In recognising the men who exposed Rakhine’s horrors, the Pulitzer Committee offers a timely reminder of journalism’s role
Two young Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both Myanmar citizens, have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the massacre of Rohingya Muslims.
The two came across a mass grave with human bones sticking from the ground. The discovery triggered a series of revelations that shocked the world and placed Asean under the spotlight for its principle of non-interference in the affairs of other members.
The two didn’t stop at the grave but went on to gather testimony from perpetrators, witnesses and families of victims. In the course of their work, they came across three devastating photographs handed over by villagers: two showed the 10 Rohingya victims bound and kneeling while the third showed their bullet-riddled and mutilated bodies. Those pictured were the same 10 men in the shallow grave they had identified.
The two journalists had confronted Southeast Asia and the world with incontrovertible evidence of atrocities taking place against the Muslim minority group in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Burmese authorities promptly accused them of breaking its official secrets act and put them behind bars. The report, “Massacre in Myanmar”, was completed by their Reuters colleagues and published in February 2018.
Seven months later, in September, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating the colonial-era secrets law. They have since lost two appeals against the sentence.
In April 2018, seven Myanmar army soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour for their part in the Inn Dinn massacre, where the Reuters men revealed victims were forced to dig their own graves the day before they were beaten, stabbed and shot to death.
According to the New York-based Pulitzer Committee, this year’s international reporting prize was awarded “for expertly exposing the military units and Buddhist villagers responsible for the systematic expulsion and murder of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, courageous coverage that landed
its reporters in prison”.
While the recognition is richly deserved, the dismal fact is that the courageous recipients remain behind bars at Yangon’s Insein Prison, victims of a government that has slipped quickly from reform back to the authoritarian repression familiar under decades of junta rule. Once a beacon of hope in newly democratic Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy kept silent about atrocities committed against the stateless Rohingya and the injustice meted out to the Reuters men who uncovered the evidence.
Neither are Thailand and Asean off the hook. For the sake of Asean unity and bilateral ties, Bangkok turned a blind eye to the Burmese military-backed campaign of killing, murder and rape that saw some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims flee their homes in Rakhine for refuge in Bangladesh. That silence is a terrible stain on the reputation of both our country and the regional bloc. Standing by the principle of non-interference is simply risible in the face of a state-sponsored catastrophe that the United Nations and many countries have identified as genocide.
Asean’s silence also lends weight to the protestations of Suu Kyi’s government, which rejects any criticism of its troops’ actions against the Rohingya, as well as other minorities in other regions. The reality is that Myanmar’s military has committed atrocities for decades in its ongoing conflicts with the country’s many ethnic groups and armies.
As the world hails the two Burmese reporters, it should not be forgotten that journalists in other parts of the region are facing intimidation from authorities simply for doing their duty. Fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Maria Ressa of the Philippines is also facing politicised legal scrutiny by the Manila government.
Ressa, head of the Rappler news outfit, was Time’s 2018 Person of the Year for her courageous reporting on the authorities’ drug war ravaging her country.
“This is not just about Rappler – it has very serious implications for anyone writing on the internet. And we will fight,” a defiant Maria told CNN after her arrest.