Two Reuters Journalists Face 14 Years in Burmese Prison After Exposing Massacre of Rohingya Muslims

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In Burma, two journalists from the Reuters news agency have entered their third month in jail. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on December 12 and charged with violating Burma’s Official Secrets Act. They have been denied bail and face up to 14 years in jail. At the time of their arrest, they were investigating a massacre committed by the Burmese military targeting Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din in September. While the two journalists remain in prison, other journalists with Reuters have continued to piece together what happened in Inn Din. In a shocking new exposé, Reuters reports Burmese soldiers and members of an informal militia executed 10 Rohingya Muslim captives. At least two of the men were hacked to death. The others were shot. We speak with Antoni Slodkowski, Reuters bureau chief in Burma.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Burma, where two journalists from the Reuters news agency have entered their third month in jail. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested December 12th and charged with violating Burma’s Official Secrets Act. They have been denied bail and face up to 14 years in jail. At the time of their arrest, they were investigating a massacre committed by the Burmese military targeting Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din in September.

While the two journalists remain in prison, other journalists with Reuters have continued to piece together what happened in Inn Din. In a shocking new exposé, Reuters reports Burmese soldiers and members of an informal militia executed 10 Rohingya Muslim captives. At least two of the men were hacked to death. The others were shot. Reuters published one photo showing the 10 men lined up in a row on the day of their execution. The 10 men are kneeling on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. A second photo shows the men’s bloodied bodies buried in a single grave. The dead included two high school students, fishermen, shopkeepers and an Islamic teacher.

The killings were part of what the United Nations has described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Since last year, at least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims have been killed in Burma. Entire villages have been destroyed. About 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh.

The jailing of the Burmese journalists has sparked international outrage. On Tuesday, the group PEN America announced it will honor Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with this year’s Freedom to Write Award. On Sunday, fellow journalists in Burma took part in a protest. This is Salai Thant Zin of the publication The Irrawaddy.

SALAI THANT ZIN: [translated] The situation is now more obvious that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested because of their investigative report on the Inn Din massacre. Journalists have the right to access the news according to journalistic ethics. This incident is an abuse of justice. This is also evidence that the media are being intimidated in Burma.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier today, the imprisoned Reuters reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, appeared in a Burmese court. As Lone left the court, he said, quote, “I can tell you we worked in accordance with media ethics. I totally believe that.”

We go now to Singapore to speak with Antoni Slodkowski, Reuters bureau chief in Burma. He worked closely with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo and co-wrote the Reuters’ new special report.

Antoni, welcome to Democracy Now! We have a number of issues to discuss. The two Burmese reporters, your colleagues, have just been in a Burmese court. They face 14 years in jail. And you’ve just released this explosive exposé that they and you were working on. Can you talk about what happened in Inn Din and why, then, these two reporters were arrested?

ANTONI SLODKOWSKI: Right. So I think this story that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo worked on, you know, is really important for sort of three main reasons. First of all, it’s this painstaking, detailed account of the execution of these 10 men, who were apparently picked at random by the security forces, held overnight at school, and then, the following day, they were executed. As you said in your material before I came on air, they were shopkeepers, they were fishermen. Two of them were students. And we also were able to meet their families in Bangladesh, you know, who have since fled to Bangladesh and who told us about them and recognized them on these dramatic pictures before the execution.

But apart from this incredibly detailed reconstruction of that execution, what’s really striking in what Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo uncovered in northern Rakhine is also not just the depth, but also the breadth of the reporting. So, the story is actually not only limited to Inn Din. It also goes beyond and discusses the dynamics, the mechanics of this military operation across a wider area. There was reporting from villages several miles to the north of Inn Din, where we’re also hearing about very similar accounts of how the security forces and the Buddhist—Rakhine Buddhist villagers carried out burnings of the Rohingya homes, etc.

And I think the third really important thing is that these accounts are, for the first time, coming from the people who carried out those acts themselves. So, we have insider accounts from police officers describing how they actually went about raiding those villages. We also have accounts from Rakhine Buddhists, and not just one or two, but many, many, many thereof.

