Yangon: A global outcry over the jailing of two Reuters journalists has been met with silence from Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a stony response that an official defended on Tuesday as a reluctance to criticise the judiciary.
Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were arrested while reporting on atrocities committed during the bloody expulsion by the military of some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims last year. A Yangon court on Monday found them guilty under the Official Secrets Act and handed them each seven years in prison, sparking outrage from the UN, EU and US as well as media and rights groups.
Suu Kyi was herself subjected to house arrest for some 15 years, relying on foreign media to highlight her plight.
A UN report last week accused her of failing to use her moral authority to stem the violence last year and called for the generals to be prosecuted for "genocide". Her silence on this case and the verdict –- the sternest test in recent years to free speech in the country -- has shredded her reputation even further.
But Aung Hla Tun, a former Reuters journalist who now works for the government as deputy Minister of Information, defended the Nobel Laureate's reticence. "Criticising the judicial system would be tantamount to contempt of court," he said. "I don't think she will do it."
A whistleblowing policeman had corroborated the defence argument that the reporters had been entrapped by police, who handed them documents over dinner shortly before their arrest. But the judge chose to ignore the testimony.
Lawyers for the two will appeal the verdict although the lengthy process could take months, if not years. The country's president, a close ally of Suu Kyi, could also pardon the reporters but experts say any immediate intervention is unlikely.
In April, 8,500 people were set free in an amnesty, including 36 deemed to be political prisoners but there were still some 200 others, including the two Reuters journalists, facing trials linked to political activities.
Erstwhile Suu Kyi advocates overseas have been left dismayed by her attitude to the journalists’ ordeal so far. Her one public reference to the Reuters journalists during the court case -- telling Japanese broadcaster NHK that the pair had broken the Official Secrets Act -- was criticised by rights groups for potentially prejudicing the verdict.
US diplomat Bill Richardson, a former confidant and member of her advisory board on the Rohingya crisis, alleged she also denounced the two reporters as traitors during a heated exchange at the beginning of the year.
While the case horrified the West, domestically it garnered little public attention despite its implications for press freedom.
Response to the jailing was mixed. State-backed media barely mentioned the verdict Tuesday although other papers stood in solidarity with the reporters. A publication called 7Day News branded it a "sad day" for Myanmar and carried a large black rectangle on its front page.
The English version of the Myanmar Times ran a full front-page photo of Kyaw Soe Oo, calling the verdict "a blow to press freedom" although its Myanmar-language sister paper was more muted, simply urging the overhaul of obsolete laws.
On Facebook — the prime source of news for many in a country that only recently came online — comments were overwhelmingly stacked against the reporters, accusing them of bias and some even calling for a harsher sentence.
Offline, in central Yangon, sympathy was easier to find. "I feel sorry for the journalists," businessman Thet Aung Htike said. "I hope the president will give them an amnesty."