From Myanmar jail, Wa Lone pens children's book on exposing truth
Jay jay is really a young schoolboy reporter searching for answers [Courtesy Kar Gyi/Al Jazeera] always
The mood in the village was tense.
The locals’ animals were dropping dead and their paddy fields were being destroyed. Making use of their livelihoods at an increased risk, the panicking villagers sought assist in prayers, blaming evil spirits for the grave calamity that had gripped their community.
But a schoolboy reporter, recognized to his teachers and peers for his insatiable curiosity, wasn’t convinced, so he attempt to uncover the real reason behind the disaster. Several interviews and a boat journey later, he found that his village’s plight was because of factories polluting a nearby river. The boy’s outstanding reporting, published in the educational school newspaper, prompted authorities to do something, raised awareness about environmental risks and earned him the plaudits of his community.
This may be the whole story of Jay Jay, the primary character of an illustrated children’s book recently published in Myanmar. His fortunes, however, cannot be from the fate of his creator – Wa Lone further, a 32-year-old Reuters journalist incarcerated in a Yangon prison.
One year behind bars
year since Wa Lone
Wednesday marks one, together with his colleague Kyaw Soe Oo, was detained while investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys by Myanmar’s security forces in the village of Inn Din throughout a campaign launched in August 2017 in reaction to attacks by an armed group.
The savage crackdown – where the military completed mass gang and killings rapes with “genocidal intent”, in accordance with UN-mandated investigators – forced a lot more than 700,000 members of the long-persecuted, mostly Muslim minority to flee their homes in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state for neighbouring Bangladesh.
|Kyaw Soe Oo (L) and Wa Lone (R) escorted by police from the Yangon court in September [Thein Zaw/The Associated Press]|
In September, a Yangon court sentenced Wa Kyaw and Lone Soe Oo to seven years in prison, sparking a global outcry over a closely-watched case seen by many as a test of Myanmar’s fledgeling democracy and an alarming attack on media freedoms.
The journalists were convicted for breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act by allegedly obtaining confidential documents throughout their reporting. The pair pleaded not liable, insisting they have been framed by the authorities.
The Myanmar army, meanwhile, acknowledged the executions of the 10 Rohingya villagers following arrest of both reporters, whose investigative work has been lauded with a string of prestigious awards internationally.
Encouraging critical thinking
It was from this backdrop that Ei Pwint Rhi Zan, director of the 3rd Story Project, a social enterprise Wa Lone co-founded in 2014 to create books and distribute them cost-free to disadvantaged children across Myanmar, considered calling her jailed collaborator and friend.
Her idea? Get Wa Lone to create a story in regards to a curious boy always trying to find answers in a bid to encourage critical thinking in children and introduce them to the profession of journalism.
“Initially, we were afraid to ask him since he was under a whole large amount of pressure and within an unpleasant situation,” Ei Pwint Rhi Zan recalls.
“But we also wished to cheer him up and knew he could write it. So we dared to ask him – he was so excited and he started writing immediately.”
In fact, Wa Lone was so eager that his first version was much too miss a children’s book and needed to be decrease substantially.
|Third Story Project says they printed 6,000 copies of the book and contains so donated over fifty percent of these [Courtesy Kar Gyi/Al Jazeera]|
More than putting down what, in the final end, Wa Lone became immersed in the complete process – from identifying the book’s editor (Shwe Mi) and illustrator (Kar Gyi) to suggesting what the illustrations should appear to be, what clothes the characters should wear even.
Drafts were exchanged via his wife Pan Ei Mon, who in August gave birth to the couple’s first child, a child daughter Wa Lone must see personally yet. Pan Ei Mon acted because the intermediary between him and the publishing house during her visits to him at Insein Prison.
“We were really careful never to change what he wished to express, so we closely followed his script very,” Ei Pwint Rhi Zan says. “Besides, we were afraid that folks would tell bad reasons for having him and things would worsen. But luckily, everything is OK and everyone loved the written book he wrote.”
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‘Committed and courageous reporter’
The son of rice farmers, Wa Lone was raised in Kin Pyit, a little village of some 500 people in Shwebo district north of Mandalay. An excellent and inquisitive student, he settled in Yangon eventually, Myanmar’s largest city, this year 2010 and launched an image service business with one of is own brothers.
Soon, he began doing work for local newspapers, creating a name for himself by reporting on Myanmar’s bloody internal conflicts and going to cover the historic 2015 election win of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s party after decades of military rule.
|Wa Lone spent plenty of his leisure time doing charity work, including distributing books to children [Courtesy Yangon Based Youth Volunteers Network/Al Jazeera]|
“Wa Lone was always thoughtful and conscientious, and incredibly focused on his are a journalist,” says Thomas Kean, his former editor at Myanmar Times, which he joined in 2014, 2 yrs before he joined Reuters.
“He saw it as his responsibility to help keep society informed also to fight abuses of power and I believe that is reflected in his great courage in reporting on the killings at Inn Din,” added Kean.
“It’s notable he was among the leaders of the protests in 2014 on the sentencing of journalists to 14 years’ imprisonment beneath the Official Secrets Act – exactly the same law that might be used to imprison him and Kyaw Soe Oo four years later. He recognised the threat these laws posed to his work always, also to journalism and democracy more broadly.”
Described by those near him as an excellent friend and a sort or kind and humble person, the journalist would volunteer a lot of his free time doing charity work – especially helping orphans. Wa Lone himself lost his mother to cancer at a age.
“He could be determined, willing and brave to greatly help people … without hoping to get anything back,” says Ei Pwint Rhi Zan, who met him as a grouped community volunteer in 2012.
Since then, she says, they’ve worked together on a variety of humanitarian projects – from supporting educational activities and building schools to raising money for wells and holding events at camps for internally displaced persons and also getting involved in flood rescue missions.
“He never says ‘no’ whenever we need help for volunteering, and he never says ‘no’ when children need help, too,” Ei Pwint Rhi Zan says.
“Whenever he’d travel, he’d bring the storybooks, read them to children and distribute them. He really loves children and he expressed his love by helping them in various ways.”
|Journalists and activists have already been calling for the journalists’ release [File: Chan Naing/EPA-EFE]|
More Jay Jay stories
It’s unsurprising, then, that Jay Jay the Journalist isn’t Wa Lone’s first offering for Third Story Project, whose a large number of children’s books are published in local languages in addition to English. In 2015, the Gardener was compiled by him, a written book having an environmental message wanting to promote tolerance and harmony.
Nor might it be his last. Ei Pwint Rhi Zan says she’s already received the initial draft of a fresh Wa Lone title for the Jay Jay the Journalist series – this time around featuring “a solid female character”.
“The brand new story is a simple story about Jay Jay and his female friend that are curious and prefer to ask questions. Because we are in need of inside our society to truly have a practice of [children] asking questions and investigating about where they’re living.”
It’s an excellent that both Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo dutifully and uncompromisingly have embodied throughout their journalistic careers – regardless of the grave risks. Year as their time spent behind bars enters its second, colleagues, press and watchdogs freedom groups are calling because of their immediate release, even while sounding the alarm concerning the constant state of democracy in Myanmar.
“Journalists in Myanmar whose reporting challenges the interests of these in power will be at an increased risk while Myanmar has outdated laws just like the Official Secrets Act – and many more – on the books,” says Kean.
“This case was created to send a note to everybody else on the market.”