So, I think those are really like the three key points that really tie this story together, and perhaps—you know, and this is sort of what Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were working on, and we’re very proud of their reporting. And I know from the hearing in Yangon today that they were very happy with the impact that the story has had so far.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the day they were picked up, Antoni, December 12th, what they were doing? In line with you talking about the particular significance of this report is that this was a report based on admissions by the killers in this massacre.

ANTONI SLODKOWSKI: Right. So, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were meeting two police officers they had never met before for dinner, as reporters around the world do. What we do is we meet people, we discuss, you know, things with them. And they were handed over some documents that they never even had a chance to look at. They were told, you know, “Look at them when you get back home.” But before they were able to get back home, immediately after leaving the restaurant, they were apprehended. They were arrested by the police. And Wa Lone was able to send me a text message saying, “I have been arrested.”

And we spent the whole night trying to find out more information about them, going from one police station to another trying to establish their whereabouts. Only several hours later, Myanmar’s authorities released a statement saying that they have been arrested. But even from that point, for about two weeks, they were held without access to lawyers and families, and then, eventually, emerged at a court hearing, like I said, pretty much two weeks after they were arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to your imprisoned colleague Wa Lone. He briefly spoke to reporters earlier this month as police led him away in handcuffs from a courtroom.

WA LONE: [translated] The police told us to sign a document about our arrests, when we were detained. They said they will add more charges, unless we sign the document.

AMY GOODMAN: So, then we see the military putting him in a car and taking him away. Earlier this month, the office of U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for the journalists release, citing the erosion of press freedom in Burma. On Tuesday, Deputy U.N. Political Affairs Chief Miroslav Jenca reiterated calls for the journalists to be released.

MIROSLAV JENCA: Let me address the unfortunate arrest of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The secretary-general has called, in clear terms, for the release of the journalists and urged the authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression and information. Allow me to reiterate those calls here today. The ability to exercise the right to freedom of expression and information is a barometer for respect for human rights more broadly. Reuters has now published the story these journalists were working on, a deeply disturbing account of the execution of 10 Rohingya men in Inn Din village, Maungdaw, in northern Rakhine State. The Associated Press has also published a report of five mass graves in Gu Dar Pyin village in Buthidaung. These and other shocking reports of grave abuses demand our attention and action for the sake of lasting peace and justice.

AMY GOODMAN: And now I want to turn to Burma’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hau Do Suan, speaking just Tuesday.

HAU DO SUAN: Mr. President, the case of two Reuters reporters has attracted much attention in recent weeks. Myanmar recognizes freedom of press, and they were not arrested for reporting. The two reporters are charged under Official Secrets Act for illegally possessing confidential government documents. Every citizen is bound by the existing law of the land. It is important that the action of a journalist must also be within the bound of the law. In accordance with the judicial procedure, they have full legal rights as defendants in the course of legal proceedings.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Burma’s ambassador to the U.N. Antoni Slodkowski, can you respond to what he’s saying?

ANTONI SLODKOWSKI: Well, as we have published in our—in the special report, the investigation that they were carrying out is what prompted their arrest. And I may just say that, you know, in addition, I wouldn’t want to sort of directly respond, but I’ll just say that we believe that—

AMY GOODMAN: We may have just lost that feed to Singapore, though I think we’re going to get him back. We’re talking to Antoni Slodkowski, who is the Reuters bureau chief in Burma. He co-wrote the special report with the two imprisoned reporters. They were imprisoned December 12th. Let’s see if he can hear us. Antoni, you were just responding to the allegation that the Burmese ambassador to the U.N. said.

ANTONI SLODKOWSKI: Right. So, like I said before, I think that—well, first of all, the story, I hope, shows to the whole world and also the Myanmar public that these individuals were not some suspicious people doing something strange or—I don’t know, you know, that indeed they were journalists working incredibly hard on a very important story, you know, a story of global importance, and that they are not just any journalists, but journalists of the highest order. And we believe that they have done nothing wrong, and we’re confident that the legal proceedings will show that.

