Archive for Aung San Suu Kyi

Columbia Students Stand in Solidarity with Jailed Reuters Journalists

By Ashley E. Chappo, editor of RightsViews and a graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and Columbia Journalism School

Walk into Pulitzer Hall lobby at Columbia Journalism School today, and you might notice the students dressed in all black, holding signs that read “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” and “Journalism is not a crime.”

It’s a moment of advocacy and solidarity on Columbia’s Morningside campus on behalf of Reuters journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who were sentenced to seven years in prison on September 3, 2018 by a Myanmar judge after being found guilty of violating a decades-old law on state secrets. The Burmese nationals had been investigating military crackdowns and human rights violations in Rakhine state, including the massacre of 10 Rohingya men in Rakhine’s Inn Dinn village on September 2, 2017.

Columbia Journalism students dressed in all black and held signs that read “#FreeWaLoneKyawSoeOo” and “Journalism is not a crime” on behalf of their imprisoned colleagues in Myanmar. // Thor Neureiter

The advocacy effort at the journalism school in New York City was organized mainly by students in professor Ann Cooper’s reporting class. Beginning at 11 a.m. in Pulitzer Hall, the students dressed in black and held up signs, many handwritten in black ink on dry erase boards, with messages of support for the Burmese journalists. The students were inspired by the earlier protest efforts led by the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists who began wearing black T-shirts to “signify the dark age of media freedom” and advocate for the release of their colleagues, according to Reuters. The entire journalism school was asked to participate in person or across social media, and students from other professional schools at Columbia were also invited.

The September ruling by the Myanmar judge to jail the journalists for seven years has been widely condemned by world leaders, press freedom organizations, and human rights advocates as an attack on press freedom and human rights, which threatens journalists and human beings everywhere. Following the arrests, the United Nations called for the immediate release of the jailed journalists. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said the court’s recent ruling is a “travesty of justice” and “shocking,” adding that the journalist’s information on the violence in Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims is “of public interest.”

While advocacy efforts such as the one at Columbia may seem merely symbolic, they hold special significance for the jailed journalists and reporters around the world who face similar risks.

“From my eight years as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I know how much it means for journalists and their families to hear messages of support, to know that they are not forgotten,” professor Cooper told RightsViews. “Journalists in many countries work in very challenging press freedom conditions. It’s important for us, no matter where we live and work, to defend the rights of all journalists to report the news independently, without fear of threats or violence.”

A poster for the advocacy efforts at Columbia Journalism School on September 14, 2018. The organizers urged other students and faculty from across Columbia to dress in black and stand in solidarity with the imprisoned Burmese journalists. // Melody Jiang

The Burmese reporters were first detained on December 12, 2017 outside of Yangon. Reuters published the journalists’ special report on the killings of the Rohingya under the title “Massacre in Myanmar” on February 8, 2018 while they awaited trial behind bars. The report notes “the Reuters investigation of the Inn Din massacre was what prompted Myanmar police authorities to arrest two of the news agency’s reporters.”

Efforts to support Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo while in detention began last year at Columbia when journalism students collected books to send to the reporters in prison following a specific request for books by Wa Lone.

“I think we all hoped that would help them pass some weeks or months until they were freed, because the court case against them was so ridiculous. But now they face seven years in prison. So our new students this fall have organized an effort to tell them, once again, you are not forgotten,” Cooper said.

Around seventeen of Cooper’s current reporting students from the Class of 2019 took the lead in organizing the day of advocacy on behalf of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

“Journalism students, especially those interested in doing international reporting, should be aware that if these types of press restrictions and anti-press actions are not confronted, it will make it harder for them to do their jobs in the future,” said Haleluya Hadero, a student in Cooper’s reporting class this fall, to RightsViews. “As it is commonly said at the J-School, journalism is a public service, and we all need to work hard to protect the integrity and freedom of the press around the world.”

The action at Columbia University follows at the heels of a particularly troubling response from Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the court ruling. Speaking on Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam, she denied claims that the court’s decision violates freedom of expression and said that the journalists are free to appeal the decision

“They were not jailed because they were journalists,” she said. “The sentence has been passed on them because the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act.”

Students gathered on the steps in front of Columbia Journalism School during a day of advocacy on behalf of the jailed Reuters journalists. // Thor Neureiter

This statement from the once-esteemed Nobel Peace Prize winner has been decried as “shameful” by Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Rarely does an event more clearly embody a country’s human-rights decline than the Myanmar court’s sentencing of two Reuters journalists.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley expressed her own disproval with Myanmar’s leader on Twitter, tweeting, “First in denial about the abuse the Burmese military place on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable.”

The seven-year prison sentence serves as a reminder of the challenges and limitations journalists face in doing their jobs and defending human rights. These realities are particularly pertinent for students of Columbia Journalism School, many of whom dream of future careers in international and conflict reporting.

