Two prizewinning Reuters journalists were released from prison in Myanmar on Tuesday after more than a year in detention for covering the country’s deadly crackdown on the Rohingya minority.
The two reporters, U Wa Lone, 33, and U Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were arrested in December 2017. They were sentenced in September to seven years in prison under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for receiving documents from a police officer as part of their investigation into a 2017 massacre of 10 Rohingya villagers.
The men, along with their Reuters colleagues, were awarded in April the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, one of journalism’s most coveted and prestigious honours.
The two reporters were released as part of a wider presidential pardon that freed more than 6,000 prisoners.
Their case had become an international cause célèbre, with journalists, human rights activists and world leaders calling for their release. Their arrest, like the ethnic conflict they were covering, was a turning point in the West’s perception of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former political prisoner who had once been seen as an international force for democracy and tolerance.
When Ms Aung San Suu Kyi became the country’s de facto civilian leader in 2016 after her political party swept landmark elections a year earlier, many people in Myanmar and beyond thought she would promote those same values while in office.
Instead, she has often allied herself with the military, which shares power with civilian leaders under Myanmar’s military-imposed constitution.
In 2017, the military set off an intense international backlash by carrying out what the United Nations has called a genocide of the Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic minority whose members had lived in the western state of Rakhine for generations. The military killed thousands of people, burning villages, raping women and girls and forcing more than 750,000 to flee across the border into Bangladesh, where they now live in refugee camps.
The UN said that Myanmar’s top generals should be investigated on charges of genocide.
Ms Aung San Suu Kyi has also presided since 2016 over what rights activists say is a crackdown on free speech. Since her party took power, the number of journalists arrested in Myanmar has increased to 43, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
Her government’s detention of Mr. Wa Lone and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo, who were convicted of violating a state secrets law, was widely seen as a prime example of that crackdown.
In April, they lost their final appeal in Myanmar’s Supreme Court. After that decision, a lawyer for the men said their last chance at release was through petitioning the country’s legislature or its president, U Win Myint.
On Tuesday, U Khin Maung Zaw, a lawyer for the journalists, thanked Mr Win Myint for releasing his clients. “He has fulfilled the hopes of the international community and their family members,” he said.
Darul Ihsan Media Desk