Jailing reporters is the symptom; Myanmar’s legal system is the illness and its democracy can’t survive without a systematic fix
This combo shows Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo (left) and Wa Lone being escorted by police after being sentenced to seven years in jail in Yangon on Sept. 3. They were convicted of breaching Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act during their reporting of the Rohingya crisis in a case that has drawn outrage as an attack on media freedom. (Photo by Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
In Myanmar and across the Western world, there is outrage at the jailing of two local Reuters journalists in Myanmar for seven years using antiquated colonial-era laws around state secrets — one of which was, bizarrely, a download of Pope Francis’ schedule for his visit last year.
Anger and dismay have been squarely focused on the country’s de facto leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and piles further opprobrium on top of her for her misbegotten reaction to the Rohingya crisis.
Yet the failure of the woman widely referred to as The Lady is symptomatic of both the invidious constitutional bind that hampers her National League for Democracy (NLD) government and her wrong-headed policy priorities and mismanagement on something of an epic scale.
In this case particularly, this has crucially included almost no efforts to reform the judiciary and improve the rule of law — the cornerstone of any functioning democracy — or the regulatory institutions. This shows an almost complete lack of understanding about what democracy really is, or maybe she has forgotten.
Time and time again in the developing world, the West has looked on aghast as the promising green shoots of democracy have been extinguished, if we accept the commonly used definition of democracy as having free and fair elections in electorates that have not been deliberately gerrymandered. Nowhere has this been clearer than in Southeast and South Asia.