YANGON - A group of free speech advocates who conducted a peaceful demonstration in Yangon earlier this week, calling for the release of two detained Reuters journalists in Myanmar, have said they will continue their protests until the pair are released.
On Sunday, dozens of demonstrators held a protest in downtown Yangon, where they made speeches, chanted slogans calling for the public’s right to information, and released balloons depicting images of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who earlier this month were sentenced to seven years in prison under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
At the time of their arrest, in December last year, the pair were investigating the army-led killing of 10 Rohingya men at Inn Din in northern Rakhine State at the height of the military’s crackdown in the region last year. The military later admitted that some of its members were involved.
The journalists’ trial attracted international condemnation. One prosecution witness said he burned his notes from the time of his arrest, while another testified the arrest was a set-up ordered by a police commander. Reuters Editor-in-chief Stephen J. Adler said the sentence was “a major step backwards” in Myanmar’s democratic transition.
Maung Saungkha, an organizer of Sunday’s protest, said the group was initially denied permission by authorities to host the event, but were eventually allowed to protest when organizers pointed out that a pro-military rally had been permitted in the same area earlier this year.
Protestors held placards with messages including “if press freedom is shut down, democracy fails” and “a massacre is not a state secret”, the latter a reference to the Inn Din killings. Maung Saungkha also conducted a performance, in which he wore a uniform associated with the ruling National League for Democracy party underneath a green army jacket and began beating journalists with a copy of the state-run Kyemon.
Ei Ei Moe, a member of local advocacy group Generation Wave, delivered a speech in which she said people in Myanmar “have the right to information”.
“The jailing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is like blinding the eyes and blocking the ears of the public,” she said.
After the event, Maung Saungkha told VOA the case involving Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had made the public angry.
“We conducted the protest because we want people to learn about what happened because it’s not fair,” he said, adding that further demonstrations were planned in the future, but did not elaborate.
A government spokesperson could not be reached for comment concerning the protests.
Before the event, organizers had said they hoped a few hundred people would attend, but there were less than many expected. Maung Saungkha said the group would continue to try and encourage people to become involved in their cause.
A Yangon resident, who asked not to be named, said he supports the group’s cause and that the sentencing was “unfair," but that he didn’t attend Sunday’s protest out of fear of being arrested.
“This is Myanmar, anything could still happen,” he said.
Thar Lun Zaung Thet, founder of the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists, admitted the turnout was smaller than expect, but that he believed people would continue supporting the group.
“We have many things to do while our brothers remain in jail,” he told VOA. “We have done a lot of campaigning, and have pressured the government to release them, but this is only the beginning. The government hasn’t responded to our requests, so we need to do more.”
Support for the Reuters reporters inside the country has been mixed. While some comments have been posted online accusing the journalists of being traitors, Thar Lun Zaung Thet said he believes the public is sympathetic to their cause.
“Online you see comments attacking journalists, but on the ground that is not the case,” he said. “People really understand what’s happening. They understand us and see that journalists are not working for power, but to inform the public.”