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Hope, Despair and the New Normal in Myanmar

*This article first appeared in The Interpreter on 9 May 2019. 

Human rights advocates had a rare chance to celebrate yesterday as two local Reuters journalists were released from prison. Their situation is viewed by the international community as a test case of the political reform process in Myanmar.

The case is a remind of the mixed feelings of both despair and hope about the relationship between Myanmar and the international community, and the absence of a commitment by the government and the military to basic human rights.

The arrest of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two local journalists, garnered global attention in late 2017 because of their connection to Reuters as an international news outlet. It demanded attention because the journalists were covering what the UN Fact Finding Mission has identified as credible markers of genocide in Rakhine State.

At a meeting with the police in Yangon in late 2017, the two journalists were arrested for allegedly possessing documents that contained state secrets. This is an offence under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

In fact, they were set up by the police who were aware that the two journalists were investigating a massacre that took place in Rakhine State. The police are closely connected to the military in Myanmar, and the political transition has not yet led to any meaningful separation between the role of the police and the military.

Despite the case pending against them, the devastating findings of the massacre of ten Rohingya in Rakhine State was published by Reuters. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were two among four of the attributed authors in this remarkable piece of reporting.

In September 2018, the court trial of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo culminated in a guilty verdict and a sentence of seven years jail for their alleged crime. In April 2019, the appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected.

In a surprise development, on 7 May, the pair were released as part of the President’s decision to grant amnesty, alongside other prisoners. Such a decision is entirely at the discretion of the President, who is a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

While in detention, the two journalists were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in honour of their original report that clearly implicated the armed forces and villagers in the killing of 10 Rohingya in Rakhine State.

In many respects, the fact that the pair had to endure a court trial, an extended period in jail, and were found guilty at first instance and on appeal is not surprising. The courts are easily influenced by the security apparatus and administration in Myanmar.

It is also not surprising because Myanmar has shown time and again that it will not be swayed by international pressure regarding the conflict and major humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in Rakhine State since 2016.

And yet, no one in Myanmar wants a return to sanctions. For many in the international community, the failure to release the pair was to be the final straw for some Western countries who were considering cutting ties and a return to sanctions. Further, no one in Myanmar wants to be entirely dependent on China, yet without broader international support this remains a risk.

The Reuters case is instructive because in many respects Myanmar has still retained the upper hand. It is an example of how the military and the administration works to control the local narrative about what has occurred in Rakhine State. This is evident in the military’s Orwellian-sounding ‘True News’ agency and its efforts to determine the stories that are told about what happened in Rakhine State.

The Reuters case is also about much more than press freedom. It is ultimately about how the conflict and human rights violations in Rakhine State will be remembered. Who were the perpetrators? Why are close to a million Rohingya now stuck in camps in Bangladesh, and others in precarious displacement camps in Rakhine State? Who should be held responsible?

For the international community, the impending 2020 elections offer an opportunity to rethink their engagement. Will there be elections in Rakhine State in 2020? If so, who will get to vote? Should the international community refuse to provide electoral assistance and monitoring in Rakhine State as a tangible form of protest? What is the way forward to ensure that the Rohingya have a place in the political future of Myanmar? None of these questions have easy answers but they need to be discussed.

The two Reuters journalists are incredibly luckily. Their truth telling efforts have not cost them their lives. Others, like the late lawyer U Ko Ni, were not so fortunate and paid the price for advocating for constitutional change and for denouncing the efforts to exclude the Rohingya from the 2015 elections. Then there is the fate of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons who face a future of deep uncertainty and poverty.

And so we swing from despair to hope and back to despair as the new normal of an NLD government with a strong military presence takes root in Myanmar, a government arrangement that is likely to be endorsed again in the 2020 elections.

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