Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi on Thursday said her government could have done better managing the Rohingya Muslim crisis in Rakhine state, but defended the sentencing of two Reuters reporters handed seven-year jail terms earlier this month for possessing documents related to the massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys.
She largely sidestepped the accusations from the United Nations, rights groups, and other members of the international community that the Myanmar army campaign against the Rohingya amounts to ethnic cleansing or genocide. The brutal crackdown and her repeated defense of the military have tarnished Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation as a Nobel laureate and an Asian democracy icon.
“There are, of course, ways in which we with hindsight might think that the situation could have been handled better, but we believe that for the sake of long-term stability and security we have to be fair to all sides,” Aung San Suu Kyi said at the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.
“The rule of law must apply to everybody,” she said. “We cannot choose and pick who should be protected by the rule of law.”
Differentiating the military “aspects” of the crisis from the political ones, she said the government must take responsibility for the political aspects.
Myanmar security forces carried out a violent crackdown on the Rohingya in northern Rakhine in response to deadly attacks in August 2017 by a Muslim militant group on police stations and an army base. The campaign, which included indiscriminate killings, torture, rape, and arson, drove more than 700,000 members of the minority group to Bangladesh.
Last month, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, working under a mandate from the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council, said that Myanmar’s commander-in-chief, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, and five other generals should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to be prosecuted for genocide against the Rohingya.
“Many of these violations undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law,” said the report issued on Aug. 27.
Miscarriage of justice?
The two Reuters journalists, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, were found guilty on Sept. 3 of breaching a law on state secrets, though the a witness for the prosecution testified that a senior police official ordered another officer to hand them confidential documents to set up the pair during their reporting on the killing of Rohingya villagers by the security forces.
On Tuesday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called on Myanmar to reverse the ruling and immediately release the two.
When asked about her response to appeals for the reporters’ release, Aung San Suu Kyi said that critics of the ruling should point out any miscarriages of justice.
“The case has been held in open court, and all the hearings have been open to everybody who wished to go to attend them,” she said. “And if anybody feels that there has been a miscarriage of justice, I would like them to point it out.”
“I would like them to read the judgment and point out where there’s been a miscarriage of justice,” she said.
She also noted that the summary of the judgment against the reporters dealt only with the Official Secrets Act and not with freedom of expression, and added that the reporters could appeal their sentences under due process of law.
When asked if she as a democratic leader felt comfortable with journalists being jailed, Aung San Suu Kyi said the Reuters reporters were not jailed because they are journalists.
“They were jailed because the court … has decided that they had broken the Official Secrets Act,” she said. “So if we believe in the rule of law, they have every right to appeal the judgment and to point out why the judgment is wrong, if they consider it wrong.”
'Deluded misrepresentation of the facts'
Rights group reacted with strong rebukes of Aung San Suu Kyi for her comments at the forum.
“Aung San Suu Kyi once again got it all wrong when she spoke about the Reuters journalists' verdict in Hanoi,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“She fails to understand that real 'rule of law' means respect for evidence presented in court, actions brought based on clearly defined and proportionate laws, and independence of the judiciary from influence by the government or security forces,” he said. “On all these counts, the trial of the Reuters journalists failed the test.”
Minar Pimple, senior director of global operations at London-based Amnesty International, called the comments “a disgraceful attempt by Aung San Suu Kyi to defend the indefensible.”
“To say that this case had ‘nothing to do with freedom of expression’ and that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo ‘were not jailed for being journalists’ is a deluded misrepresentation of the facts,” he said in a statement issued Thursday.
“These two men were convicted under a draconian, colonial-era law that was deliberately misused to halt their investigations into the appalling atrocities that took place in Rakhine state, he said. “From start to finish, the case was nothing more than a brazen attack on freedom of expression and independent journalism in Myanmar.”
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley also took aim at Aung San Suu Kyi for her statements.
“First in denial about the abuse the Burmese military placed on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable,” she tweeted on Thursday.
Derek Mitchell, a former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar who worked closely with Aung San Suu Kyi during the country's emergence from military rule, took her to task for her rule of law comments.
“Rule of law is not just a process” he told RFA. “It's not just having a judge on a bench, prosecutors, a defense attorney, and laws. If that's the definition, then Burma has always had rule of law, even when under military rule.”
“What the country needs is not what is essentially rule by law, but justice,” said Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute in Washington. “I wish she would start talking in those terms. Without justice there will be no peace and no democracy, and everything she has worked for over the past 30 years will have come to naught."