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On Tuesday, Myanmar released two Reuters journalists from imprisonment who had been detained for 16 months in prison for coverage of the nation’s violent crackdown on the Rohingya minority group. This is a rare bright spot in a long history of state sponsored violence and repression in the South-East Asian nation. Still, this is a relatively isolated incident in a country that still detains dozens of political prisoners, with many more facing upcoming charges. The release of the two journalists, U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo, seems to likely be an attempt on behalf of the Myanmar government to relieve immediate political pressure form world leaders and human rights organizations. More systematic change is still necessary if a climate of free expression and political rights is to be sustained.
Many analysts and activists within Myanmar have echoed this point. “It is something to celebrate that these two were released,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city to The New York Times. “But the picture remains quite bleak when it comes to press freedom.” Speaking specifically of the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, Mathieson said “this was the easiest step for them to take to repair relations with the West.” Other sources have noted that despite their freedom, the original conviction of these journalists indicates the persistence of significant issues. “We should not forget that this has been a test of Myanmar’s new democracy, and that the test has failed,” Yin Yadanar Thein of the advocacy group Free Expression Myanmar said speaking of the reporters’ earlier conviction. Fundamentally, Myanmar’s continued imprisonment of dozens of other political activists lies the notion that this recent release was anything more than a publicity stunt as a result from global pressures. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, stated, “the problem is there are literally dozens of other reporters and bloggers facing prosecution, and none of them enjoy the kind of visibility that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had.”
The release of two imprisoned journalists in Myanmar must not distract from the significant issues that persist. Myanmar’s government likely views this release as nothing more than a pacification of criticism from foreign governments and NGOs. Further steps should be taken to open the public sphere, and to allow for criticism of what are oppressive and violent government practices. Additionally, The New York Times reports that Myanmar’s government may have been motivated by financial incentives. The European Union has said that it is considering sanctions against Myanmar in the wake of military atrocities committed against the Rohingya. These sanctions could be potentially devastating, particularly for Myanmar’s garment industry, which says it stands to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs. The sincerity of Myanmar’s actions must therefore be seriously questioned as significant benefits existed for the Myanmar government, both politically and economically, to release the two Reuter’s journalists.
Since 2016, Myanmar has been under the control of both military and civilian elected officials in a sort of quasi-democratic power sharing agreement. Aung San Suu Kyi leads the civilian government, holding the post of state counsellor and declaring herself above the president. However, Kyi, a former Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has greatly frustrated the international community by often taking the side of the military. In 2017 Myanmar’s military began a campaign to remove the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group. Since this time thousands have been killed, villages have been burned, and other atrocities have forced around 75,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested while reporting for Reuters in 2017 after uncovering a military massacre of 10 Rohingya.
Recent years in Myanmar have been marred by military rule, state sponsored oppression, and mass murder. The release of these two journalists, while undoubtedly a bright spot, must not distract from the issues that persist. Myanmar’s government does not seem to be pursuing any substantive or significant change. Instead, releasing these journalists seems to be an attempt to deflect some of the criticism and potential financial penalties that have been levied on Myanmar.