Earlier this year, two journalists in Myanmar, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were charged in Yangon, Myanmar under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The journalists, who were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys, faced a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. The army crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state during which the 10 men died began in August 2017, and has resulted in around 700 000 people fleeing to Bangladesh.

The importance of freedom of press

Lawyers representing Oo and Lone had asked for the charges to be thrown out of court, citing insufficient evidence. Prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has provided legal assistance. ‘I have reviewed the case file and it is clear beyond doubt that the two journalists are innocent and should be released immediately,’ Amal said in an initial statement. ‘The outcome of this case will tell us a lot about Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.’

Reuters reports that the journalists told relatives ‘they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some rolled-up papers at a restaurant in northern Yangon by two policemen they had not met before, having been invited to meet the officers for dinner.’ Yet despite pressure from a worldwide advocacy campaign launched by the news agency that included diplomats and celebrities, it was announced in August that Oo and Lone were to serve to seven years in prison for possessing confidential government documents.

Oo and Lone’s investigation into the massacre in Rakhine began a week after Rohingya insurgent attacks sparked the military to begin what the UN is calling an ‘ethnic cleansing’. Since August, accounts from the Rohingya muslim minority in the majority Buddhist state have contained ‘testimonies of rape, arson and killings’.

However, the Myanmar government denies the above is happening, but did confirm that the massacre that Oo and Lone had been investigating occurred and have sentenced the seven officers involved. The above case has sparked fears of dissolving freedom on press in Myanmar under leader Aung San Suu Kyi – a right that is evidently incredibly necessary at this time of conflict in Myanmar.

An international issue

The situation in Myanmar is not simply a current human rights issue; it shows that issues of discrimination, land dispossession and the denial of citizenship need to be resolved at the very root, or will inevitably reoccur. These issues are prevalent and relevant global issues that we see occurring still in multiple countries. The way we move forward from this will set a precedent on how future crimes against humanity centering on these topics are dealt with.

Following an investigation, the results of which were released in August this year, the UN has called for the prosecution of top military generals for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. The team who worked on the report used satellite footage, coupled with testimonials to ‘conservatively estimate’ that around 10 000 people have been killed since August 2017. The UN investigators have said that ‘the situation in Myanmar should be referred to the International Criminal Court, and if not, to a special tribunal’. This is the strongest condemnation internationally thus far. While the report admits that the civilian government has little control over the military, de facto leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and her peers, have ‘through their acts and omissions, contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes’.

Says Michael McGrath of Save the Children (one of the charities working to support Rohingya refugees) : ‘The international community needs to send a firm signal to all perpetrators, including the Myanmar military, that crimes of this magnitude will not be allowed to pass unaccounted for.’

The Independent reports that the UN Human Rights Agency will produce a more in depth report ‘with analysis of the next possible legal steps’ to the Human Rights Council on the 18 September.

Bangladesh opens its borders 

‘Buddhist-majority Myanmar has for years denied Rohingyans citizenship, freedom of movement and access to many basic services such as healthcare and education,’ Reuters explains, leaving Rohingya people defenseless and allowing the Myanmar military to act with impunity during the massacres. The government of Bangladesh has opened its borders to the refugees who have settled in camps in Cox’s Bazar, sending a strong statement of a humanity.

In June this year, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and the Government of Myanmar. This was a ‘critical first step aimed at creating conducive conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh,’ reports Relief Web. This would enable Rohingya refugees to start to return to Myanmar.