Yangon, May 7 (AP/UNB) — Two Reuters journalists who were imprisoned for breaking Myanmar's Official Secrets Act over reporting on security forces' abuses of Rohingya Muslims were pardoned and released Tuesday.
The convictions of Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, had drawn condemnation from rights groups, Western governments and press associations, and the two journalists had garnered several awards and other honors. In April, they shared with their Reuters colleagues the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, one of journalism's highest honors.
The two were freed after President Win Myint issued a blanket pardon for 6,520 prisoners, said Zaw Zaw, chief of Insein Prison in the country's largest city, Yangon.
Myanmar's Supreme Court on April 23 had rejected the journalists' final appeal against their seven-year prison terms. Their convictions were related to reporting on security forces' abuses of the Muslim Rohingya minority. The reporters contended they were framed because of official displeasure over their reporting.
"I want to say that I am very happy today," Wa Lone said to reporters who had gathered in front of the prison. "I want to thank our friends and families who were trying for our freedom and also to those from all over the world who sympathized with us."
"I am really excited to see my family and colleges. I can't wait to go to my newsroom," he said.
Myanmar's military launched a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the western state of Rakhine in 2017, driving more than 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.
U.N. officials and others charge the campaign amounted to ethnic cleansing, and even genocide. The military has said its actions in Rakhine state were a response to attacks by Rohingya guerrillas, and it did not have a policy violating human rights or the laws of war.
The Reuters reporters had worked on an investigation of the killings of 10 Rohingya villagers in Inn Din village, for which the government last year said seven soldiers were sentenced to up 10 years in prison with hard labor.
The two reporters were arrested in December 2017 and sentenced last September after being accused of illegally possessing official documents, a violation of the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.
"We are enormously pleased that Myanmar has released our courageous reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo," said a statement issued by Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler. "Since their arrests 511 days ago, they have become symbols of the importance of press freedom around the world. We welcome their return."
The case drew attention not only as a media freedom issue but also as an example of how democratic reforms in long-isolated Myanmar have stalled under Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government, which took power in 2016.
The military maintains control of key ministries including those handling security, but Suu Kyi wields executive power and her stance on the Rohingya crisis has disappointed many admirers and dampened hopes for greater democracy in the country.
The United Nations office in Myanmar said it welcomed the journalists' release.
"The U.N. in Myanmar considers the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo a step toward improving the freedom of the press and a sign of Government's commitment to Myanmar's transition to democracy," it said in an emailed statement.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, also applauded the release, but noted Myanmar is prosecuting other bloggers and journalists for their reporting on the military and the government.
"Myanmar's faltering respect for media freedom indicates the dire situation facing human rights and democracy as the country moves toward national elections in 2020," he said in an emailed statement.
Family members of the two reporters were elated.
Chit Su Win, the wife of Kyaw Soe Oo, said just before their reunion that she doesn't know how to express her feelings, but "Now the three of us can hug each other and we are so happy for that."
Maung Saung Kha, director of "Athan"- Freedom of Expression Movement from Myanmar - said he still has concerns about freedom of expression in Myanmar, because there are still trials of journalists.
The online magazine The Irrawaddy and other media outlets have been sued by the army for their coverage of recent fighting between the government and the Arakan Army ethnic rebel group, which also operates in Rakhine state.
Bangkok, May 6 (AP/UNB) ) — Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn is wrapping up three days of coronation ceremonies with appearances before the public and the diplomatic corps.
Vajiralongkorn succeeded to the throne after the 2016 death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who reigned for seven decades. His formal coronation on Saturday, involving a series of elaborate, centuries-old rituals rooted in Buddhist and Brahmanic traditions, established his status as a full-fledged monarch with complete regal powers.
His planned Monday afternoon appearance on a balcony at the Grand Palace will be the second time the public can see him directly since his coronation. On Sunday night he was carried on a golden palanquin in a spectacular 6 1/2-hour procession through Bangkok's historic quarter.
Lucknow, May 6 (AP/UNB) — Polls opened Monday for the crucial fifth phase of India's marathon elections including in two constituencies in the vote-rich state of Uttar Pradesh, where opposition Congress party president Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi hope to retain their seats.
Voting began amid scorching summer temperatures and tight security in Uttar Pradesh in northern India, where more than 25 million people are registered to cast ballots for 14 members of India's Parliament.
