When Vice President Pence met with Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi at a major Asian summit in Singapore last November, they found themselves at odds over one issue in particular: the case of two Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar for investigating suspected atrocities.
Pence pushed repeatedly for Suu Kyi — Myanmar’s de facto leader and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate — to have her government pardon the pair, according to senior Trump administration officials.
She, in turn, raised her voice and insisted that the reporters had crossed a line by publishing what the government described as state secrets.
“There was virtually no common ground in regard to the journalists,” said a U.S. senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter with the media. “I didn’t see any sense she would reconsider in any way.”
The meeting, at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, presented another chance for Suu Kyi to acknowledge world leaders’ concerns over Myanmar’s curbs on free expression amid a wave of violence and expulsions targeting the Rohingya, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority group. Myanmar’s campaign of violence against the group has prompted accusations of possible genocide from the United Nations and human rights groups.
Instead, Suu Kyi appeared to double down on the court ruling, rejecting the notion that the journalists are innocent of wrongdoing.
Her response also underscored how Suu Kyi — once exalted as a champion of human rights — has tied her reputation to hard-line elements within her country who have sought to silence critics and others seeking accountability.
The Reuters journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, saw one of their last legal avenues collapse last month. A court rejected their appeal of a seven-year sentence for violating a colonial-era law on state secrets by reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya men.
On Friday, lawyers for the journalists submitted their last chance at an appeal, to Myanmar’s Supreme Court.
As of December, more than 250 journalists were jailed around the world, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, with Turkey and China among nations cited for the harshest clampdowns. Saudi Arabia — whose crown prince is widely suspected of authorizing last year’s killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggiat the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul — has also “stepped up its repression at home,” the CPJ report said.
The Reuters journalists jailed in Myanmar, also known as Burma, stand out in one regard. Their hopes rest with a Nobel recipient who has experienced firsthand persecution by its military junta, which ran the country for decades. Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest and now effectively leads the government as state counselor, a role that gives her wide powers.
Suu Kyi could order a pardon through her control of the presidency.
But that appears improbable, according to interviews with almost a dozen diplomats, government officials and others who have privately raised the case with her. They suggest it is Suu Kyi, not the country’s powerful military, playing the most pivotal role in keeping the journalists behind bars.
“We didn’t necessarily think she’d change her mind, but she was somewhat indignant,” the Trump administration official said. “This is a woman who had a reputation as an incredible freedom fighter.”
Stephen J. Adler, Reuters editor in chief, said in a statement to The Washington Post that Reuters has “undertaken every possible effort” to secure Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s release. He declined to comment on possible exchanges with Suu Kyi or other members of the Myanmar government.
“In addition to the domestic legal proceedings, we have engaged in extensive outreach and advocacy to make clear that these two admirable reporters were not, at any time, acting as spies to harm Myanmar,” Adler said. “We will continue to explore and pursue every possible path to advocate on their behalf so that they may return to their families and us as soon as possible.”
On Tuesday in Washington, a bipartisan group of 22 senators introduced a bill calling for the release of the Reuters journalists and for the safe repatriation of the Rohingya. “Burma’s human rights violations and persecution of a free press are hallmarks of authoritarian rule, not a fledgling democracy,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), one of the bill’s sponsors. “We cannot allow this to stand.”
In leading Myanmar, Suu Kyi entered into a power-sharing agreement with the country’s military, which still controls key ministries and holds a quarter of the seats in parliament.
The military’s reach into politics has been cited by Suu Kyi’s advisers to explain why she can’t speak out against widespread human rights abuses in Myanmar. The episodes include the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh during a brutal August 2017 military-led crackdown, described as “genocidal” in intent by a U.N. fact-finding mission.
Critics of Suu Kyi point out that she has not only been silent on the abuses but has appeared to defend the military’s actions.
Suu Kyi defended the court’s initial judgment of guilt against the two reporters last year. Speaking in September at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Hanoi, she said that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were not jailed for their work, but because an open court found them guilty.
“If anyone feels that there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out,” Suu Kyi said at the time.
One senior Western diplomat told The Post that the journalists’ case was personally raised with Myanmar’s military leadership in a meeting late last year. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the diplomat said military leaders in response stressed they had no objection to releasing the pair, and would defer to the civilian government for a decision.
Similarly, there are those in Suu Kyi’s small circle of senior government officials who have found the case to be an embarrassment for Myanmar and appear to sympathize with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who both have young daughters.
These include President Win Myint, who came to power in March and was handpicked by Suu Kyi. He was inclined to include the journalists in a mass amnesty in April during Myanmar’s Water Festival, the country’s New Year holiday, when thousands of political prisoners are typically released, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Win Myint was overruled by Suu Kyi, the person said.
“There’s a lot of people in the elected government who very much think the right thing to do is to release them; there’s a lot. But not necessarily Aung San Suu Kyi, it seems,” said another high-ranking Western diplomat.
“It is such a self-inflicted wound,” the high-ranking diplomat added.
There is little consensus on the reasons for Suu Kyi’s stance.
She has insisted privately that the court process must play out before her government can potentially intervene. Critics, however, have pointed out clear anomalies in the trial. One of the arresting officers claimed he burned his notes; another had written down talking points on his hand.
“The decision goes back to Aung San Suu Kyi herself, and nobody really goes up against her,” said Kobsak Chutikul, a retired Thai diplomat and parliamentarian who was part of an advisory committee formed by Suu Kyi in response to the Rohingya crisis. “It is hard to understand what has influenced her internally, within herself and in her own mind, of this.”
Some believe she is influenced by hard-liners, including individuals closely aligned with Myanmar’s former military junta. Among them is Zaw Htay, her spokesman, who was a former army major and the spokesman for the previous military-backed president, Thein Sein.
In private conversations, Suu Kyi has also expressed disdain for the international media, which she believes has exacerbated the Rohingya crisis in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state and is biased in its reporting, according to a person who has discussed this directly with Suu Kyi and spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Sui Kyi has chided some of her party’s executive committee members for speaking to the foreign media, the person said.
In a notable shift, Suu Kyi permitted Win Myint to intervene on behalf of three Myanmar journalists for the local Eleven Media Group, which published a journal in the Myanmar language. The three were charged with incitement over an article critical of a regional government’s business dealings. Charges against the three were dropped in November.
“She thinks local media can be controlled on what they report on and are not biased like the international media,” said the person who spoke to Suu Kyi.
David Nakamura in Washington and Cape Diamond in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.