Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi defended on Thursday the jailing of two Reuters news agency journalists convicted of collecting state secrets.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were imprisoned last week after being found guilty of breaching the country’s hardline Official Secrets Act while reporting on atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims during a military crackdown in Rakhine state.
“They were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because … the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act,” Suu Kyi said at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Vietnam.
The journalists were investigating the killing of Rohingya villagers by security forces at the time of their arrest last December and had pleaded not guilty.
Their imprisonment prompted an international outpouring of support.
“I wonder whether many people have actually read the summary of the judgement, which had nothing to do with freedom of expression at all, it had to do with an Official Secrets Act,” said Suu Kyi.
“If we believe in the rule of law, they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgement was wrong.”
Suu Kyi’s comments drew an indignant response from rights groups who have urged the Nobel laureate to press for a presidential pardon for the reporters.
“This is a disgraceful attempt by Aung San Suu Kyi to defend the indefensible,” said Amnesty International’s Minar Pimple, describing the leader’s comments as “a deluded misrepresentation of the facts”.
“The international condemnation heading Aung San Suu Kyi’s way is fully deserved, she should be ashamed.”
Sean Bain, of the International Commission of Jurists, said: “Open courts are designed to shed light on the justice process. Sadly in this case we’ve seen both institutional and individual failings to hold up the principles of rule of law and human rights.”
On Wednesday, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were honoured by a foundation set up by the late Win Tin, one of the country’s most prominent political prisoners and a close ally of Suu Kyi.
In granting the prestigious award, the foundation said it would oppose their convictions and demand their release.
Earlier on Thursday, Suu Kyi said her government could have handled the situation in Rakhine state better.
“There are of course ways in which we, with hindsight, might think that the situation could have been handled better. But we believe that for the sake of long-term stability and security we have to be fair to all sides … we cannot pick and choose who should be protected by the rule of law.”
About 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine after government troops led a brutal crackdown in the state in response to deadly attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on Myanmar police posts and a military base in August 2017.
Last month, UN investigators said Myanmar’s military carried out mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya with “genocidal intent”, and the commander-in-chief and five generals should be prosecuted for the gravest crimes under international law.
Myanmar has denied allegations of atrocities, saying its military carried out justifiable operations against fighters.