Rahul Gandhi is seeking re-election for a fourth consecutive time in Amethi. He's the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv Gandhi's widow, Sonia Gandhi, is running from neighboring Rae Bareli.
Both constituencies are considered Congress party bastions.
India's multi-phase elections, which started April 11 and last five weeks, are seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which controls Uttar Pradesh.
The polling, spread over 51 constituencies spread over seven states, also is taking place in his mother Sonia Gandhi's constituency of Rae Bareli. Modi's Hindu nationalist party is trying hard to defeat the top Congress leadership both in Amethi and Rael Bareli to gain ascendancy for years to come.
Modi has adopted a nationalist pitch in trying to win votes from the country's Hindu majority by projecting a tough stance against Pakistan, India's Muslim-majority neighbor and archrival.
The opposition is challenging him over India's 6.1% unemployment rate — the highest in years — and the distress of farmers aggravated by low crop prices. They have also made alleged corruption in a deal to purchase French fighter jets as one of the major election issues.
Monday's polling will mark the completion of voting in more than 400 out of 543 parliamentary seats. The 39-day process will be completed on May 19. The counting will be held on May 23.
The election's fifth phase is a war of titans.
Rahul Gandhi is pitted against the government's textile minister, Smriti Irani, for Amethi.
Irani lost to Gandhi in 2014 polls but in the last five years has steered central government funds for development to the constituency and visited often.
"This time BJP is going to win the election," Irani told The Associated Press. "They promised the moon to these people but in reality Amethi is one of the most neglected constituencies because Gandhis never took interest in development of this region."
Gandhi is also contesting the election from Wayanad, a district in the southern state of Kerala. In India, it's possible to stand for more than one constituency, but one can represent only one seat in Parliament.
His sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is also the national general secretary of the party, carried out intensive campaigns in both Amethi and Rae Bareli, and predicted that her brother would carry Amethi by an even larger margin in this year's polls.
"There is an emotional attachment between the people of Amethi and Congress," she said.
In other races, the central government's powerful Home Minister Rajnath Singh is in the fray from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Another Modi government minister, Menaka Gandhi, who has strained relations with her sister-in-law Sonia Gandhi, is contesting from Sultanpur.
State chief electoral officer Venketshwar Lu told reporters on Monday that polling started smoothly and that shade, fans and drinking water had been made available at all polling booths.
"We are expecting good turnout this time," he said.
New Delhi, May 6 (AP/UNB) — Relief officials say a rare summer cyclone that tore through parts of South Asia last week killed at least 34 people in India and another 15 in neighboring Bangladesh apart from smashing thousands of thatched-roof huts and uprooting electric poles and trees.
Relief officials in India's Odisha state say that authorities are still assessing the full impact of Cyclone Fani, which lashed beaches with rain and winds gusting up to 205 kilometers (127 miles) per hour as it made a landfall on Friday.
After weakening, the cyclone moved into neighboring Bangladesh.
A mammoth evacuation of more than 1 million people spared India a devastating death toll from one of the biggest storms in decades.
Sri Lanka, May 6 (AP/UNB) — Two people have been arrested and an overnight curfew lifted Monday in a Sri Lankan town where a suicide bombing targeted a Catholic church last month and weekend clashes were said to involve majority ethnic Sinhalese and Muslims.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said the situation has been brought under control. He said the violence started as a drunken, private brawl but refused to name parties involved.
The Sri Lankan government also blocked some social media sites overnight, including Facebook and WhatsApp, "in order to control the situation," the information department director Nalaka Kaluwewa said. The block was lifted early Monday.
The clash in the seaside town of Negombo is the first reported since the Easter bombings by Islamic extremists two weeks ago that killed more than 250 people.
A state of emergency has been in place since then, with warnings that more attacks are possible. Catholic churches were closed for a second weekend, and Muslims are under security surveillance and subjected to hate comments on social media.
Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith in a video message circulated on social media appealed for calm.
"So far we have dealt with our problems with patience and wisdom and I ask everyone to continue in that manner," he said
Military spokesman Sumith Atapattu said Sunday that several people had been injured in clashes in Negombo, where St. Sebastian's Church was targeted in the attacks carried out by bombers who had pledged support for the Islamic State group.
Ethnic clashes aren't new to Sri Lanka. A civil war between rebels from the minority Tamil community and the Buddhist Sinhalese-majority government ended in 2009.
Most of Sri Lanka's majority ethnic Sinhalese are Buddhists, but Negombo has a majority Sinhalese Catholic community.