Myanmar’s Repression Coalition Fractures

The story of two Reuters journalists arrested while investigating the massacre of 10 Rohingya men and boys is providing mounting evidence of Myanmar’s retreat from liberal values. Police, military and government forces aligned against the journalists, while international audiences condemned the arrests.

But the first fracture has appeared in conventional alliances between police, military, and government : a police captain, testifying for the prosecution, corroborated the defendants’ allegation that their arrest was a setup, creating a splinter in the institutional coalition necessary to sustain civic repression.

This fracture is particularly important because the two institutions that remain aligned -- the military and the NLD-led government -- share a hostile history. If cracks begin with the police, the tenuous alliances between civilian and military rule could crumble much more quickly. More than 160 civil society organizations have capitalized on the testimony, calling on Myanmar President Win Myint to release the journalists, while police announced that the testifying officer had been sentenced to prison.

These escalating tensions will increasingly threaten the associations between police, military, and government that are critical to the military-led repression campaign.

The story began last Dec. 12 following a meeting with police at a Yangon restaurant, when Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on charges of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The location of the arrest has become a contentious focal point of their trial.

The journalists claim entrapment, insisting that after accepting documents from officers who invited them to the meeting, they left the restaurant and were almost immediately arrested by officers they had not seen before. The prosecution maintains that the arrest took place farther from the restaurant at a traffic checkpoint. In the course of a routine search, they claim, police discovered the journalists were in possession of documents related to security operations in Rakhine and concluded they had “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media.”

The competing narratives pit the international community against Myanmar’s police, military, and government. Amnesty International, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and representatives of the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, Bangladesh, and Canada have called for the journalists’ immediate release. Reuters called the arrests “a blatant attack on free press.”

But the controversy has forced an unusual alliance between national interest groups with tense histories. The military, which spent years suppressing the political aspirations of the National League for Democracy and current State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, now enjoys the tacit support of both. When US diplomat Bill Richardson recused himself from an international advisory board on Rakhine State, he cited Suu Kyi’s “furious” insistence that the panel not discuss the arrests as a key reason for his departure.

In late April, Myanmar’s new president, Suu Kyi loyalist Win Myint, granted amnesty to 8,500 prisoners while failing to acknowledge Wa Lone’s direct pleas for intervention. The decision of the NLD’s leadership to distance themselves from the case has consolidated state institutions in opposition to the journalists.

The case against Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is increasingly dependent on the police, military, and government alliances, in light of the prosecution’s fraying credibility. An arresting officer claimed his original notes of the incident were unavailable because he inexplicably burned them. A neighborhood-level local official called to corroborate the prosecution’s account of where the arrest took place was revealed during cross-examination to have written the address of the traffic stop on his palm. When exposed, he explained the notes by claiming he is “ forgetful.”

But the most significant blow was Police Captain Moe Yan Naing’s outright admission that the arrest was a “set up.” Called as a prosecution witness, Moe Yan Naing surprised the court by corroborating the journalists’ account of events, stating he witnessed a police team receive instructions to hand over secret documents and arrest the reporters afterwards. Officers were allegedly threatened with jail if they did not comply.

Myanmar’s state apparatus has done its best to negate this testimony through both legal maneuvers and intimidation. The prosecution asked the court to consider Moe Yan Naing, who met with Wa Lone in November and was charged with violating the Police Disciplinary Act the same night the journalists were arrested, a hostile witness, lessening the weight of his testimony, a request the judge ultimately denied.

Moe Yan Naing’s family was evicted from police housing a day after he testified. Both journalists and defense attorneys have expressed fear for his safety. On April 29, police announced that Moe Yan Naing had been sentenced to prison. The following day, a police spokesman said the two officers accused of orchestrating the set up would not be investigated.

Moe Yan Naing’s account of the journalists’ arrest has created a rift in the alliances on which the case – and any future cases like it – will depend. In addition to the authority and intimidation governments and militaries can wield, police also claim local legitimacy.

Local security forces have been critical to campaigns of political and social repression in Pakistan, the Balkans, and apartheid South Africa, among others. If these alliances fracture in Myanmar, the military’s influence will weaken. As Zayar Hlaing, editor of investigative journal Maw Kun, told Radio Free Asia, “The police are closer to the people.”

The testimony is only an early crack in the coalition, and is no guarantee that rule of law and freedom of the press will prevail, either in the long run or, more urgently, for Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. But it opens up space for Myanmar’s public to criticize the military’s repression by aligning with a formerly Rakhine-based security officer rather than an international media that is widely seen as intrusive, biased, and unsympathetic towards the Buddhist majority.

The 163 Myanmar-based civil society organizations that signed an open letter to President Win Myint demanding the journalists’ release have already capitalized on this opportunity. If such strategic opposition continues, it could allow greater fault lines to undermine Myanmar’s increasingly repressive security apparatus.

Carolyn Nash (@nashapp) is a research consultant and 2018 Asia-Pacific Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in Yangon.