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Why these reporters spent 18 months in a Burmese jail

After nearly 18 months, two Reuters journalists have left prison in Myanmar. The crime that put them there: Revealing information the country’s government wanted to suppress, about its persecution campaign against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority. John Yang talks to Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. diplomat who served as chief of mission in the American embassy in Myanmar, about the developments.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After nearly 18 months in captivity, two Reuters journalists walked out of prison today in Myanmar. Their crime? Reporting news the government there did not want known about its campaign of persecution against the Rohingya Muslim people.

    Their reporting recently won the Pulitzer Prize, among other prestigious honors.

    As John Yang tells us, their plight garnered worldwide attention, and their release brought relief and joy.

  • John Yang:

    A thumbs up and a wave today, as Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo Kyaw walked to freedom. They were swarmed by cameras after leaving Yangon's notorious Insein prison.

  • Wa Lone:

    I'm really happy, and excited to see my family and my colleagues. And I can't wait to go to my newsroom now.

  • John Yang:

    The two Reuters journalists were arrested in December 2017. They had been investigating a brutal military campaign that forced some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

    Authorities in mostly Buddhist Myanmar charged the journalists had secret government documents. And, last September, they were convicted of breaking state secrecy laws and given seven-year sentences.

    The two men argued they were targeted for their reporting, and their case sparked a global campaign for their release. Myanmar's civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was accused of not doing enough to stop the persecution of Rohingya or to free the journalists.

    Today, without explanation, the pair were included in a mass pardon of more than 6,500 prisoners.

    Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler:

  • Stephen J. Adler:

    Since their arrest 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return.

  • John Yang:

    On Twitter, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also welcomed their release.

    As the journalists celebrated with their families today, there was no apology from Myanmar's military, which still controls much of the government.

    Their release was part of an annual amnesty marking the nation's traditional new year, which began last month.

    We are now joined by Priscilla Clapp, whose long career as a U.S. diplomat includes time as chief of mission in the embassy in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. She's now senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Asia Society.

    Priscilla Clapp, thanks so much for joining us.

    Help us understand what is — what was going on here. The defenders of these two journalists said they were set up. Remind us of the circumstances of their arrest.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    They work for Reuters, as the news clip said. And they are experienced investigative journalists.

    They went out to the northern Rakhine State after the exodus of the Rohingya and the violence against them to do some investigative reporting, and they came upon a village called Inn Din. And there were people there willing to talk about a massacre that had occurred at the hands of the army, the police, the security forces.

    One of the local officials — I don't know that he was an official. He might have been a village chief, but he was actually a Rakhine Buddhist — had taken pictures of it with his phone and shared the information with the reporters, showing the massacre of these young men, the Rohingya men.

    They brought this back to Yangon. And, of course, Reuters was going to do a report on it. But the police and the military knew that they had picked it up, so they set them up. They — two police invited them to a restaurant or a tea shop to meet and handed them a sealed envelope.

    Before they could open the envelope, as they were getting up to leave, they were quickly arrested by the police.

  • John Yang:

    So they were arrested for having the documents that they were given.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    When they didn't know what they were.

  • John Yang:

    Why — they appealed this, their convictions. The Supreme Court turned them down last month. Why do you think they were released now?

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    The process of — the legal process had been fully exhausted.

    And I think that the state counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, is — she's very concerned about restoring the rule of law to the country. And so she is trying to make an example of the process, of the legal process, and she wanted the legal process to run its course, which it did with the final Supreme Court denial.

  • John Yang:

    Her reputation has taken a beating in this.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    It has, yes.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • John Yang:

    Nobel Peace Prize winner, former political prisoner herself.

    Critics say that she should have done more to help these political prisoners. But you seem to be saying it's a little more nuanced.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    It is quite a bit more nuanced, because she's not in charge of the courts.

    The civilian leadership is not in charge of the legal process. It is still under control of the military. The military controls key parts of the government, under their constitution, the 2008 constitution which brought the transition.

    And so this setup was impervious to civilian intervention. And if she had tried to pardon them earlier or free them earlier, they probably would have resisted. The military, the court system would have resisted.

    But she's not the one who pardoned them. It's the president. Now, that's something that is guaranteed in the constitution. The president has the right to pardon prisoners, but after they have been sentenced, so after the process has finished.

  • John Yang:

    So, you're saying that, by waiting, she was trying — she is trying to reestablish the legal process?

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    I believe so. That is my thinking about it, why it took so long.

    I think that she wanted to guarantee that the legal process took its full course. And she has to also probably make sure that the military is comfortable with the decision when it was finally taken.

    It's not an easy situation that she's in. She really is between a rock and a hard place.

  • John Yang:

    Explain that. Explain her position, I mean, her role. And help us understand her role in the government, without getting too weedy here.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    Well, first of all, the constitution doesn't allow her to be president, because she has foreigners in her nuclear family. Her two sons are foreigners.

    So anyone with a foreigner in their nuclear family cannot be president, according to the constitution. Many people think it was deliberately because of her. But it existed even before.

    At any rate, so, when her party won a great victory, she, as head of the party, should have been nominated as president, but she couldn't be because of the constitution. So her lawyers found another position that had been inserted into the constitution to take care of the old military leaders, in case they still wanted to be in the government. But they didn't. So it was just sitting there, undefined.

    Her lawyers defined it, state counselor. And they made it really quite high, as she says, sort of above the president. But it really depends upon her ability to make it that way.

  • John Yang:

    Priscilla Clapp, former chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma, thank you so much for explaining this to us.

  • Priscilla Clapp:

    Thank you. It's my pleasure.

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