And now, more than ever, the stakes are especially high. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that for the second year in a row the number of journalists imprisoned for their work has reached a historical high. The advocacy efforts on campus help the students to recognize the importance of the lessons they learn in the classroom on keeping themselves and their sources safe in difficult environments.

“It’s my goal to make sure that all of our students leave journalism school with a healthy appreciation of the risks faced by so many reporters around the world— and with the skills and knowledge to assess and deal with those risks,” Cooper said. The recent case of the Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo hits particularly close to home for some of Cooper’s students. One who graduated this past May worked with Wa Lone at a newspaper in Myanmar, and another had met Wa Lone’s brother while reporting from the country.

“It is important for us— as Americans or even non-citizens living in the United States, and especially as journalists— to advocate for our own who are imprisoned for simply doing their jobs,” Haleluya said. “Journalism is a service not only to the public, but also to our colleagues, wherever they might be.”


Ashley E. Chappo is a recent graduate of Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, where she studied human rights and international conflict resolution, and Columbia Journalism School, where she studied multimedia and investigative reporting. You can follow her on Twitter @AshleyChappo. She is editor of RightsViews. 

What does the Rohingya crisis mean for Myanmar’s Nobel Laureate?

By Olivia Heffernan, a master’s candidate at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs 

On November 14, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University hosted a lecture titledUnderstanding the Rohingya Crisis.” Panelists addressed the historical roots of ongoing violent conflict in Myanmar, including the “othering” of the minority Rohingya Muslims and escalating fear of Islam, as well as the responsibility of the international community to respond to the country’s human rights crisis. The lack of response raises questions about the international community’s commitment to protecting peace and precipitates another interesting discussion: What does an ethnic cleansing overseen by a Nobel Peace Prize winner mean for the credibility of the award itself?

Aung San Suu Kyi accepts her Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. // Flickr

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and first state counselor, was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her admirable fight for democracy in Myanmar during 15 years under house arrest as a political prisoner. However, actions speak louder than words. Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity to the killings and expulsions of Rohingya Muslims raises questions about her promise to ensure peace and democracy in Myanmar.

Panelists of the event provided context for the current crisis and cited startling statistics of pervasive and systematic violence against the Rohingya, violence that constitutes ethnic cleansing by U.N. standardsHuman Rights Watch reports that military repression has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, forcing at least 600,000 people to flee their homes since 2016. The U.N. continues to deliberate on whether the killings constitute a genocide. Furthermore, panelist Mayesha Alam mentioned that no state besides Indonesia criticized the government of Myanmar for its inhumane treatment of the Rohingya during the recent ASEAN summit. The lack of international response delegitimizes international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and principles such as the Responsibility to Protect.

In an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “My dear sister: if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Malala Yousafzai, another Nobel Peace Laureate, also expressed her disappointment in a statement on Twitter: “Over the last several years, I have repeatedly condemned this tragic and shameful treatment. I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.” Similarly, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and long time supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, has said, “Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”

Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Malala Yousafzai have been critical of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of response on the Rohingya crisis // Flickr

In her first public address since the violent military crackdown on the Rakhine state, Aung San Suu Kyi’s statements contradicted her actions. She displaced blame and denied culpability, claiming that the Myanmar government “condemns all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” She also made false claims, assuring the audience that Rohingya Muslims did not face discrimination and had equal access to healthcare and education— a blatant lie according to international human rights advocates. Perhaps more concerning, in the same speech, Aung San Suu Kyi announced that despite widespread condemnation, she does not fear international scrutiny.

Despite ubiquitous disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and calls for the revocation of her award, former Nobel Prize committee member Gunnar Stalsett defended the committee’s choice: “The principle we follow in the decision is not a declaration of a saint…when the decision has been made and the award has been given, that ends the responsibility of the committee.”

However, Stalsett’s above statement is dangerous— it insinuates that the Nobel Peace Prize committee has no interest in the actions of their awardees post-conferment. Not condemning Aung San Suu Kyi for her direct contradiction of the award’s values discredits the legitimacy of the prize. Recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize should be held to higher standards and accountable for their actions. At the least, they should face repercussions for committing injustices. While a Nobel Peace Prize has never been revoked, in this case, rescinding the award appears to be one of the more obvious and symbolic means of sending an important message to Aung San Suu Kyi: reputation and power do not acquit anyone of wrongdoing in the face of human rights violations.

Olivia Heffernan is a student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs concentrating in social and urban policy and specializing in journalism. She is president of the Criminal Justice Reform Working Group (CJR) and has previously worked for human rights-related nonprofits. Olivia is originally from Washington, D.C., but she has spent multiple years living abroad.