AMY GOODMAN: And I just want to clarify for listeners, viewers, readers, when we use these words, “Burma” and “Myanmar,” the same country, Myanmar was the name that the military regime gave to Burma. The capital Rangoon, they renamed Yangon. Antoni Slodkowski is the Reuters bureau chief in Burma, but we’re speaking to him right now in Singapore.

Now, the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi, known around the world as the Nobel Peace laureate, who herself was imprisoned for years, what role has she played in this? She’s the de facto leader, even if she doesn’t have the formal title of president of Burma. She has been criticized. Many have said her Nobel Peace Prize should be revoked. Can you talk about the significance of what she is and is not saying, Antoni?

ANTONI SLODKOWSKI: Right. So I think the ambassador, Myanmar’s ambassador to the U.N., is obviously—you know, he works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is run by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has several different roles, and one of them is the role of the minister of foreign affairs. So, you know, I believe that he was speaking on behalf of the government. And I’ll just leave it at that.

But, you know, I think, more broadly, we hope—we, as journalists, at Reuters, are here, are in Myanmar, to report on—report the facts and report on the events of global importance. And this story that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo worked on and published contributes to our understanding and to the understanding of everybody in Myanmar, including, I hope, state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, of indeed what transpired in northern Rakhine. It’s the most comprehensive, most detailed account to date. And for the first time, we’re hearing from several Rakhine Buddhist members of the security forces describing in great detail the burnings, the lootings and also that—the dramatic execution in early September last year.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, met with displaced Rohingya Muslims hours after meeting with Burma’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Johnson later told reporters he’s not sure whether Suu Kyi, quote, “really understands the full horror of what has happened.”

BORIS JOHNSON: Yes, the difficulty is that, to be honest, I’m not sure she really understands the full horror of what has happened up here. I don’t think she’s been up in a helicopter to see what we have seen today. And really, what I was trying to get over to her is the importance of her leadership. I believe in her, and I believe in her leadership. I think she’s done incredible things in her life. I’m very sad to see what’s happening to Burma now and to see the direction the country is going. I believe she can still make a change and make a difference. But to do that, she needs to show a lead, get the agencies in, get the refugees back home, in a way that is safe and voluntary and dignified.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s wrap up, Antoni Slodkowski. Your colleagues have just been in court just hours ago. They face 14 years in jail for exposing this latest report. You decided—talk about your decision to release this report as they were in jail—they weren’t arrested before the report came out—and the effect that this massacre in September in Inn Din had on the Rohingya population, more than half a million of whom have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

ANTONI SLODKOWSKI: Right. So, when Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were first arrested, we focused all our efforts and all our energy on making sure that they are safe. And safety is sort of of paramount importance for Reuters, you know, and the safety of our staff, both in Myanmar and around the world. After we were able to clarify their legal situation, we decided that this is our duty and obligation to the global public and the public in Myanmar to go ahead and publish this groundbreaking investigation. And Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo both very strongly supported that decision. In the end, we’re all journalists, and this is what we do.

And then, in terms of the impact that this massacre had on the Rohingya population, well, this is what we were able to report on under incredibly difficult circumstances. Let’s not forget that access to northern Rakhine State and that part of Myanmar is curtailed de facto by the security forces, and it’s not, you know, easy to go there and to be able to report on it independently and to speak to all the stakeholders without consequences. So, what we’ve seen at the United Nations Security Council meeting yesterday was that a lot of—a lot of observers and a lot of diplomats have underscored that this report as well as other reports that have come out recently highlight the need for a sort of a thorough and independent investigation into those allegations that are being raised around the world, according to those diplomats present at that Security Council meeting yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Antoni Slodkowski, we thank you for being with us, Reuters bureau chief in Burma, in Myanmar. He co-wrote the special report on the massacre in Inn Din—

ANTONI SLODKOWSKI: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: —in northern Burma. On Tuesday, the group PEN America announced it will honor his imprisoned colleagues, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, with this year’s Freedom to Write Award, which will be awarded next Tuesday. The two have been jailed in Burma after investigating the massacre committed by the Burmese military against Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the budget-busting budget in Washington, D.C. We’ll speak with a congressmember about what it means for the American population—stay with us—and others.

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