Myanmar's truth defenders: Who are journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo?

MANILA, Philippines – Human rights defenders and members of the press were shaken after the arrest of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar in December 2017 for allegedly breaching the country's state-secrets law.

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, have been working on an extensive investigative story that looked into the brutal massacre of Rohingya Muslims in a small village in Rakhine.

Nine months after their arrest, the pair was sentenced to 7 years in jail. Here’s what you need to know about the two journalists.

Who they are: Wa Lone grew up in the small city of Kin Pyit in Myanmar. After moving back to Yangon in 2010, he enrolled in a media school and began learning English, while simultaneously pursuing his passion for design and photography.

Wa Lone started his career in journalism with the People’s Age Journal. He joined the Myanmar Times in 2014, where he stayed for about 3 years covering political and general news. He joined Reuters in July 2016.

Aside from journalism, Wa Lone also engaged in charity work. He co-founded the Third Story Project that produces children’s books that address the country’s sensitive issues such as peace, tolerance, diversity, and child rights.

Kyaw Soe Oo, on the other hand, grew up in the state capital Sittwe. He started as a writer for the online Rakhine Development News before working for Root Investigative Agency.

According to friends, Kyaw Soe Oo avoided being caught up in the long-standing tension between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims despite being an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist himself. It was that conflict, however, that moved him to go into journalism. He later joined Reuters in September 2017.

Stories they covered: As a reporter for the Myanmar Times, Wa Lone covered the 2015 elections where Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's party won by a landslide. He was also among the first reporters to reach the war-torn border region in Shan State following the conflict between the military and an armed ethnic militia.

As a Reuters journalist he looked into the controversial military land grabs in the farmlands of Ye Bu, the killing of prominent ruling party lawyer Ko Ni, and the killings of ethnic minority villagers in northeastern Myanmar.

Wa Lone has earned numerous awards from the Society of Publishers in Asia for the following stories: joint honorable mentions for "Police crackdown on student protesters" (2016, Myanmar Times) and "Myanmar’s crackdown in Rakhine" (2017, Reuters), and an Award for Excellence for "Persecuting the Rohingya" (2018, Reuters).

He has also written The Guardian, a children’s story book with an environmental message rooted in his own rural province.

Kyaw Soe Oo’s works were focused primarily on Rakhine issues. He reported on the brutal military crackdown that drove away more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims after a series of militant attacks in 2016.

Under Reuters, he published an investigative story on Myanmar’s plans to harvest and sell the crops of Rohingya farmers. Also worth noting is his story on Buddhists who enforced local segregation rules that punished people trading with Muslims.

Together, the pair probed the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya men – including two high school students – by Buddhist residents and the Myanmar military in Inn-Din, Rakhine.

The story delved into the accounts of Rohingya villagers who witnessed the brutal murder of the ethnic Muslims and the digging of the mass grave where they were later buried. 

The journalists were held in detention before the story was published in February 2018.

Why were they detained? On December 12, 2017, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested for violating the Official Secrets Act, a rarely-used, draconian law which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.

The Official Secrets Act signed in 1923 was originally India’s anti-espionage law during the British colonial era. It punishes anyone who "obtains, collects, records or publishes...any official document or information" which could be "useful to an enemy."

The journalists were arrested during a dinner meeting with two policemen who handed them alleged classified documents related to the Rakhine investigation. The pair denied the charges, claiming they were set up.

The case sparked an international outcry over the withering press freedom in the country. Humanitarian organizations, as well as members of the press, have criticized global rights champion Suu Kyi for failing to use her moral force to defend the pair.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s investigation into the Rohingya massacre led the United Nations to release an explosive study on abuses in Rakhine. It accused Myanmar’s military chief of heading a campaign of "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" against the Rohingya.

Despite their appeals, the journalists were both sentenced to 7 years in jail last September 3, 2018. The pair said they would face the verdict with “stability and courage.”

In 2017, foreign journalists Mok Choy Lin and Lau Hon Meng of Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) Corporation, along with their interpreter, Aung Naing Soe, and driver Hla Tin were jailed for two months for flying a drone without official permission.

A statement issued by TRT, however, said the journalists had informed the information ministry about their schedule and filiming activities for a documentary. Their arrest came after Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan called the military's crackdown on Rohingya an act of genocide, causing a strain between relations of the two countries. with reports from the Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

TOP PHOTO: JAILED. The two Reuters journalists face 7 years in prison after allegedly obtaining classified documents illegally. Wa Lone photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP, Kyaw Soe Oo photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/AFP