On December 12, two Reuters reporters went for dinner with a pair of police officers who they had never met before on the outskirts of Yangon. They were handed rolled-up documents and told they could view them once they returned home.
Shortly thereafter, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were accosted by seven or eight police, handcuffed and then held incommunicado at a black site for nearly a fortnight.
They have since had one court appearance, where they met briefly with their loved ones and legal team before being taken to Yangon’s Insein prison. They could be charged under the Official Secrets Act, which allows for 14-year prison terms.
The recent discovery of a mass grave in Maungdaw, the northern area of Rakhine state where military operations in recent months have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Bangladesh, could explain why Reuters was singled out for harassment.
State media reported that the pair obtained the documents by “deception” from police officers who had been “serving security duties in Maungdaw and Buthidaung in Rakhine State”, sites of the military’s “clearance operations” that sparked the Rohingya refugee crisis.
It seems clear now that the pair walked into a trap. State media has reported that two police officers were also arrested, but there has been no explanation or follow-up. Journalists in Yangon speculate the stitch-up signals a return to the treachery and threat the media faced under decades of military rule.
It’s a sobering reminder that despite the transition toward a quasi-democratic system the architecture of the former repressive security state — Special Branch, military intelligence, and a wide-reaching network of informants – was never made redundant.
Many here question what role, if any, electronic surveillance played. Either way, the arrests have sent a clear message that even high profile global news agency journalists are at risk, and the chilling effect is not to be underestimated. Even the most hardened journalists here are spooked by the Reuters arrests.
The fact that Reuters was investigating military abuses in northern Rakhine state was no secret: in the last few months its Yangon bureau has published comprehensive coverage of the military’s controversial “clearance operations.”
Several days after the reporters’ arrests, local media reported that five people from Maungdaw’s Inn Din village, site of the discovered mass grave, had been arrested. Anonymous sources suspected they may have provided information to Reuters, something a New York Times report later confirmed.
Reuters has declined to be drawn on any connection between the Inn Din villagers and their reporters’ arrests.
The army has announced it will investigate the mass grave at to determine whether security forces were involved. The probe is headed by Lieutenant General Aye Win, who is experienced in intra-military investigations.
A separate inquiry he led into reports of atrocities perpetrated by security forces in Rakhine state found that none were committed.
With outside access to the burnt-out villages of northern Rakhine almost entirely cut off, including denied permission to a United Nations fact-finding mission, independently confirmed evidence of a mass grave would have undermined the government’s carefully managed messaging on the crisis.
Even the most conservative estimates on body counts from the violence, which Médecins Sans Frontières ventures is somewhere near 6,700 in the clearance operation’s first month, would point to the fact that there are almost certainly many more mass graves to be found.
Witnesses and victims who have fled to Bangladesh claim to have seen troops burning bodies en masse on hastily-assembled pyres. Others were said to have been buried in shallow graves or dumped in the river, according to the same witnesses and victims.
At least a handful of senior government officials appear to be aware of and acknowledge the scale and ferocity of the violence, and are reportedly genuinely vexed over how to proceed. To date, though, there has been no significant breaking of the ranks.
The official line remains that what took place was a counterinsurgency operation and that any deaths were collateral. Testimony of abuses, including rape and summary executions of civilian noncombatants, is consistently painted by officialdom as outright fabrication.
The government insists that the lack of press access to northern Rakhine state is for reasons of security and points to the few and far between stage-managed media tours to the region as evidence of its commitment to press freedom.
These security force-escorted press tours have offered marginally more room to maneuver than a trip to Pyongyang, and interviewees face the real and potent threat of reprisals for speaking frankly to reporters.
International news outlets boycotted the first of these junkets on ethical grounds. Their concerns were not unwarranted: at least one man was apparently killed for daring to speak to the press on one of the tours.
Meanwhile, state media reports on the “progress” of the rice harvest on land left vacant by hundreds of thousands of fleeing Rohingya, or on new pond-farming initiatives and road developments in the now depopulated region.
Horror stories continue to trickle out on the other side of the border from interviews with refugees stuck in squalid, crowded camps.
In theory, privately held media outlets in Myanmar can publish what they like – and barring overt criticism of the military – the situation had been remarkably free in recent years.
But even before the Rakhine crisis arrests and legal harassment were increasing, causing many outlets to exercise extreme caution or outright self-censorship when reporting on issues perceived as sensitive. Many have been content to tow the official line on the Rakhine crisis, including refusal to even use the word “Rohingya” in their published reports.
It thus seems unlikely that any media outlets based inside Myanmar will critically counter the veracity of the army-led probe’s impending findings on the mass grave at Inn Din. Nationalist outrage has been weaponized, including over social media, against those who have highlighted abuses.
The branding of journalists as traitors or worse for questioning the official line harks back dangerously to the darkest days of direct military rule
Many Rakhine question why the recent grisly murder of an ethnic Mro man has gone unreported by foreign media, while the killings of Hindu and Daignet villagers have been given scant attention.
A popular perception that international media harbors a pro-Muslim bent is dangerously growing. It is being exacerbated by a lockdown on travel authorizations to the region, including to previously accessible internally displaced person (IDP) camps outside of Sittwe, forcing many journalists to rely mainly on access to the camps in Bangladesh.
This chilling effect has extended beyond Rakhine state, with journalists concerned they could be charged with “unlawful association” or other repressive laws allowing for jail terms for reporting on other ethnic conflicts in Kachin, Shan and Chin states. There are several escalating situations the government has motivation to cover up.
But the branding of journalists as traitors or worse for questioning the official line harks back dangerously to the darkest days of direct military rule. Indeed, the sudden and rapid deterioration of press freedom conditions points to a broad closing of the country’s recently lauded democratic opening and the mounting fragility of that transition.