On the face of it, things are changing in Myanmar. And were change to be gauged by the unprecedented level of freedom enjoyed by the press, the new course on which the South East Asian nation has embarked would seem to be real, although still fraught with uncertainties and dangers.
A report released last week by Reporters Without Borders (RWB), entitled ‘The Burmese Spring’, bears witness to the steps toward democracy taken over the past couple of years by the military dictatorship, which, for half a century, has ruled the country formerly known as Burma.
Like RWB, Article 19, another NGO devoted to the fight for freedom of information, was allowed into Myanmar and even opened an office in Yangon, in response to requests by Myanmar’s Generation ’88, a group of social and political activists established in 1988 after the military bloodily suppressed a movement for democracy.
While RWB experts worked on their first special report, Article 19 activists launched a beginners’ guide to freedom of expression in both English and Burmese, covering the regulation of the print media, of the broadcasting business, and of the ethical and professional codes for journalists and citizen journalists working through the Internet. At the same time they organized workshops for editors, lawyers, political activists, MPs and human rights defenders, trying to illustrate what the new government is expected to do — and not to do — in order to respect, protect, guarantee and fulfil the right to freedom of expression and information.
The very fact that last year RWB and Article 19 were able to send their representatives into Myanmar weighs on the positive side of the scale. For 25 years, RWB had been on a blacklist compiled by the military regime, but last August the ban was lifted within the frame of reforms promoted by the government of President Thein Sein, a former general, aimed at easing restrictions on the media and on the circulation of information.
Divesting himself of his uniform, Thein Sein was appointed as head of government in March 2011 by junta strong man Than Shwe, who launched the new course while taking a back seat in the actual management of national politics and opening the way to democratic parliamentary elections.
Unlike previous occasions–in 1990 and 2010–the 2012 voting round was deemed substantially free and fair and, just like in 1988, it decreed an overwhelming victory for the main opposition force, the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Prize laureate Aung Sang Suu Kyii. But people were called to the polls only after the regime had enacted a new constitution which guarantees the Union Solidarity and Development Party — the political organization endorsed by the generals — to retain a number of deputies in the country’s bi-cameral Union Assembly, thus ensuring that the military will steadfastly remain at the helm of the country at least for a few more years.
After all, as openly stated by Chief Justice Aung Toe, who in 2008 headed the commission in charge of the new constitution, when drafting the new main body of laws the commission “adhered strictly to its six objectives, including giving the Tatmadaw (the Armed Forces) the leading political role in the future state.”
Having said that, in the past year “there has been historic progress for the media and the ground covered (on this front) by the government has been striking, as evidenced in the recently announced revision of the repressive laws affecting the print media,” a recent RWB report points out, adding that “the release of imprisoned journalists and the end of prior censorship represent the start of a new era for Burma’s journalists.”
To be clear, censorship per se is still in place, but since August 2012 news reports and opinions aired through the media no longer need to be approved by the military ‘before’ being published or broadcasted, or be cleansed of any ‘forbidden’ content, as has routinely been done for decades. This regime of censorship has restricted the scope of contents until now covered by Burmese media, which have been basically mouthpieces for official policies or have limited themselves to non controversial stories about sports and the entertainment business.
It is certainly positive though that in 2012, for the first time since 1996, no media professionals or journalists were imprisoned in Burma on the grounds of their activities, as a report published at the beginning of this year by the international, New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) emphasizes.
To corroborate its willingness to make way for more media freedom, on 28 December 2012 the Myanmar Information Ministry announced that the publication of privately owned, independent dailies will be permitted as of next 1 April, ending the monopoly on information held thus far by the government. All independent dailies were forced to shut down in 1964 by a decree of then junta strong man Ne Win, who nationalized all private businesses.
In spite of the steps taken towards change, no legal provisions guaranteeing effective protection for journalists have yet been worked out and no formal assurances have been given to Burmese journalists who throughout the past decades had left the country as self-imposed exiles to avoid imprisonment and who have now returned. The absence of such guarantees, RWB’s experts caution, may induce journalists to still censor themselves, well aware of the dangers in upsetting the military with controversial reports.
It should also be noted that, while prior censorship has been suspended, the national censorship bureau — called Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) — is still working around the clock to process all the information produced in the country, despite promises repeatedly made by the government that this watchdog agency would be dismantled by August 2012. Formally, the PSRD still holds the power to suspend any publication or radio or TV programme deemed to run counter to national interests. Witness to this are the “many legal proceedings” started by the PSRD throughout 2012 against privately owned weeklies, the RWB’s report underlines, while calling on the international community to keep an eye on the progress of reforms being made in Myanmar.
