The wives of the two Reuters journalists sentenced to seven years in prison in Myanmar have made a public appeal to the country’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to help reunite their families, amid international condemnation of the government’s treatment of the two men.
Speaking at a press conference in Yangon Tuesday, Chit Su Win, the wife of the reporter Kyaw Soe Oo, broke down in tears as she insisted her husband was innocent.
She said the two men “were just doing their jobs as reporters,” and that her husband “was a good citizen who hadn’t committed any wrongdoing.”
Kyaw Soe Oo, 28 and Wa Lone, 32, were sentenced to seven years with hard labor on Monday after they were found guilty of breaking the Official Secrets Act while investigating a massacre of Rohingya Muslims.
Addressing Suu Kyi directly, Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, said that she felt let down by the Nobel laureate.
“We admire her a lot – me, Wa Lone, the family – we feel really sad that the leader that we admire is misunderstanding us.”
Suu Kyi was feted around the world for helping transition the country from a military junta to semi-democracy, but now her legacy is in doubt.
On the same day as the press conference, US Vice President Mike Pence called on the Myanmar government to release the pair immediately.
“Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo shd be commended – not imprisoned – for their work exposing human rights violations & mass killings. Freedom of religion & freedom of the press are essential to a strong democracy,” Pence wrote in a post on Twitter.
’Mother to mother’ plea
Pan Ei Mon said that both families had already directly petitioned Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as seven other government bodies, but they only got a response from one parliamentary commission, acknowledging it had received their letter.
“I feel really sad when I heard that they were (described as) not real journalists and broke the Official Secrets Act (from Aung San Suu Kyi), because our leader is not well-informed,” said Pan Ei Mon, referring to a Suu Kyi’s only public reference to the case, in which she told Japanese broadcaster NHK in June that the pair had broken the country’s Official Secrets Act.
Both reporters have been in custody for almost nine months. Kyaw Soe Oo has a three-year-old daughter, while Wa Lone has yet to see his newborn daughter who was born just three weeks ago.
Speaking on behalf of Chit Su Win, the journalists’ lawyer, Khin Maung Zaw, appealed directly to Suu Kyi to show leniency towards the young fathers.
“As mother to mother, she wants to tell Aung San Suu Kyi about her daughter. Her daughter is now about three years of age and is very affectionate to her father. Her child asked her ‘mother, mother, why doesn’t father come back to us, doesn’t he love you, is that why he isn’t coming home?’”
The journalists’ lawyer confirmed they would appeal the sentence. Under Myanmar law, they have 60 days to do so.
Reuters stands by the reporters and the investigation, which included photographic evidence of a massacre, editor-in-chief Stephen Adler said. The men were detained before the story published in February, suggesting that the government arrested them in an attempt to confiscate the photos and prevent the report from publishing, Adler said.
Both journalists had fearlessly reported on the violence carried out against the Rohingya ethnic minority, which the United Nations has described as a form of “ethnic cleansing.”
As of August last year, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled across the Myanmar border into Bangladesh, bringing with them horrific stories of mass killings, rape and the burning of Rohingya villages by Myanmar government forces.
Amid defense arguments that the two journalists had been set up, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet demanded that the seven-year sentence be “quashed and for them to be released, along with all other journalists currently in detention for their legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”
The US ambassador to the United Nations called for their “immediate and unconditional release.”
“The conviction of two journalists for doing their job is another terrible stain on the Burmese government,” Nikki Haley said. “It is clear to all that the Burmese military has committed vast atrocities. In a free country, it is the duty of a responsible press to keep people informed and hold leaders accountable.”