Nov 17th: Wa Lone – How Myanmar failed to tackle the Rohingya crisis and the role of the media

Mr. Wa Lone is a reporter at Reuters News. He is best known for his coverage of the ethnic and religious conflicts in Myanmar. In December 2017, he was arrested and sentenced to seven years in jail over his reporting that had exposed a massacre of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar military and civilians.

He has won numerous prestigious awards for his work on exposing these killings, including the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and the Polk Award for Foreign Reporting. Before joining Reuters, he worked for the Myanmar Times where he focused on environmental and political issues. Prior to that, he worked at The People’s Age, a news journal.

Currently, he is taking Political science classes at the University of Toronto as a Professional Fellow under the Willian Southam Journalism fellowship program 2020-21.

Presentation Topic: How Myanmar failed to tackle the Rohingya crisis and the role of the media 

Date: Tuesday, 17th November 2020

A brief background to the Rohingya crisis:

  • Rohingya crisis started in 2012, two years after the military began the so-called democratic transition which was led by the military generals;
  • Extreme Nationalist movements spreading across the country culminated in communal violence between Muslim and Buddhist communities in Western Myanmar, eventually triggering violence in other parts of the country;
  • At that time, thousands of Rohingya Muslims were displaced and many were killed;   Then, on the 9 October 2016, Rohingya insurgency attacked Myanmar police posts while  Aung San Suu Kyi was in the United Nations. This was soon followed by Myanmar army’s  crack down on the Rohingya insurgency. The civilian population was not spared. Upon declaring the special status of the military operation, travel restrictions were imposed for  media and aid workers;  
  • Myanmar government and military soon formed an information committee of the State  Counselor’s Aung San Suu Kyi office;  
  • During the crisis, this information committee released propaganda almost on daily basis  stating that the army executed Rohingya “terrorists”, and that the Rohingya themselves  had burned their houses before fleeing to Bangladesh;  
  • Myanmar army’s brutal offensive operation included rape, murder, and arson, triggering  a mass displacement of local Rohingya population. The largest wave of Rohingya to flee  Myanmar happened in 2017, which was the largest human exodus in Asia since the  Vietnam war.  

Lack of media freedom

  • No media was allowed to travel in the conflict area, government restricted access for  “security reasons”;  
  • Nobody was allowed to communicate with Rohingya insurgent groups, otherwise they  would be prosecuted and charged under the Counter Insurgency Act;  
  • Police and military intelligence were on the grounds, all under control by the army, and  any information was released only after censorship;  
  • It appears that even the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi had no one in her inner circle  who could report accurate and truthful information, and so political actions were taken  based on what the military had released.  

In mid-October of 2017, Mr. Wa Lone was deep in the conflict area working under-cover, where he witnessed the aftermath of a major disaster: all villages of Rohingya fishing communities that stretched along the beaches of Northern Rakhine were burned to the ground. Then, he learned in detail how 10 Rohingya men were massacred. Soon after becoming aware of the investigation, police and military set him up and put him in jail, where he spent nearly two years.

Myanmar government is still facing international criticism and is accused of genocide and ethnic cleansing against Rohingya minority. Most recently the case has been brought before the International Criminal Court.

“As a journalist, I believe that media freedom is vital – it helps us see the reality of crisis” – says Mr. Wa Lone – “Aung San Suu Kyi’s government didn’t allow media access to the conflict areas, and so neither her, nor the citizens really knew how badly Rohingya were treated by the Myanmar army”.

On the same week, Rotary Club of Toronto Skyline will be hosting The Walking Dead online trivia.

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