International student Me Me Khant ’20 returned home to Myanmar this past summer as part of her Lincoln Scholar summer enrichment experience. While there, she had the opportunity to witness a pivotal time in Myanmar, and she recently recounted this during her seminar titled “Justice and Press Freedom: Eye Witness Account on the Case against Reuters Journalists in Myanmar.”
In December 2017, two Myanmar reporters working for the Reuters news agency were arrested while investigating a massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslims. The Rohingyas, a minority ethnic population in Myanmar, have been targeted in military-perpetrated systematic violence that many have claimed to be genocide.
The journalists were accused of illegal possession of state classified documents and prosecuted under the Official Secret Act. During the course of the trial, which lasted more than eight months, testimonies and cross-examinations unfolded to reveal how the journalists were held incommunicado for two weeks at a secret interrogation camp, how a police Brigadier General gave the order to entrap the journalists by planting secret documents on them and how the “classified” documents were in fact published in the news or common public knowledge. While the evidence seemed to be in their favor, the journalists were still convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison on Sept. 3, 2018.
“This trial has drawn a lot of global attention because of the context in which it happened, how it was fabricated by the state military and how poorly it was fabricated,” Khant said. “The proceedings of the trial were all over the news last summer. While the stories in the media sounded crazy, in the courtroom, it was way, way more ridiculous. So, I thought it was important to share my experience and to share the journalists’ stories—at least to condemn the injustice that was imposed on them.”
Over the summer, Khant interned with the European Union (EU) Delegation in Myanmar. She conducted many of the same duties of the local political officer position, due to the current officer being on leave.
“I drafted political analyses; helped with research; compiled press reviews; sat in high official, head of delegation, commercial counselor meetings; attended senior-level diplomatic briefings; and served as an EU delegate at various events, including the Reuters journalists’ trial,” Khant said. “I think getting to see the trial as an observer of the international organization was my favorite part about the experience, because I got to connect with almost the entire diplomatic community in Yangon, especially the Dutch Embassy, the Australian Embassy, the French Embassy and the U.S. Embassy.”
Khant’s main area of focus was the civil war and the peace process that is still ongoing in Myanmar.
“In fact, it was not really about the Rohingya crisis or the trial,” she added. “So, I learned more about the civil war and the peace process than what I already knew before. I wrote a lot of analyses and did quite a bit of research around it. Also, I learned how the diplomatic community works with the Myanmar government, since part of my job involves networking with various diplomatic entities on the information they have and their diplomatic progress in terms of specific issues.
“I also learned how the Delegation deals with public relations and how public relations is so important in terms of maintaining a positive image of the delegation and the ambassador,” she continued. “It was also important to learn how to handle confidential information and how to deal with information security as well.”
Khant added that this particular topic is important in the context of Myanmar’s democratic reform.
“After decades of brutal military regime, when Aung San Suu Kyi won landslide victory in the 2015 elections, there were surging hopes that Myanmar was going toward a positive, progressive direction via a peaceful reform,” she explained. “However, what has been going on in the country in the past year, regarding the Rohingya crisis and the civil war, raises concerns that Myanmar might be backstepping. The verdict of this trial highlighted those concerns.
Another important thing is that whenever Aung San Suu Kyi is asked to talk about the Rohingya issue, she usually dodges it with the issue of ‘Rule of Law.’ So, this ‘travesty of justice’ questions her actual position on the Rohingya crisis and also undermines her campaign promises.”
Khant has been heavily involved with conducting research on the Rohingya Crisis, so this trial became an important issue that addresses how much she could personally say, learn and publish about the crisis as a Myanmar citizen.
“I come from a family of writers and columnists, and so, I have strong opinions about press freedom,” she concluded. “I have spoken out about other cases in which press freedom was oppressed as well.”
by Kerry Steinhofer
November 21, 2018