KRWG

2 Reuters Journalists Freed From Prison In Myanmar

May 7, 2019
Originally published on May 7, 2019 6:01 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Myanmar, two journalists who had been imprisoned for doing their jobs are now free. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in December of 2017 while they were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys. That report earned them the Pulitzer Prize, awarded just this past April. Wa Lone spoke after his release today.

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WA LONE: I would like to say, thank you very much for everything. I'm really happy and excited to see my family and my colleagues. And I can't wait to go my newsroom now.

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MARTIN: Can't wait to go to his newsroom. Joining us now is Los Angeles Times reporter Shashank Bengali. He's been covering this story from Singapore.

Thanks for being with us this morning.

SHASHANK BENGALI: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So these reporters were imprisoned for 500 days. Why now? Why are they being released in this moment?

BENGALI: Well, it's interesting. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the leader of the Myanmar government, the Nobel Prize winner, former icon of democracy, had multiple chances to let these men go free. In fact, as recently as last month, the Myanmar Supreme Court denied their final appeal of their convictions for violating a century-old secrets law that they were convicted under. So there has been so much global pressure. And up until this morning, the Myanmar government had steadfastly refused to bend to that pressure. But the release today signals that pressure can have an impact, even on this government.

MARTIN: How's the release going over in Myanmar? How are the people there responding?

BENGALI: Well, it's certainly been a joyous day for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, for their families. Both of them have wives and young daughters. In fact, Wa Lone's daughter was born while he was in prison. And his Reuters colleagues, of course, have been thrilled to have him back. There have been, you know, lots of happy selfies sent around. It's been a very - you know, just a wonderful moment for the journalists.

There are concerns, though, about how they're going to be received in broader society. You know, this is still a country that's majority Buddhist. The crimes that these men reported on - the massacre of Rohingya civilians - this is a ethnic minority group that is widely detested by a lot of majority Burmese Buddhists - people in Myanmar. And a lot of people, after they were convicted, chose to go on Facebook and social media and call them traitors and, you know, said that they had betrayed their Buddhist roots and things like that. So there is not a lot of support inside Myanmar for their reporting. It'll be another struggle for them, now that they're out of jail, to see how they're, you know, received back in society.

MARTIN: Right. I mean, do you think their release will set any kind of precedence for other critics of the government who are currently in prison? Or is just - is this just so exceptional because of the international pressure?

BENGALI: Well, this case is certainly exceptional. It's worth noting that under Aung San Suu Kyi, her government has seen large numbers of dissidents, critics, activists - even, you know, artists and performers arrested for things like, you know, satire against the government, participating in protests. So there are a large number - dozens, we believe - of activists who are still behind bars. This amnesty does nothing to reverse their conviction. It does nothing to change the fact that they are - still remain criminals in the eyes of the Myanmar legal system. And it seems like this is a one-time case involving, you know, these journalists. And the implications for other dissidents in Myanmar really remains to be seen.

MARTIN: LA Times reporter Shashank Bengali - he joined us via Skype - thanks so much.

BENGALI: Thank you.

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