YANGON–Burma’s government said on Wednesday that police had arrested two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The reporters had been working on stories about the long conflict and horrific humanitarian situation still unfolding in Burma’s Rahkine State that has caused almost 650,000 Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
The Ministry of Information said in a statement on its Facebook page that the journalists and two policemen face charges under the Official Secrets Act. The 1923 law established during Burma’s British colonial-era carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
The reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media,” said the statement, which was accompanied by a photo of the pair in handcuffs.
It said they were detained at a police station on the outskirts of Yangon, the southeast Asian nation’s main city.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo went missing on Tuesday evening after they had been invited to meet police officials over dinner.
Reuters’ driver Myothant Tun dropped them off at Battalion 8’s compound at around 8 pm and the two reporters and two police officers headed to a nearby restaurant. The journalists did not return to the car.
The refugee exodus to Bangladesh was triggered by a military counter-offensive in Rakhine state after attacks on police and army posts in the northern Rakhine by the Islamic extremist group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on Aug. 25.
“Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been reporting on events of global importance in [Burma], and we learned today that they have been arrested in connection with their work,” said Stephen J. Adler, president and editor-in-chief of Reuters.
“We are outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom. We call for authorities to release them immediately,” he said.
A spokesman for Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi confirmed that the two journalists had been arrested.
“Not only your reporters, but also the policemen who were involved in that case,” spokesman Zaw Htay said. “We will take action against those policemen and also the reporters.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert emphasized that the agency was “following this closely.” She said that U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel on Wednesday had a conversation with two government officials in Burma who seemed “genuinely unaware” of the situation.
“We care about the safety and security of international reporters who are simply just trying to do their jobs. So we’re going to continue to try to stay on that,” Nauert said.
The U.S. embassy in Yangon said in a statement posted on its website on Wednesday it was “deeply concerned by the highly irregular arrests of two Reuters reporters after they were invited to meet with police officials in Yangon last night”.
“For a democracy to succeed, journalists need to be able to do their jobs freely,” the embassy said. “We urge the government to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the journalists.”
The European Union’s mission in Yangon also voiced concern.
“The EU delegation is closely following their case and we call on the Myanmar authorities to ensure the full protection of their rights,” it said in a statement. “Media freedom is the foundation of any democracy.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for the reporters’ immediate and unconditional release.
“These arrests come amid a widening crackdown which is having a grave impact on the ability of journalists to cover a story of vital global importance,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.
The Foreign Correspondents Club in neighbouring Thailand said it was “alarmed by the use of this draconian law with its heavy penalties against journalists simply doing their jobs”.
“Wielding such a blunt legal instrument has an intimidating effect on other journalists, and poses a real threat to media freedom,” the Bangkok-based club said in a statement, calling for the journalists to be released.
Texted Four Words
Wa Lone, who joined Reuters in July 2016, has covered a range of stories, including the flight of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine in 2016 and, in much larger numbers, this year.
He has written about military land grabs and the killing of ruling party lawyer Ko Ni in January. This year he jointly won an honorable mention from the Society of Publishers in Asia for Reuters coverage of the Rakhine crisis in 2016.
He previously worked for The Myanmar Times, where he covered Burma’s historic 2015 elections, and People’s Age, a local weekly newspaper, where his editor was Burma’s current Minister of Information Pe Myint.
Kyaw Soe Oo, an ethnic Rakhine Buddhist from state capital Sittwe, has worked with Reuters since September.
He has covered the impact of the Aug. 25 attacks on police and army posts in the northern Rakhine, and reported from the central part of the state where local Buddhists have been enforcing segregation between Rohingya and Rakhine communities.
He previously worked for Root Investigation Agency, a local news outlet focused on Rakhine issues.
“I have been arrest” were the four words that Wa Lone texted to Reuters Burma Bureau Chief Antoni Slodkowski on Tuesday evening to let him know what was happening. Very soon after that Wa Lone’s phone appeared to have been switched off.
Over the next 24 hours, Reuters colleagues in Yangon filed a missing persons report, went to three police stations, and asked a series of government officials what had happened to the two reporters. They got no official information until Wednesday evening.
Life in Rakhine State “Has Stopped”
After a three-day visit to northern Rakhine, director of operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Dominik Stillhart told the press, “What indeed struck me is that it’s not just the Muslim communities from Rakhine that are scared. It’s very much all the communities.”
Stillhart continued, “In one (of the) Rakhine villages in which I was, the people told me, ‘Look, we are very scared since the 25th of August because the police station of our village was attacked, but we know that our neighbors that are just 500 meters away in a Muslim village, they are also scared.’ So, you really get a sense of both main communities deeply scared of each other.”
Buddhists are the majority in Rakhine state, although there are also Hindu and Muslim communities, as well as the Rohingya stateless minority. The majority of Rohingya are Muslims, with a minority of Rohingya Hindus.
Stillhart described a situation in which life has stopped in its tracks because those that remain in the Rakhine state are simply too scared to leave their villages, access their fields or go to the markets.
He said all communities were deeply traumatised following the violence that erupted in August, and that Rohingya people continue to flee, although “on a much lower scale.”
“In my discussions with the communities in the north of Rakhine, when I ask them why are there still people leaving, the main reason is really fear and anxiety for their future. They don’t know what [the] future holds in store and therefore, there are still people who think it is better for them to cross the border.”
An estimated 180,000 Rohingya remain in the Rakhine state after violence drove 650,000 to flee.
The ICRC is one of the only aid agencies to operate in northern Rakhine.
Myanmar and Bangladesh signed an agreement last month for the voluntary repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya within several months. The returns must be voluntary and safe, Stillhart said.
Bangladesh, now hosting about 800,000 Rohingya, also denies them citizenship.
By Tim Kelly, William James, and John Chalmers