The mood in the village was tense.
The locals’ animals were dropping dead and their paddy fields were being wiped out. With their livelihoods at risk, the panicking villagers sought help in prayers, blaming evil spirits for the grave calamity that had gripped their community.
But a young schoolboy reporter, known to his peers and teachers for his insatiable curiosity, wasn’t convinced, so he set out to uncover the true cause of the disaster. A few interviews and a boat journey later, he discovered that his village’s plight was due to factories polluting a nearby river. The boy’s outstanding reporting, published in the school newspaper, prompted authorities to act, raised awareness about environmental risks and earned him the plaudits of his community.
This is the story of Jay Jay, the main character of an illustrated children’s book recently published in Myanmar. His fortunes, however, could not be further away from the fate of his creator – Wa Lone, a 32-year-old Reuters journalist jailed in a Yangon prison.
Wednesday marks one year since Wa Lone, along with his colleague Kyaw Soe Oo, was arrested while investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys by Myanmar’s security forces in the village of Inn Din during a campaign launched in August 2017 in response to attacks by an armed group.
The savage crackdown – during which the military carried out mass killings and gang rapes with “genocidal intent“, according to United Nations-mandated investigators – forced more than 700,000 members of the long-persecuted, mostly Muslim minority to flee their homes in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State for neighbouring Bangladesh.
In September, a Yangon court sentenced Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo to seven years in prison, sparking an international outcry over a closely-watched case seen by many as a test of Myanmar’s fledgeling democracy and an alarming attack on media freedoms.
The journalists were convicted for breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act by allegedly obtaining confidential documents during their reporting. The pair pleaded not guilty, insisting that they had been framed by the police.
The Myanmar army, meanwhile, acknowledged the executions of the 10 Rohingya villagers following the arrest of the two reporters, whose investigative work has been lauded internationally with a string of prestigious awards.
It was against this backdrop that Ei Pwint Rhi Zan, director of the Third Story Project, a social enterprise Wa Lone co-founded in 2014 to produce books and distribute them free of charge to disadvantaged children across Myanmar, thought of reaching out to her jailed friend and collaborator.
Her idea? Get Wa Lone to write a story about a curious boy always hunting for answers in a bid to encourage critical thinking in children and introduce them to the profession of journalism.
“At first, we were afraid to ask him since he was under a lot of pressure and in an unpleasant situation,” Ei Pwint Rhi Zan recalls.
“But we also wanted to cheer him up and knew that he could write it. So we dared to ask him – he was so excited and he started writing right away.”
In fact, Wa Lone was so eager that his first version was way too long for a children’s book and had to be cut down substantially.
More than just putting down the words, in the end, Wa Lone became immersed in the entire process – from identifying the book’s editor (Shwe Mi) and illustrator (Kar Gyi) to suggesting what the illustrations should look like, even what clothes the characters should wear.
Drafts were exchanged via his wife Pan Ei Mon, who in August gave birth to the couple’s first child. Pan Ei Mon acted as the intermediary between him and the publishing house during her visits to him at Insein Prison.
“We were really careful not to change what he wanted to express, so we followed his script very closely,” Ei Pwint Rhi Zan says. “Besides, we were afraid that people would tell bad things about him and things would get worse. But luckily, everything is OK and everyone loved the book he wrote.”
The son of rice farmers, Wa Lone grew up in Kin Pyit, a small village of some 500 people in Shwebo district north of Mandalay. A good and inquisitive student, he eventually settled in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, in 2010 and launched a photo service business with one of his brothers.
Soon afterwards, he began working for local newspapers, making a name for himself by reporting on Myanmar’s bloody internal conflicts and going on to cover the historic 2015 election win of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after decades of military rule.
“Wa Lone was always thoughtful and conscientious, and very committed to his work as a journalist,” says Thomas Kean, his former editor at the Myanmar Times, which he joined in 2014, two years before he joined Reuters news agency.
“He saw it as his responsibility to keep society informed and to fight abuses of power and I think this is reflected in his great courage in reporting on the killings at Inn Din,” added Kean.
“It’s notable that he was one of the leaders of the protests in 2014 over the sentencing of journalists to 14 years’ imprisonment under the Official Secrets Act – the same law that would be used to imprison him and Kyaw Soe Oo four years later. He always recognised the threat that these laws posed to his work, and to journalism and democracy more broadly.”
Described by those close to him as a good friend and a kind and humble person, the journalist would volunteer much of his spare time doing charity work, especially helping orphans. Wa Lone himself lost his mother to cancer at a young age.
“He is determined, brave and willing to help people … without hoping to receive anything back,” says Ei Pwint Rhi Zan, who met him as a community volunteer in 2012.
Since then, she says, they’ve worked together on a range of humanitarian projects – from supporting educational activities and building schools to raising money for wells and holding events at camps for internally displaced persons and even taking part in flood rescue missions.
“He never says ‘no’ when we need help for volunteering, and he never says ‘no’ when children need help, too,” Ei Pwint Rhi Zan says.
“Whenever he’d travel, he’d bring the storybooks, read them to children and distribute them. He really loves children and he expressed his love by helping them in different ways.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Jay Jay the Journalist is not Wa Lone’s first offering for Third Story Project, whose dozens of children’s books are published in local languages as well as English. In 2015, he wrote The Gardener, a book with an environmental message seeking to promote tolerance and harmony.
Nor will it be his last. Ei Pwint Rhi Zan says she’s already received the first draft of a new Wa Lone title for the Jay Jay the Journalist series – this time featuring “a strong female character”.
“The new story will be a simple story about Jay Jay and his female friend who are curious and like to ask questions. Because we need in our society to have a practice of [children] asking questions and investigating about where they are living.”
It’s a quality that both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo dutifully and uncompromisingly have embodied during their journalistic careers – despite the grave risks. As their time spent behind bars enters its second year, colleagues, watchdogs and press freedom groups are calling for their immediate release, all the while sounding the alarm about the state of democracy in Myanmar.
“Journalists in Myanmar whose reporting challenges the interests of those in power will always be at risk while Myanmar has outdated laws like the Official Secrets Act – and many others – on the books,” says Kean.
“This case is designed to send a message to everyone else in the industry.”