The 28-year-old had been working for Reuters for three months when he was detained Dec. 12, 2017.
Kyaw Soe Oo was born in Kyaw Say village, a hamlet in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and soon moved to the state capital, Sittwe, where he grew up. He would travel back and forth between Sittwe and Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial center, but still considered Rakhine home.
The western state borders Bangladesh and has in recent years become synonymous with violence between its ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslims. But Kyaw Soe Oo was among the rare few who steered clear of the communal tensions, preferring to spend his time in the bookstore or write.
Reuters had retained Kyaw Soe Oo as a local reporter shortly after the August 2017 crackdown of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar army. Before then, the reporter was working for the Development Media Group in Sittwe, a bimonthly news journal. Aung Marm Oo, the journal’s editor in chief, describes him as smart and hard-working.
Since his arrest, Kyaw Soe Oo and his young wife, Chit Su Win, have received death threats and intimidating messages. An overwhelming majority in their hometown of Sittwe have been confused and angered by why the reporter would wade into the issue of persecution against the Rohingya minority, widely despised in Myanmar. Chit Su Win, 23, said she was always worried about her husband’s choice of career but never expected that a lengthy jail sentence was among the risks.
The pair have a 3-year-old daughter, who has been a fixture in Kyaw Soe Oo’s protracted trial and eventual sentencing. She has been photographed trying to hold onto her father as he gets carted away by police and being carried in his handcuffed arms as he walks into court.
Chit Su Win has tried to keep her daughter away from her father in prison, a decision both made to avoid more pain for the toddler. But on one day this week, her daughter would not stop insisting, and so she acquiesced.
“She’s asking for her father, every day,” Chit Su Win said. “She really wants to see him.”
Wa Lone spent his 32nd birthday in jail last April, his friends bringing a cake outside the courtroom where he was on trial for breaking the country’s official secrets act. It must have been an odd turn of events for the reporter, who had spent years reporting and speaking out against curbs on press freedoms under Myanmar’s military-linked government. Among the cases he covered was the sentencing of journalists from the local Unity journal to 10 years in jail in 2014 — charged under the same law he was.
Born in the central Myanmar town of Shwe Bo, north of Mandalay, Wa Lone was the son of rice farmers and grew up with little means, unable to finish high school. He moved to Yangon in 2010 to start a photography business with his brother and began taking English classes. Mindy Walker, his English teacher, who met him in 2012, remembers the “painfully shy” man who always “had a giant smile plastered on his face and an eagerness that was unmatched by others.” In his first English class, he was embarrassed after he could not answer a question, so he asked to go to the bathroom and never returned.
“I had to convince him to come back, and he did,” Walker said. “He now tells that story to all the shy people who are new in class.”
He was a reporter for the People’s Daily newspaper before joining the Myanmar Times in 2014 and Reuters in 2016. Friends say that among his proudest moments was winning an award in 2015 from the Yangon Journalism School on his reporting in Myanmar’s Shan state.
Wa Lone also co-founded the Third Story Project, writing stories for children that provide alternatives to the often black-and-white narratives of conflict and promotes peace. The social enterprise has 42 titles and more on the way, Walker said.
Among the Third Story Project’s latest books is “Jay Jay the Journalist,” which Wa Lone wrote while in jail. The story is about a boy, Jay Jay, who uncovers how factories are polluting a nearby river and causing cattle to become sick. He gets his community involved in solving the problem.
“He wrote it while in jail, and it could have been angry and spiteful, considering his current situation,” Walker said. “But again, he chose to focus on the beautiful and find a way to educate.”
When Wa Lone was in jail, his wife, Pan Ei Mon, gave birth to their first child, a daughter. Friends say he is proud to be a father and still cannot comprehend how he was sentenced to seven years in jail.
His friend and fellow journalist Ye Mon, who recently visited him in prison, said he is in good health, and is spending his time reading books and newspapers and planting flowers. He also teaches English to Kyaw Soe Oo.
“He is always trying to beautify this world now matter how ugly it is,” Walker added. “Nobody is more motivated to make Myanmar a better place.”