Tuesday’s release of two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists imprisoned on bogus charges was a ray of hope in a dark episode of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.
A relentless campaign by their Reuters colleagues, other media outlets and human rights organisations finally saw Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo reunited with their love ones after more than 500 days behind bars.
The pair was jailed on trumped up charges of possessing state secrets after exposing the massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims by government security forces in Rakhine.
That atrocity was just one among many committed during a campaign of military violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine that saw more than 700,000 flee over the border to Bangladesh.
Many testified to witnessing murders and rapes committed by Myanmar troops and vigilantes – claims later confirmed by a UN investigation.
Members of the international community also called on the Nobel Prize Committee to strip the country’s political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of her award because of her failure to speak out against the ethnic cleansing.
Her government instead insists the campaign in Rakhine was a legitimate response to attacks in 2016 and 2017 by Rohingya militants – who turned out to be a little known rag-tag outfit calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa).
The militants aren’t even fighting for a separate Rohingya state, merely seeking to free the stateless ethnic group from the oppression that resulted after their citizenship was revoked in 1982.
But the writing was on the wall well before 2017, with a nationwide anti-Muslim campaign led by the Myanmar military, politicians and Buddhist monks.
Myanmar’s leaders turned a blind eye to the rising tide of religious persecution targeting all Muslims in the country, seeding the ground for the attack on Rakhine’s Rohingya.
Thailand and other Asean members maintained a conspicuous silence as nations around the world demanded that Myanmar’s leaders end the atrocities.
Malaysia’s then-prime minister Najib Razak was accused of cynical politicking in offering support for the Rohingya, though neighbouring Muslim-majority Indonesia has played a more positive role in seeking a resolution.
The release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo was hardly an admission of guilt by Myanmar’s government, despite obvious signs the arrest and trial were a gross injustice designed to silence the press.
Reporting on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya is still effectively forbidden inside the country, with draconian laws such as the Official Secrets Act, the State Defamation Act, and the Telecommunications Act used to punish any journalist who fails to toe the line.
Like its junta predecessor, Suu Kyi’s government has been able to resist Western pressure over its actions in Rakhine because of its close ties with China, Russia and also Thailand’s own junta leadership.
The world has failed to protect the stateless Rohingya, a no one should be surprised if the next generation of Arsa fighters employs more extreme tactics in their desperation.
That despair is especially poignant given the hopes once kindled for peace in Myanmar by Suu Kyi, whose house arrest under junta rule made here a global icon of human rights.
Those hopes dwindled during Rakhine’s ethnic cleansing and evaporated altogether after her failure to intervene against the Reuters reporters’ unjust imprisonment.
As such no one should be fooled into thinking their release marks a new approach by Myanmar’s government.
Until we see improvement on all fronts, the world must not let up its pressure on Myanmar’s rulers and military, and on Suu Kyi herself. The Nation (THAILAND)/Asia News Network