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"What does Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s Release Mean for Myanmar?" by Moe Thuzar

2019/40, 8 May 2019

Recent developments in Myanmar continue to attract international attention. The latest is the release of two Reuters journalists – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – who had been arrested in December 2017 and sentenced to seven years in prison under the 1923 Official Secrets Act. The two journalists had been undertaking investigative reporting on the situation in Rakhine State, where the military crackdown in response to attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in 2016 and 2017 had caused the largest ever exodus of Rohingya communities.

This caused Myanmar to come under the strongest attention and scrutiny by the international community over the Rakhine/Rohingya issue. Amidst diplomatic initiatives to mediate and mitigate the resultant humanitarian crisis, reporting on Rakhine was restrictive and restricted in the name of “national security”. This is not entirely new. When communal clashes broke out in 2012 between Rakhine and Rohingya communities, under the watch of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, the media in Myanmar were cautioned about reporting on ethnic and religious issues. This was despite the relaxation of censorship and reporting requirements, and the then President’s recognition of the media’s role as the “fourth pillar” in the country’s reform.

Expectations were thus high that the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government would continue providing a wider space for media to report and serve a monitoring role in the country’s transition and democratisation. But early in the NLD’s term in office, the response to reporting on Rakhine, particularly the type of investigative reporting that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were undertaking, dashed these expectations, and showed the extent to which media management and crisis communications capacity across government agencies was needed.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s release took place within this confluence of competing factors. Their release – after 500 days in jail and two failed appeals – occurred in the context of prisoner amnesties that are a presidential prerogative. There have been several prisoner amnesties since the USDP’s term, when the release of political prisoners was one of the conditions used by the international community to assess the USDP’s commitment to political reforms. These amnesties usually occur around key dates in Myanmar’s calendar, to commemorate the country’s independence or the Buddhist new year. However, the most recent amnesty – which saw the release of close to 7000 prisoners including the two journalists – did not fall on any of these dates, and even seemed unscheduled, adding an element of ‘surprise’.

The cause célèbre nature of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s imprisonment makes their release an encouraging sign. It has given rise to comments about whether this is a sign of Myanmar moving towards greater press freedom.  The situation is still in flux, with both the media and the authorities  seeking an equilibrium of sorts. The wider space for voice and expression since 2012 has showed up several tension points in the country’s socio-political life. However, the position of media overall in Myanmar continues to show a preference not to be silent.  The increase in the number of defamation cases brought against media outlets, the latest being the Irrawaddy, is an indicator both of this preference and of official reactions to it.

The same wider space for expression and the unfettered access to the internet and social media have also shown up hard attitudes and narrow narratives entrenched over decades regarding ethnicity, citizenship and identity.

Against such a backdrop, the NLD government’s decision to grant amnesty to the two Reuters journalists reinforces the measure of agency by the government in deciding when and how to respond to international expectations, while balancing its electoral and performance legitimacy within the country. The massive international attention (and criticism) on this case has an undeniable effect in securing the journalists’ release, but it has also created a backlash of mistrust towards media and journalists – particularly the independent or foreign media outlets – in Myanmar. The now largely unrestricted and instant access to information via the internet – which seems to be synonymous with Facebook in Myanmar – has thrown into sharp relief attitudes towards the kind of media reporting by Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. They were labeled “traitors” and “mercenary, in the pay of foreign interests” in many social media threads and posts.

In the past as now, the state of press freedom (and human rights) is a prism through which international perceptions of Myanmar’s journey of transition are refracted. The case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is the latest reminder that Myanmar’s continued transformation requires the review, revision and repealing of repressive legislation inherited from its colonial past. The NLD government has already started taking important steps towards this end. In 2016, it further amended the 2012 Ward and Village Tract Administration Act, which had replaced the 1907 Village and Towns Act that the military regime had used in forced labour situations. Also in 2016, then President Htin Kyaw abolished the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act under which political dissidents were jailed in the past.

Discussions will thus continue on what has changed and what has not regarding media freedom, and the different influences on the media’s role in Myanmar, as the country gears up for general elections in 2020.  

Ms Moe Thuzar is ISEAS Fellow and Coordinator of the Myanmar Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.