The release of Reuters journalists imprisoned in Myanmar proves that diplomacy can still work

For a change, a small but important victory for media freedom and human rights was recorded in Myanmar. Though it should be remembered that this important step forward was a collective effort

Wednesday 08 May 2019 15:58
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Jailed Reuters journalists comment as they leave court in Myanmar

Anyone in any doubt about the worth of Her Majesty’s ambassadors should look to the work of Dan Chugg, “our man” in Myanmar, for some inspiration. The release of two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, disgracefully incarcerated in solitary confinement for six months by the Myanmar authorities, is at least partly down to Mr Chugg and his colleagues’ dedicated and clever work. He did not simply lobby Myanmar’s rulers, usually impervious to foreign entreaties about human rights, but instead also constructed a careful case based on the local legal system, demonstrating that their detention was unlawful.

As it happens, it worked. Although no one can prevent the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt from trying to make political capital out of this happy turn of events, it is a moment to recall that, even in Britain’s denuded circumstances, the right kind of diplomacy can make a difference. It is also, parenthetically, worth recalling how Boris Johnson might have got on – the man who was filmed humming “On the Road to Mandalay”, a colonial-era anthem about the then Burma, during an official visit.

Amal Clooney calls for Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi to free wrongly imprisoned Reuters journalists

The other person who deserves some credit is Aung San Suu Kyi. As the de facto civilian chief of the Myanmar government – though always subordinate to the generals – she undertook to have the case reviewed. For a change, a small but important victory for media freedom was recorded in Myanmar.

The only criticism of this is that the relief of all concerned and the desire of the Foreign Office to secure some good publicity might serve to distract attention from Myanmar’s appalling overall record on human rights. It bears repeating that this isolated state stands as one of the very worst around the world. In a grim litany of its crimes against humanity, the persecution of the Rohingya stands as the most egregious. More than 700,000 have been forced from their homes into Bangladesh – a nation hardly able to cope with the influx – and yet more have been displaced in their own lands.

News reports regularly reveal the extent of rape as weapon of war, the murder of civilians, including children, and crimes amounting to genocide. Indeed, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were imprisoned precisely because of the investigation they were carrying out into these crimes by Myanmar’s military, with Aung San Suu Kyi either unwilling or unable to restrain it. The richly deserved Pulitzer Prize awarded to Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo might also have helped secure their presidential pardon from Aung​ San Suu Kyi. Even a regime as nasty and insensitive to international opinion as the junta in Myanmar has to sometimes pay attention to what the rest of the world thinks.

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And so, in the absence of any superpower enthusiasm for armed intervention in Myanmar – the track record elsewhere has not been encouraging – the world is left with the usual weapons of diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions.

In any case, the Myanmar military should also be reminded, if needs be by HM ambassador in Naypyitaw, that dictatorships eventually fall, and that specific military commanders will be held responsible for all the crimes against humanity now being committed under their orders. Just as happened in neighbouring Cambodia, or the Democratic Kampuchea as it was renamed in the Pol Pot era, one day those overseeing mass murder in Myanmar will find themselves before an international tribunal, with Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo in the press gallery. The truth will out.

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