The case of two Reuters journalists -– freed in Myanmar on Tuesday — played a key part in shredding Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi‘s reputation as a rights champion after she failed to come to their defence or speak up for the persecuted Rohingya minority.
Suu Kyi was once a staunch advocate for the press and a darling of the foreign media, but her silence over the persecuted Rohingya minority has drawn widespread condemnation.
During her long years of house arrest under the former junta — which choked the media inside Myanmar — it was foreign correspondents who beamed her message of peaceful defiance to the outside world.
Glowing profiles burnished her image, with comparisons made to the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.
Suu Kyi remains adored inside Myanmar. Supporters of her democracy battle say she has limited control over the military, which embarked on reforms in 2010 after almost 50 years in power.
Yet former friends and supporters have looked on aghast at her lack of criticism over the military’s campaign against the Rohingya, which U.N. investigators have said amounted to genocide.
Tuesday’s release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo after 511 days behind bars brought joy and relief for Myanmar’s embattled press community, but further highlighted Suu Kyi’s crippled legacy.
The moment when @Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo walked free outside Myanmar's Insein prison after receiving a presidential pardon. More here: https://t.co/0VMLYTaz9n pic.twitter.com/agPYwhIlCp
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) May 7, 2019
Why This Matters
Rights groups have slammed the civilian leader for not using her influence to stop the Reuters case from proceeding.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Asia, said Suu Kyi was continuously unhelpful and evasive over the plight of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and her “increasingly hostile attitude toward independent media in Myanmar was a big issue”.
He said Suu Kyi could have requested a presidential pardon long ago and that she has now become “part of the problem” since the start of the Rohingya crisis in August 2017, playing a role in a “national cover-up of the atrocities”.
Since sweeping to power after historic elections in 2015, Suu Kyi has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the press.
Prosecutions of journalists and media intimidation more redolent of the junta years have been common.
Around 20 journalists were prosecuted in 2017, many under a controversial online defamation law.
At the same time Suu Kyi has been accused of backing misleading information about the Rakhine crisis.
State media published by the Suu Kyi-controlled Ministry of Information has continuously echoed the military line, rejecting many of the allegations of atrocities against the Rohingya as deliberate fake news.
That has put her at odds with a mountain of evidence and an international community calling for justice.
Political analyst Maung Maung Soe said it was this “huge international pressure” which eventually brought about the release of the two journalists, which was unlikely to have any significant impact on Suu Kyi’s reputation.
Robertson said Suu Kyi will likely ignore the the journalists’ release and “act like justice was served.”
Straight for the glasses! I love this photo of our friend and Reuters colleague Wa Lone – just released after 511 days in detention in Myanmar – and his daughter Thet Htar Angel, who was born while he was behind bars. They have some catching up to do. pic.twitter.com/5eNbSzkM7x
— Andrew RC Marshall (@Journotopia) May 7, 2019
More on the Subject
Suu Kyi’s defenders say her hands are tied by an army that still controls security matters as well as 25 percent of parliamentary seats.
The stateless Rohingya are also deeply unpopular among the Buddhist-majority public in Myanmar, where Islamophobia has surged in recent years.
That reality gives Suu Kyi little political incentive to defend the Muslim minority — or reporters who write about their plight.
But some analysts note a transformation in recent months, from Suu Kyi trying to avoid talking about the issue to supporting the military’s kickback against “terrorists.” And at a speech in Singapore in August 2018 she referred to generals in her cabinet as “rather sweet.”