In pur­suit of truth in Burma

Reuters re­porters are not crim­i­nals for in­ves­ti­gat­ing a mass grave.

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“WE ARE not do­ing any­thing wrong. Please help us by un­cov­er­ing the truth.” Those words on Wed­nes­day from Kyaw Soe Oo, on the steps of a court­house in Ran­goon, Burma, are an apt de­scrip­tion of a test case for the na­tion’s demo­cratic as­pi­ra­tions. Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo is a Reuters reporter and, with a col­league, Wa Lone, has been im­pris­oned and charged with car­ry­ing out the “crime” of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism. They must be freed if Burma, also known as Myan­mar, is to sus­tain even a shred of re­spect for democ­racy.

The two jour­nal­ists were in­ves­ti­gat­ing re­ports of a mass grave in Rakhine state, where the Burmese mil­i­tary has con­ducted a scorched-earth cam­paign against the Mus­lim mi­nor­ity Ro­hingya pop­u­la­tion. Long marginal­ized by the ma­jor­ity Bud­dhists, the Ro­hingya have in re­cent months been sub­ject to eth­nic cleans­ing from their vil­lages, pro­pel­ling about 650,000 into ex­o­dus in neigh­bor­ing Bangladesh, where they are crowded into camps. Hu­man rights mon­i­tors say the cam­paign brought mur­der, rape and de­struc­tion to the Ro­hingya vil­lages.

The jour­nal­ists were look­ing into re­ports of a mass grave in the vil­lage of Inn Din. Re­port­ing such as this has been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult be­cause of govern­ment re­stric­tions on jour­nal­ists and in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors. The jour­nal­ists were ar­rested Dec. 12 af­ter be­ing in­vited to meet po­lice of­fi­cials on the out­skirts of Ran­goon, where they were first given some doc­u­ments, then al­most im­me­di­ately taken into cus­tody. The govern­ment has said the re­porters “il­le­gally ac­quired in­for­ma­tion with the in­ten­tion to share it with for­eign me­dia.” On Wed­nes­day, they were for­mally charged with ob­tain­ing state se­crets and vi­o­lat­ing the Of­fi­cial Se­crets Act, a Bri­tish colo­nial-era law with a max­i­mum sen­tence of 14 years in prison.

Later Wed­nes­day, the mil­i­tary re­leased re­sults of its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mass grave the jour­nal­ists were prob­ing. A state­ment said that 10 bod­ies there were of Mus­lims who had been killed by vil­lagers and se­cu­rity forces “be­cause they were ter­ror­ists.” The Burmese mil­i­tary cam­paign was trig­gered by an Au­gust at­tack on se­cu­rity posts by a small Ro­hingya mil­i­tant group, but the mil­i­tary’s state­ment about ter­ror­ism should be viewed with acute skep­ti­cism. The truth is still elu­sive. The Reuters jour­nal­ists were chas­ing it, and putting them in jail was to pre­vent them from find­ing it.

Burma’s mil­i­tary re­mains a pow­er­ful force in the coun­try, even though it has passed par­tial con­trol to civil­ians, now un­der the lead­er­ship of the No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi. Her weak re­sponse to the Ro­hingya oper­a­tion may be ex­plained by the mil­i­tary’s con­tin­ued dom­i­nance of se­cu­rity mat­ters, but she should not tol­er­ate the pros­e­cu­tion of the two re­porters. Al­ready, jour­nal­ists com­plain there has been se­ri­ous back­slid­ing of press free­dom un­der her govern­ment. She must stand up for a free press as the core of a free so­ci­ety, de­mand re­lease of the Reuters pair and al­low un­fet­tered ac­cess to Rakhine state.


Reuters jour­nal­ists Wa Lone (cen­ter, front) and Kyaw Soe Oo (cen­ter, rear) are es­corted by po­lice as they leave the court in Ran­goon, Burma, on Wed­nes­day.

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