Myanmar's leader Suu Kyi tries to save face with journalists' release

Myanmar's leader Suu Kyi tries to save face with journalists' release
Observers say the unexpected release of the two Reuters reporters was timed to save face for Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
4 min read
Myanmar's head of state provoked outcry when she refused to intervene [Getty]
After relentless diplomatic pressure and global outrage, fallen democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi finally decided that a pardon for two Myanmar journalists jailed for reporting on a Rohingya massacre was the only way to resolve an issue that has dogged her government for nearly 18 months.

Observers say the unexpected release of the two Reuters reporters was a political decision timed to save face for the country's civilian leader, after a vigorous international campaign that saw Amal Clooney join their legal team, Time magazine put the pair on their cover, and journalism awards and honours pile up – including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

A presidential pardon freed Wa Lone, 33, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 29, from prison on Tuesday to a media frenzy and messages of congratulations from the White House to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The pair spent more than 500 days behind bars under colonial-era state secrets convictions after probing the extrajudicial killing of 10 Rohingya Muslims during a military crackdown.

Global attention on the reporters and the damage already done to the country's reputation were "potentially costly" to the government, said independent analyst Richard Horsey.

Nobel Laureate Suu Kyi – already seen as a pariah by many for perceived complicity in the Rohingya's plight – provoked outcry when she refused to intervene, insisting "rule of law" must be followed.

The abrupt decision to release the pair this week was made because Myanmar's leaders had "taken into consideration the long-term interest of (the) country", said government spokesman Zaw Htay.

Retired Thai diplomat Kobsak Chutikul, who has worked in an advisory capacity to Suu Kyi's government, told AFP that senior officials had all known a pardon must be granted at some point but "nobody felt they could bring this up with her".

Political timing was also a factor, observers say.

Myanmar is due to go to the polls next year and this was a chance to "get it out of the way" beforehand rather than risk overshadowing the vote, Kobsak said.

'Albatross round their necks'

Behind the international condemnation, backroom diplomacy appears to have played a key role in convincing Suu Kyi to pardon the reporters.

One man waiting among the crowds outside the gates of Yangon's notorious Insein Prison was British health expert Lord Ara Darzi, whose name barely came up during regular media coverage of the saga.

A close confidant of Suu Kyi, he has regularly visited the country over the past two years in an advisory role on a Rakhine state commission.

But he has known the leader for years, and hosted her in London after her release from house arrest.

"From what I hear, he finally found the opportunity to convince Suu Kyi this was an albatross hanging round their necks," said Kobsak, who served alongside Darzi on another Myanmar government commission.

The discussion would have taken place "behind the scenes, in quiet conversations in her house", he added.

Darzi later hinted about his role to reporters at a press conference following the journalists' release.

"The lesson is simple: dialogue works even in the most difficult of circumstances," he said.

Presidential pardons are traditionally granted around the Myanmar new year in April.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were freed in the third amnesty in just over a week that saw a total of 23,000 prisoners released.

The pair were handed a seven-year jail sentence last September, upheld first by Yangon's High Court and then the country's Supreme Court last month.

Reuters maintained the duo were imprisoned in retaliation for their expose, while legal experts argued the case was riddled with irregularities.

With the judicial process having run its course all the way to Myanmar's top court, Suu Kyi "may have been convinced the twisted passage of justice had been served," Yangon-based analyst David Mathieson said, calling her change of heart a "political calculation".

Despite the release, observers warn against reading too much into prospects for greater press freedom in the beleaguered democracy, which began a troubled transition from military rule in 2010.

"The pardon will not change the conditions that journalists (in Myanmar) are facing," said activist Cheery Zahau.


Rights groups have heaped pressure on de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi to use her leverage to secure a pardon.

But she had steadfastedly refused to intervene in the case in favour of the reporters, describing it as an issue for the courts.

The two journalists had insisted they were victims of a police set-up.

Testimony during the trial from a whistleblowing officer appeared to validate their claim.

Moe Yan Naing, was initially called as a prosecution witness, but stunned the court by saying superiors had ordered police to entrap the reporters.

His breaking of the ranks was extremely rare from a serving member of Myanmar's secretive security apparatus and he was jailed for a year after giving testimony.

In February, the ex-policeman walked free after serving his sentence at Yangon's Insein prison – where the Reuters reporters were also doing their time.

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