Colleagues of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo reflect on their work
On Monday, a Myanmar judge found Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo guilty of breaching a law on state secrets and sentenced them to seven years in prison, in a landmark case seen as a test of freedom of the press in the Southeast Asian country. The two reporters were investigating the killing by security forces of Rohingya villagers at the time of their arrest. Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler called the verdict “a major step backward in Myanmar’s transition to democracy,” and said it “must be corrected by the Myanmar government as a matter of urgency.” In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s colleagues reflect on their experiences working with the pair.
Myanmar Bureau Chief Antoni Slodkowski:
I hired Wa Lone because I could see the passion, determination and commitment in him that I couldn’t see in any other candidate I interviewed at the time. In fact, his drive and dedication were rare not just among that group of job applicants, but put him in a class apart among all the journalists I’ve ever worked with.
Wa Lone escapes easy definitions and simple categorization. He is an excellent journalist, but he is so much more than just that. Wa Lone would get up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday and go work with impoverished children from monastic schools with a group of his volunteer friends. He did it without fuss or fanfare. This is his way of life, his lifestyle and something that comes to him very naturally - just like for others it’s natural to sit by the swimming pool or go shopping on weekends. And you could see Wa Lone fed off that energy those children, the follow volunteers and colleagues would give him. You could see how that propelled him further, how it drove him to a new level.
I didn’t get to know Kyaw Soe Oo nearly as well as Wa Lone, partially because he didn’t speak English, but like Wa Lone, he is the easy-to-underestimate type. He is soft-spoken, gentle and bookish, and you have to discuss stories with him for a long while before you realise just how much he does and what he is capable of. I enjoyed working with him and was tremendously proud of how he withstood the pressure of his community – Rakhine Buddhists – with such ease and grace.
This is the common feature that both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo share – freedom from fear.
Myanmar Correspondent Simon Lewis:
I learned a lot from working with Wa Lone. We traveled a lot together and we would always pack in as many interviews as possible. The days were long but it never felt like a chore as we would crack jokes together and get to know each other between meetings and over dinner at the end of the day. When working on a difficult story there would often be a moment of crisis where we thought we couldn’t get what we wanted. Wa Lone would express some frustration, but then he would, without fail, come back with an idea, or a source, or a plan – something that would get us past whatever obstacle it was. Through Wa Lone’s particular kind of determination and grit, the stories would always end up that little bit better than you expected was possible.
Wa Lone and I met Kyaw Soe Oo in Sittwe, the Rakhine state capital, and the two of them instantly got along incredibly well. Both Wa Lone and I could tell straight away that Kyaw Soe Oo was an excellent reporter. He has a great combination of suspicion, a moral compulsion to uncover wrongdoing and complete fearlessness. Coming from the Buddhist community in Rakhine, it was especially impressive that Kyaw Soe Oo could see events there with such clarity.
Myanmar Correspondent Shoon Naing:
They are the nicest and most hardworking people. During the whole time working with Ko Wa Lone, whenever he made a mistake regarding work, he would come to me immediately and tell me about it, so that I could avoid making the same mistake in the future. That was one remarkable thing that I cannot forget about him. Ko Kyaw Soe Oo is a caring husband and a father. He won’t stop smiling whenever he talks about his family. I have always admired him for his dedication to the work he is doing. He believes in journalism.
Myanmar Correspondent Thu Thu Aung:
Wa Lone is a passionate reporter, a caring colleague, a family man. As a reporter, he’s always super active in covering breaking news and excited to do special reports. He is willing to share information and support colleagues. During the short period I’ve known him, I noticed that he is the one who always tries so hard to be a good reporter, but also does community work during his free time. He is the one who continuously learns things for his career development. We witnessed how he loves his wife so much and is trying to be a responsible husband.
I contacted Kyaw Soe Oo for some reporting from Rakhine state. It was good to work with him because of his patience and humbleness.
Special Correspondent Andrew Marshall:
Some reporters are good at working the phones, some reporters are good at interviewing people in person. Wa Lone is great at both, and once he has teeth in a story he just won’t let go. We teamed up on a few assignments and I’m incredibly proud of the stories we produced together.
One of them was credited with saving the lives of thousands of Rohingya Muslims begging for safe passage from villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State besieged by Rakhine Buddhists. The area was too dangerous to visit, but, from our hotel in the state capital, Wa Lone reached dozens of people by telephone, both Muslims and Buddhists. His reporting allowed us to paint a vivid picture of a desperate situation - so vivid, in fact, that the local authorities gave the villagers food and guarantees of safety, and ministers and diplomats visited the area by helicopter.
I met Kyaw Soe Oo just days before that story published. After that assignment, I left Rakhine State and flew back to the Reuters bureau in Thailand. But Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo stayed and headed north by boat and motorbike. Five days later, sitting at my desk in Bangkok, I got a message from Wa Lone on WhatsApp. “Can I talk?” he asked. He and Kyaw Soe Oo had just returned from a village called Inn Din. They had a story.