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HANOI: Myanmar government leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday the jailing of two Reuters journalists had nothing to do with freedom of expression and they can appeal against their seven-year sentences.

Suu Kyi, in her first public comment on the case since the two were convicted last week, referred to the colonial-era law under which they were charged. “They were not jailed because they were journalists, they were jailed because ... the court has decided that they have broken the Official Secrets Act,” she said at a conference of the World Economic Forum in Hanoi, Vietnam.

She made her comments in response to a question from a forum moderator who asked whether she felt comfortable about the reporters being jailed. The journalists, Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, were convicted on official secrets charges last Monday in a landmark case that has raised questions about Myanmar’s progress towards democracy.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley described Suu Kyi’s remarks as “unbelievable”. “First in denial about the abuse the Burmese military placed on the Rohingya, now justifying the imprisonment of the two Reuters reporters who reported on the ethnic cleansing. Unbelievable,” Haley wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

The two reporters, who had pleaded not guilty, were investigating the killing of 10 villagers from the Muslim Rohingya minority by the Myanmar security forces at the time of their arrest.

Earlier on Thursday, Suu Kyi said that in hindsight, her government could have handled the Rakhine State situation better. “There are of course ways in which we, with hindsight, might think that the situation could have been handled better,” she said. “But we believe that for the sake of long-term stability and security we have to be fair to all sides ... We cannot choose and pick who should be protected by the rule of law.”

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2018