Aung San Suu Kyi defends jailing of Reuters journalists in Myanmar

De facto leader also acknowledges Rohingya crisis 'could have been handled better'

epa07016243 Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (R) speaks during the World Economic Forum on ASEAN at the National Convention Center in Hanoi, Vietnam, 13 September 2018.  EPA/LUONG THAI LINH
Powered by automated translation

Aung San Suu Kyi has defended the jailing of two Reuters journalists who were reporting on the Rohingya Muslim crisis, in a speech likely to add to her fall from grace.

Ms Suu Kyi, once garlanded as a global rights champion, has come under intense pressure to use her moral force inside Myanmar, where the country's army wields enormous power.

Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were sentenced to seven years imprisonment last week for reporting on atrocities committed during the military crackdown in Rakhine State.

But rather than defend the pair, Suu Kyi hit back at global criticism of the journalists' treatment during a trial widely seen as an attempt to muzzle the press.

Myanmar's de facto leader acknowledged that the brutal crackdown on the Muslim minority – which the United Nations has cast as "genocide" – could have been "handled better", but said the two reporters had been treated fairly.

"They were not jailed because they were journalists", but because "the court has decided that they had broken the Official Secrets Act", she said.


Rohingya crisis

Special report: From Killing fields to exile without hope


Challenging critics of the verdict – including the UN, rights groups who once lionised her and the US Vice President – to "point out" where there has been a miscarriage of justice, she said that the case upheld the rule of law.

"The case was held in open court... I don't think anybody has bothered to read the summary of the judge," she said during a discussion at the World Economic Forum in Hanoi, adding that the pair still had the right to appeal.

Army-led "clearance operations" that started last August drove 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh, carrying with them widespread accounts of atrocities – rape, murder and arson – by Myanmar police and soldiers.

The ferocity of that crackdown has thrust Myanmar into a firestorm of criticism as western goodwill evaporated towards a country ruled by a ruthless junta until 2015.

A UN fact-finding panel has called for Myanmar army chief Min Aung Hlaing and several other top generals to be prosecuted for genocide.

The International Criminal Court has said it has jurisdiction to open an investigation, even though Myanmar is not a member of the tribunal.

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (L) meets Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang at the Presidential Palace during the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Hanoi, Vietnam September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Kham/Pool
Aung San Suu Kyi meets Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang during the ASEAN World Economic Forum in Hanoi. Reuters

Ms Suu Kyi, who has bristled at foreign criticism of her country, on Thursday softened her defence of the crackdown against "terrorists" from the Muslim minority.

"There are of course ways [in] which, in hindsight, the situation could have been handled better," she said.


Read more

Wives of Reuters reporters jailed in Myanmar call for their release

Dozens of Myanmar civil society groups condemn conviction of Reuters reporters

The report that led to two Reuters journalists being jailed in Myanmar

The Myanmar journalists risking their lives to report on the Rohingya’s plight


But she also appeared to turn responsibility on to neighbouring Bangladesh for failing to start the repatriation of the nearly one million-strong Rohingya refugee community to Myanmar.

Bangladesh "was not ready" to start repatriation of the Rohingya in January, as agreed under a deal between the two countries, she said.

Yet Myanmar does not want its Rohingya, denying them citizenship, while the Buddhist-majority public falsely label them "Bengali" interlopers.

Rohingya refugees refuse to return to Myanmar without guarantees of safety, restitution for lost lands and citizenship.

The jailing of the Reuters reporters has sent a chill through Myanmar's nascent media scene.

The pair denied the charges, insisting they were set up while exposing the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims in the village of Inn Din in September last year.

This week, the UN rights office accused Myanmar of "waging a campaign against journalists".

It decried the use of the courts and the law by the "government and military in what constitutes a political campaign against independent journalism".