On 2 September last year, Buddhist villagers and Myanmar’s armed forces killed 10 Rohingya men in a village called Inn Din in Rakhine state. Two Reuters journalists—Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—painstakingly pieced together evidence that exposed the massacre. In December, police officers invited the two reporters to a restaurant and gave them some documents. As they left the restaurant, they were arrested and charged with violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act for possessing the documents. 

On 27 August, a panel of experienced UN investigators accused the Myanmar army of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Their meticulous report focused on violence across the country against many minorities, not only Rohingyas. Predictably, the Myanmar government dismissed the report. The International Criminal Court is considering its jurisdiction over the Rakhine state and there are calls for prosecuting Myanmar’s generals. In a remarkable move, Facebook blocked 18 accounts (including that of the army chief), one Instagram account, and 52 Facebook pages, which are followed by almost 12 million people in the country (Myanmar’s population is 53 million and Facebook is the main gateway to the Internet in the country), for spreading“hate and misinformation". 

On Monday,about a year after the Inn Din massacre, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in jail. They can appeal to a regional court and later to the Supreme Court. 

The scenes outside the Yangon northern district court were chaotic. Journalists keen to have a word with the two reporters tried to stop the police van taking the them away, but the van continued to move, threatening to run over them. The reporters are young —Wa Lone is 32 and Kyaw Soe Oo is 28—and Myanmar’s prisons conditions are atrocious. Their families are distraught. 

The story the Reuters reporters wrote with colleagues Simon Lewis and Antoni Slodkowski was harrowing in its depiction of the cold-blooded inhumanity of the killers. It deserves awards, not punishment. Those reading this column online can read it here.

Inn Din is located to the north of Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, between the Mayu mountains and the Bay of Bengal. On 25 August last year, the Myanmar army says there were simultaneous attacks on police posts by Rohingya separatists. Around that time, a Buddhist farmer called Maung Ni disappeared after leaving home to tend to his cattle. Worried Buddhists sought sanctuary in a monastery. The military arrived with a police battalion. Rohingya homes were looted and torched. Rohingya men, seeking to flee to Bangladesh, were rounded up. Of the 10 men who were chosen, five were fishermen, two were students, one ran a store, another was a shopkeeper, and the last was a religious teacher. The story shows photographs of crouching men with their hands behind their backs; other photographs show remains from a hastily-dug grave. Early in January, Myanmar confirmed parts of the story of the massacre.

Since last August, Rohingya homes have been razed and torched, crops set afire, women raped and men killed. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have made their way across the Teknaf River, seeking refuge in Bangladesh. Human Rights Watch has analysed images from satellites and concluded that, in the first quarter alone, more than 350 villages were burned. What happened in Inn Din was a small part of the larger horror story. 

The sentencing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is appalling. First, they should never have been charged. Their reporting was scrupulous and their prose restrained. Second, the punishment is outrageously disproportionate. Their lawyer has alleged that the journalists were victims of police entrapment. Third, Myanmar should be prosecuting those responsible for the extra-judicial executions. 

More importantly, this episode lays to rest the enduring myth surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi—once a human rights icon, now increasingly seen as complicit in grave abuses. Once upon a time, she spoke eloquently about freedom from fear. Many hoped she would continue to speak truth to power and bring the fairy tale—of a peaceful Myanmar where rights were respected—to its logical end. Many were willing to wait. She won by-elections to the parliament in 2012 and her party, the National League of Democracy, swept the polls in 2015.

The constitution didn’t allow her to become president, so the post of state counsellor was created for her, which made her the de facto ruler of Myanmar, even though the generals continued to call the shots. She did not challenge them. In 2013, she told BBC Radio that since her father, Gen Aung San, was the father of the Burmese Army, each soldier was like her father’s son, and by implication, her sibling. Inconvenient facts, such as her long incarceration and an attempt on her life, were forgiven and forgotten. She became a willing accomplice of the army and its conduct, which has included continuation of Myanmar’s many internal conflicts, the persecution of Rohingyas, and a peace process in tatters. International criticism, including honours being withdrawn, hasn’t bothered her. 

In that catalogue of culpability, jailing two journalists may seem like a small matter. But it isn’t. It shows who holds real power in Myanmar and how unwilling and incapable she is to assert the moral authority she once had in such abundance. 

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com.

Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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