Myanmar's surprise turn toward rule of law

The release of two Reuters reporters reflects the work of negotiators who played to the military’s own interest in rule of law. Dialogue won the day for press freedom.

Reuters reporters Wa Lone, center right, and Kyaw Soe Oo hold their children after being freed from prison in Yangon, Myanmar, May 7.

After more than 500 days behind bars, two reporters from Reuters news agency who exposed a military massacre in Myanmar in 2017 were given a surprise pardon Tuesday. Their truth-telling about the killing of Muslim civilians had won them a seven-year sentence on a charge that even the police admitted was made up. The two also won a Pulitzer Prize. During their long confinement, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had became symbols of the global cause for press freedom.

Yet the best part of the story may be the probable reason for their release.

Their investigation into the killings during a military campaign against the minority Rohingya people served another cause in Myanmar: rule of law. The country, which is still dominated by the military, has seen only a limited return to democracy since 2015. Dozens of journalists, for example, have been arrested. And the United Nations seeks accountability for what it calls a genocide against the Rohingya. To its credit, the regime did convict soldiers involved in the massacre uncovered by Reuters.

Foreign diplomats and many others have appealed for the release of the Reuters reporters by appealing to the military’s own professed desire to improve rule of law. While the West did apply pressure on the regime, it also used discreet engagement, hoping to establish trust with the top brass by showing a mutual interest in improving rule of law.

“This outcome shows that dialogue works, even in the most difficult of circumstances,” said Ara Darzi, the key negotiator for the journalists’ release and a British lord who has served on an international advisory group to help reform Myanmar’s government.

“This is a country that is trying to implement the rule of law,” he told the BBC. The release of the journalists, he added, is “a day to celebrate” Myanmar’s moves toward reconciliation.

Negotiations in difficult situations are often not a zero-sum game. They work best when one side seeks goodwill by listening to the other side’s deepest concerns. Away from the glare of publicity, talks can then focus on shared interests. And also produce surprise endings, such as freedom for journalists.

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