Jailing of Reuters Journalists Shows Myanmar's Military Junta Still Controls Country
Myanmar's Commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing (Photo: Youth Forum for Foreign Affairs)

A Myanmar judge on Monday found two Reuters journalists guilty of breaching a law on state secrets and jailed them for seven years.  The two reporters investigated the killing of Rohingya villagers and reported extensively on the forced exodus carried out by the Myanmar Army.

These journalists were sentenced despite courtroom admissions by witnesses of planting evidence against them and a case that would not have stood the test in any fair court of law. But that is the key. When it comes to Myanmar's military there is no unbiased court.

Despite Myanmar’s move to electing a government, the military holds 25 % of the seats in Parliament. The country’s Constitution makes sure the military keeps control of the three key ministries — Defence, Border and Home Affairs. And Myanmar's army operates completely independently of the elected government. The Constitution also allows the commander-in-chief, in the event of a state of emergency "the right to take over and exercise State sovereign power."  In short, the guns and the borders are the exclusive realm of Myanmar’s generals as well as being the power that controls the throne.

The military under the Constitution also controls the Home Affairs Ministry which manages the General Administration Department. This ministry handles the registration of things — from births, deaths and marriages, to land purchases. GAD's tentacles reach right down to the local level, giving the military information-gathering capacity and practical power across more than 60,000 villages.

"No other government organisation has such a wide presence in the country," The Asia Foundation wrote in a 2014 report.

This extensive and pervasive reach of the military means that no-one, not even Aung San Suu Kyi crosses them. The Nobel laureate has not uttered a word against the killing of thousands of Rohingya in the state of Rakhine nor their status as refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Myamar ranks 137 on the World Press Freedom Index in 2018 with the country dropping six places since 2017. Reporters Without Borders notes that the northern part of Rakhine state has become a news and information black hole and journalists who try to investigate what is going on there end up in prison. The media are also prevented from covering conflicts involving the Shan and Kachin minorities in northeastern Myanmar.

It is hence no surprise that despite a lack of evidence, the journalists who outed Myanmar’s army has being responsible for what the UN has called genocidal crimes, have been punished for their action.