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Myanmar Detains 2 Reuters Journalists, Nations Condemn Arrests


Myanmar has been the center of international condemnation because of its brutal treatment of the Rohingya. Now the regime there is under pressure for detaining two Reuters journalists. The United Nations secretary-general, journalists and human rights groups and a number of governments have condemned these arrests. Speaking to reporters yesterday, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin called for their release.


BEN CARDIN: It just brings back the memory of the horrible practices with the repressive military rule. And with these two journalists being arrested, it reminds us that we are moving in the wrong direction.

MARTIN: More details have emerged this week about why these reporters were taken into custody. And to tell us more, we've reached reporter Michael Sullivan. He joins us on Skype from Bangkok. Hey, Michael.


MARTIN: It's been reported that these journalists from Reuters had obtained some kind of sensitive photographs. What's in these, and why would it lead to their arrest?

SULLIVAN: Well, several media outlets have reported that the photos are of a mass grave that was discovered in a village in northern Rakhine State where many Rohingya lived. And some of the reports suggest that the photos were leaked to the Reuters reporter by someone in that village.

The Myanmar army now says it is investigating the claims of a mass grave, but - and it's a big one, Rachel - the military team in charge of that investigation is headed by the same lieutenant general who cleared the military of any wrongdoing after its brutal crackdown on the Rohingya that began in August and led more than 650,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

MARTIN: So do we know if these photographs have anything to do with arrest, or is the Myanmar regime saying something else?

SULLIVAN: No one's really saying anything, but it seems pretty obvious that they are, right? And that's why the military has acknowledged the existence of this mass grave because they knew the photos were out there. These two journalists have been reporting on the situation in Rakhine State for a while now. They got lots of sources. And it looks like at least one person in the village, maybe more, gave them the photos. And, in fact, a number of villagers have reportedly been detained as well, but the military isn't saying.

And Reuters isn't saying much either, except that its reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe were just doing their jobs. And remember, Rachel, it's not just photos we're talking about here. The authorities are also charging these men with possessing classified documents. Where they came from, what they might say, who they might implicate - none of it's clear at this point.

MARTIN: So if these photographs are real, if these do depict a mass grave, does that change the narrative around the Rohingya situation at all?

SULLIVAN: I don't think it changes the narrative at all. If the grave contains Rohingya remains, it just reinforces the narrative we've been hearing for months now since August from human rights groups, from satellite imagery that shows hundreds of Rohingya villages burnt to the ground. It's just more evidence to add to the list and to the charges of ethnic cleansing. But it might help the arguments gaining traction that the crimes committed by the military amount to genocide.

And Myanmar doesn't care, though, Rachel. I mean, look at what happened yesterday when the UN special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, was told she wasn't welcome there anymore. She was angry. She said the decision can only be viewed as a strong indication something terribly awful is happening in Rakhine State. And based on the evidence and the stories I've heard from survivors in these camps in Bangladesh, that sounds about right.

MARTIN: Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for laying low during this entire crisis. She's still not talking?

SULLIVAN: No. And, in fact, her handpicked president had to sign off on the detention and investigation of these journalists. If she'd had either the power or the inclination to try to intervene, last week would have been the time to do it, but she didn't. And the two journalists still haven't been heard from, though the government says the investigation is almost complete and that their trial will start soon.

MARTIN: Reporter Michael Sullivan from... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.