YANGON — State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments in a June interview on the then-ongoing case of two reporters who have subsequently been jailed on charges relating to their coverage of the conflict in Rakhine State did not influence the outcome of their trial, a government spokesman said on Friday.
Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were on Monday convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act and jailed for seven years after the court ruled they had been in possession of state secrets.
Myanmar President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay admitted that with the United Nations General Assembly scheduled to be held this month, the conviction of the Reuters journalists was likely to bring more international pressure on Myanmar.
“On the other hand, the sentencing highlights that the judicial system in Myanmar is independent and free from government intervention,” he added.
U Zaw Htay was giving a press briefing in Nyapyitaw on Friday afternoon on the current international affairs facing Myanmar and the state of the peace process, when some reporters asked him about comments made by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during an exclusive interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK on June 28. In the interview, she said the “two reporters were not arrested for covering the Rakhine issue” and that “they were arrested because they broke the Official Secrets Act.” U Zaw Htay was asked whether her remarks had put pressure on the court to deliver a guilty verdict, and strongly denied the claim.
Last December, the Reuters reporters investigated the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine State’s Inn Din village by a group of local villagers, police and Army troops. 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 confirm some facts about a mass grave in Inn Din.
At that time, the Myanmar authorities were bluntly denying that security forces had committed any mass killings during their clearance operations in the area following a series of attacks against security officials by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in August 2017. The United Nations says the military crackdown has sent nearly 700,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.
In January, the Army announced that seven soldiers involved in the killings had been sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor in a remote area of Myanmar.
The two reporters were brought before the court in a series of hearings over a period of nine months in a trial that resulted in both of them being handed long prison terms.
Observers were critical of the fact that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had made her comment on their guilt prior to the court’s verdict and sentencing in the case. Furthermore, it seemed at odds with her own warning during previous interviews that commenting on an ongoing trial could be considered contempt of court.
Responding to the query over whether her comment influenced the trial, U Zaw Htay said, “In terms of the NHK interview, to be frank, I can decisively say: Definitely not. We did not pressure the judiciary and this [comment] should not be seen as pressure either. Other than journalists, ordinary people—and even the court—were unaware of that interview.”
The spokesman insisted that the State Counselor had clearly stated that she wouldn’t comment on judicial affairs, and that those were matters for the courts. However, the record shows that she made the comment that the two reporters were “not arrested for covering Rakhine”, and were arrested because “they broke the Official Secrets Act” on two occasions. Comments from her in which she specifically declines to comment on the reporters’ guilt have in fact been rare.
In a press conference the day after the reporters were jailed, their wives, Pan Ei Mon and Chit Su Win, said they were “extremely upset” by the comments from a person they had admired as much as State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They said they had not expected the two men to be given such long prison terms.
Family members, defense lawyers and journalists are pinning their hopes on presidential pardons for the two reporters. The 2008 Constitution clearly states that the power to pardon ultimately lies with the Union president; Section 204 of the charter stipulates that “the president has the power to grant a pardon.”
When asked by journalists whether the government had considered presidential pardons for the jailed Reuters reporters, U Zaw Htay said, “Not so far.”
On Tuesday, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) urged the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government to “seriously consider all aspects of the larger interest of the country” as international and local criticism of the government mounted over the case.