they broke the Official Secrets Act.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the reporters were taken to an interrogation camp named Yae Kyi Aing. The correct name of the interrogation camp is Aung Tha Pyay.