Last December, two Burmese reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, thought they were meeting with police officers for dinner. Instead they were arrested, allegedly for possession of classified documents with intent to distribute them to foreign outlets. They have been imprisoned ever since. The pair had been reporting on Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya ethnic minority in the Rakhine state. Their work contributed to the first in-depth investigation into Myanmar’s “clearance operation,” published on February 8 by Reuters. Now, PEN America will bestow upon the pair the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
The PEN/Barbey Award (underwritten by the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust, for which the Voice‘s owner, Peter Barbey, serves as an advisor) was established in 2016 to honor a writer imprisoned for his or her work. From 1987 to 2015, the award was known as the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. In its previous iteration, it helped garner enough global political support to help release 37 journalists from at least 21 countries. Two previous Burmese winners of the award, Ma Thida and Nay Phone Latt, have gone on to launch PEN Myanmar, a platform dedicated to protecting free expression.
In 2015, the junta that had ruled Myanmar since 1962 seemed to be transitioning into an open democracy with journalistic freedom: The country was holding its first openly contested elections in over two decades, the National League for Democracy controlled parliament, and Nobel Peace Prize–winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi had become state counsellor. But the military actions against the Rohingya, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the matter, has proven otherwise.
Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s executive director wrote, “The prosecution of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for the crime of exposing alleged atrocities is a jarring reminder that the fight for free expression in Myanmar remains incomplete and urgent. We are proud to honor these dauntless reporters and hope the award sounds a powerful signal that global concern for human rights in Myanmar will not let up.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being held on suspicion of violating the Official Secrets Act, which dates back to 1923 when Myanmar, then Burma, was under British rule. The pair was held incommunicado for two weeks before their first court hearing. At their most recent hearing, a judge refused their application for bail. Many suspect they were entrapped by the military. They were arrested right after the police officers they dined with gave them documents that were supposedly related to operations in Rakhine. They claim they did not look at the documents before they were arrested.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s reporting on the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine helped to expose a massacre that the government had long denied. They documented a September 2, 2017, attack in the village of Inn Din. The military set Rohingya hamlets on fire, looted their property, and executed ten men. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo interviewed the victims’ families, Buddhist villagers who admitted to aiding in the attack, and paramilitary police. On January 10, the military was forced to release a statement acknowledging the killings. However, it claims it was simply responding to Rohingya terrorist organizing in the area, and officials have worked to minimize allegations.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo each face up to 14 years in prison if convicted. Reuters reports that Wa Lone co-founded a charity dedicated to promoting tolerance between different ethnic groups. Kyaw Soe Oo is a Buddhist who was born in Rakhine, the focal point of tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The U.S. government and the U.N. have called for the pair’s release.
The PEN/Barbey Award will be presented at the 2018 PEN Literary Gala on May 22. Nossel told the Washington Post that she hoped the award would serve as a demonstration of international support for the reporters. “There is…a morale aspect of it to know that you are not forgotten,” she said.
Readers can follow developments in Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s case on PEN America’s website here.