Myanmar Freed Two Reporters From Prison. It’s Not a Paradigm Shift.

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BANGKOK — Tuesday brought rare good news from Myanmar: Photographs and videos of two beaming journalists, reunited with their wives and young children after spending 16 months in prison.

The release of the journalists, U Wa Lone and U Kyaw Soe Oo, who were detained for covering Myanmar’s deadly crackdown on the Rohingya minority group, is likely to relieve immediate pressure on the country’s quasi-democratic government from world leaders, rights organizations and others who had rallied to their cause.

But the act does not otherwise move the needle for freedom of expression and other rights that are in jeopardy in Myanmar, analysts and activists said. Dozens of political detainees are languishing behind bars, and dozens more face criminal defamation charges.

“It is something to celebrate that these two were released,” said David Mathieson, an independent analyst in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. “But the picture remains quite bleak when it comes to press freedom.”

Mr. Wa Lone, 33, and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, were freed as part of a broader presidential amnesty for thousands of prisoners. A few weeks earlier, the Supreme Court had rejected a final appeal of their seven-year prison sentence.

“This was the easiest step for them to take to repair relations with the West,” Mr. Mathieson said of the reporters’ release.

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Analysts said Myanmar’s civilian leaders may have hoped to ease international pressure over the case — itself a reminder of the military’s campaign in 2017 to expel the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, from western Myanmar.

The military killed thousands of people, burning villages, raping women and girls, and forcing more than 750,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, where they now live in refugee camps. United Nations officials have called it genocide.

Mr. Wa Lone and Mr. Kyaw Soe Oo, reporters for the news agency Reuters, uncovered a military massacre of 10 Rohingya villagers in 2017.

Zaw Htay, a government spokesman, said on Tuesday that the reporters’ pardon had been approved after their relatives petitioned President, U Win Myint and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s civilian leader.

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Their release prompted an outpouring of elation from supporters around the world. But analysts and rights activists said it did not allay the broader concern that freedom of expression in Myanmar is on a steady decline.

“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 of the reporters’ original conviction.

Ko Bo Kyi, a founder of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, another advocacy group in Myanmar, said that only 10 of the more than 23,000 inmates released since last month in the government’s general amnesty were what he would consider political prisoners.

By his count, he added, 25 more political prisoners were behind bars and an additional 283 were facing trial.

In one prominent example, a well-known Myanmar filmmaker and rights activist, U Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, was arrested last month after a military officer sued him for a Facebook post criticizing the country’s military-drafted Constitution. He could face up to two years in prison if convicted.

Since 2016, Myanmar has been ruled by the military and civilian elected officials under an awkward power-sharing arrangement.

The civilian government is led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has disappointed the international community by frequently siding with the military. She holds the post of state counselor and has declared that she is above the president.

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Before the two reporters went on trial, she declared them guilty in a rare public interview. But experts said the president, Mr. Win Myint, had lately seemed more amenable to releasing them.

“He wouldn’t act, though, without her green light,” said Richard Horsey, a political analyst and former United Nations official in Yangon.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the journalists’ release was clearly the result of international pressure.

“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,” he said.

The government may also have had a financial incentive: Amid the outcry over the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya, the European Union has said it is considering a suspension of trade privileges for Myanmar. Local garment companies say that hundreds of thousands of jobs are at risk.

Source: NYT

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