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Two Burmese reporters for the Reuters news bureau in Yangon were detained on Tuesday evening in the commercial capital’s northern suburbs.
According to a police filing seen by DVB, the two men were detained on charges under section 3 of the 1923 Official Secrets Act after they were stopped at a checkpoint and identified in the document as “suspicious persons.” If tried and convicted, they could face up to 14 years in prison.
The filing by the Htauk Kyant police station said that at least one of the detained was found to have in his possession Burmese military documents related to security operations in Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State. One was dated 25 August, and the other two were dated 27 August and 13 October.
If true, that would put the documents’ issuance not long after Rohingya Muslim militants attacked several police outposts in northern Arakan State on 25 August, setting off a fierce counterinsurgency campaign by state security forces. The latter operation has been described by the top UN human rights official as a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing,” with more than 600,000 Rohingya having fled their homes into neighbouring Bangladesh over the past three-plus months.
Reuters has been at the forefront of reportage on the latest crisis in Rakhine State, where press access has been severely restricted since late August.
Wa Lone, previously a reporter for The Myanmar Times, has worked for Reuters since 2016. He was arrested along with his Reuters colleague Kyaw Soe Oo.
Calls to the Htauk Kyant Township police went unanswered on Wednesday, but the Ministry of Information released a statement confirming the arrest of the two journalists and that Official Secrets Act charges would be brought against them. It added that two police officers were also detained in connection with the case — Deputy Police Major Moe Yan Naing and Police Sergeant Khin Maung Lin. The ministry said the two officers were based in Maungdaw and were on a break from their duties there when they were arrested on Wednesday.
As of Wednesday evening, a Reuters spokesperson would confirm only that the reporters’ whereabouts were unknown.
“Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been missing since Tuesday night,” said the spokesperson in an email to DVB. “We have filed a missing person’s report and are doing everything we can to locate them.”
The London-headquartered international news wire has previously been hassled by the sitting government. In August, Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein filed a complaint against the organisation after it published an unflattering story of his administration’s procurement practices involving an overhaul of the commercial capital’s public bus system.
The complaint went to the Myanmar Press Council, an adjudicating body in such disputes, which sought more information from the powerful chief minister. It does not appear to have escalated beyond that.
The US Embassy in Yangon spoke out on Wednesday’s “highly irregular arrests,” in a statement seemingly indicating that the two reporters were lured into their legal predicament.
“We are deeply concerned by the highly irregular arrests of two Reuters reporters after they were invited to meet with police officials in Yangon last night,” it said. “For a democracy to succeed, journalists need to be able to do their jobs freely. We urge the government to explain these arrests and allow immediate access to the journalists.”
The last known prosecution under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act also involved members of the media. Four journalists and an executive from the Unity Journal were arrested in 2014 and subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison. They were imprisoned following the journal’s publication of an article alleging the existence of a secret chemical weapons factory in central Burma.
This story was updated at 8:02 p.m. to include statements from the Ministry of Information and the US Embassy.