Jailed Reuters journalists: Families face life with no father
Eleven-week-old Thet Htar Angel still hasn’t met her father.
The baby girl from Myanmar is still too young to visit the prison where her father, Reuters journalist Wa Lone, is serving a seven-year sentence for exposing a massacre by the country’s military.
Recently, the baby was released from hospital after spending two days being treated for breathing problems.
“When I see the doctor about our daughter, I see others with their husbands,” her mother, Wa Lone’s wife, Pan Ei Mon, tells CNN. “But for me, I have to suffer alone. I was supposed to go through all these things together with him.”
Reuters journalist 32-year-old Wa Lone and his 28-year-old colleague Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested in Yangon last December and charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act, a rarely-used colonial-era law in Myanmar.
Their reporting for Reuters exposed a massacre at the village of Inn Din in northern Rakhine State in September 2017, where 10 men from the Rohingya ethnic minority were murdered and thrown in a mass grave. Myanmar’s military confirmed the deaths and the country’s state media has since reported that seven soldiers have been jailed for the killings.
The massacre took place at the height of a “clearance operation” by Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, after Rohingya militants attacked security forces last August.
Earlier this month, both men were sentenced to seven years in jail.
“I feel like in this moment, I’m struggling,” Pan Ei Mon says. “I never expected this in my life, because I was hoping that he was going to be released.”
Pan Ei Mon passionately defends her husband, saying he is innocent and that she is proud of him for “always trying to be a good journalist.” She also keeps trying to talk to their baby about her father.
“I want my daughter to know how much her father loves her,” Pan Ei Mon said. “When I was coaxing her to sleep, she was looking at me, and she was holding my fingers, which are nice moments for me. But I want my husband to feel those nice moments too.”
She adds that Wa Lone worries about his daughter’s health. “He really wants to see his daughter.”
Setting him free
The baby doesn’t know her father. But Kyaw Soe Oo’s three-year-old daughter, Moe Thin Wai Zan, was very close to her father and is increasingly aware of what has happened.
“She is now old enough to understand, as she was going to every trial,” her 23-year-old mother Chit Su Win tells CNN.
“She asks, ‘Why doesn’t father live with us? Doesn’t he love us?,'” she says. “Then I have to explain to her, ‘your father is working in the prison as a teacher…he’s not leaving us.’ I lied to her that he is staff.”
Moe Thin Wai Zan still remembers happier times, when her dad would take her on trips to the beach, on motorbike rides around the city, or to a local barbecue restaurant. Now, they can only talk to each other through bars.
And each time, she tries to set her father free.
“Whenever she sees her father handcuffed, she tries to use her fingers as a key to unlock the handcuffs,” Chit Su Win says, in tears.
Chit Su Win and her daughter Moe Thin Wai Zan have had to move from their home in Sittwe — the Rakhine State capital — to Myanmar’s main city Yangon so they can visit Kyaw Soe Oo every day.
Both families are being supported by Reuters, as they all try to work towards the pair’s release. An appeal against the verdict and sentences has to be lodged within two months of the September 3 verdict. Separately, they are also hoping that the government will grant a presidential pardon.
Currently, the two men are held in Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison — historically a place synonymous with torture and inhumane conditions — although conditions have improved in recent years.
The most famous former inmate of the jail is Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de-facto leader. In September, she defended the conviction of the two journalists at the World Economic Forum in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.
“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” Aung San Suu Kyi said. “They were jailed because the court, because sentence has been passed on them because the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act.”
International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is offering assistance to the journalists’ legal team. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged the Myanmar government to pardon and release the pair.
“I hope that the government will be able to provide a pardon to release them as quickly as possible,” Guterres said in September.
Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, who has joined the legal team for the journalists, has called the trial and verdict a “farce” and called on Aung San Suu Ski to issue a pardon.
“Our message to her now is: well, these were your own principles, you’ve actually slept in the prison where these journalists now sleep,” Clooney said. “You have the power to get them out and set your country back on course to becoming a real democracy and to respecting the rule of law.”
The wives of the jailed journalists had never met before their husbands’ arrests, but they have now become friends. They say they focus on keeping up their spirits and staying positive.
“I always try not to let myself cry in front of (Wa Lone),” Pan Ei Mon says. “He gets strength from seeing me being strong.”
Chit Su Win says: “I’m trying to smile all the time. When he’s front of me, (Kyaw Soe Oo) does the same, pretending he’s OK.”