Censorship aside, it should also be taken into account that the creation of new media enterprises, especially daily papers and TV networks, is something that only cash rich companies can afford and that to this day practically all of the main business groups or major sized companies are run by the generals’ cronies.
Even when new media entities do start to reach the Burmese people, it remains to be seen how much they can say on some of the most controversial issues, such as those related to what is going on in border areas ravaged by wars between government forces and rebels belonging to organized ethnic minorities.
While foreign journalists are still routinely refused visas to enter the country, Burmese journalists have no way to access these sensitive zones. They can try to reach them only by leaving their homeland in order to re-enter through the mountainous, porous, jungle-covered borders with Thailand, China or India.
The recent crisis in Kachin state is a prime example. In this northern state, rich in gold, jade, precious stones and precious woods, in June 2011 an armistice between the Kachin Independence Army and the government was abruptly broken, thus returning a good part of northern Myanmar bordering on China and India to what has been a state of armed conflict for decades. The national armed forces launched a new, massive offensive toward the beginning of December 2012. After initially admitting to a surge in hostilities, the government later denied that any major military activity was under way, even when reports coming through China, and circulated by foreign media, were sounding the alarm to the international community, stressing that Myanmar’s military had resorted to using fighter jets to heavily bomb villages.
The degree of the offensive was such that the United Nations called on Myanmar’s government for restraint. Faced with the impossibility of denying what had been going on, but still trying to minimize the actual size of the offensive, in mid January Myanmar announced that a truce had been reached in Kachin state. At the same time though, Kachin rebels’ representatives and spokespersons for the over 75.000 Kachin people who since 2011 have been forced by hostilities to find refuge in China, denounced the truce as a lie to international media. Of all this, little or no mention was made in Myanmar officially sponsored media.
What was known in the country came through reports — in English — relayed by major international TV networks, such as Al Jazeera, the BBC, CNN or the Singapore based Channel News Asia, to which only a few thousand Burmese homes have access.
Some information did leak to the general public through reports published on the Internet. But in Myanmar the digital network relies on exceedingly slow connections and the households having access to such new media are a very small fraction of the overall population of a little over 60 million people. In addition, all the information available on the world wide web about these nationally sensitive issues is mostly in English, except for a handful of Internet sites run by Burmese exiles which are routinely blocked by the government and must constantly change their servers in order to keep working. The most active among these is certainly the webzine published by the Irrawaddy magazine, which has its main office in Thailand.
The most recent developments have seen the opening of local offices by both Irrawaddy and Mizzima, whose staffs are now at least partially based in-country and appear to enjoy a good degree of freedom of movement.
What holds true for reports on the activities of the military in Kachin state also applies to most border states: Shan State, where the Shan State Army fights for the independence of areas inhabited by the Shan minority; Kayin State, where the Karen National Liberation Army is fighting for the independence of the Karen people; or Arakan State, which has a sizable Muslim minority leading a far from peaceful coexistence with the Buddhist majority, are just a few examples of what is happening on a wider scale.
Returning to the news available through the Internet, it must be stressed that Myanmar rates very low in the ranking of freedom of information compiled by RWB, not only because sites dealing with sensitive issues are routinely blocked, especially the ones run by exiled Burmese journalists, but also because bloggers who speak too freely easily end up in prison.
According to the annual report published last year by RWB, while only 2% of Burmese households have access to the Internet, Burma remains among the world’s worst countries for Internet freedom, despite signs of an opening in its draconian media environment. After denouncing how President Thein Sein’s administration tightened restrictions on Internet cafes only two months after coming to power in 2011, RWB concedes that improvements were made later on, including the release of jailed bloggers and the unblocking of some sites considered subversive by the junta.
A new media law is currently being debated in parliament. Supposedly this new law could overturn many existing laws, which effectively criminalise politically independent journalists, but all of that is still only on paper. And yet something is moving in the direction of reforms and people seem to enjoy an increasing degree of freedom of movement.
The beginning of 2013 certainly marked a time of change, showing that the country may actually emerge from decades of isolation. For the very first time in modern Burmese history, tens of thousands of people were allowed to gather in a large field in Yangon to salute and ring in the new year with cheering, toasting, singing and firework displays. National celebrities and stars joined the gathering, which took place against the backdrop of the city’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda, on a stage where a large screen showed live New Year’s Eve countdowns in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
For the occasion, presidential adviser Ko Ko Hlaing said that “this event is a very good outlet, particularly for young people.” At the same time he expressed the hope that this kind of celebration could “help build mutual understanding between the people and the government.” Until now, any gathering of multitudes had been strictly prohibited and repressed, the only exception being the celebration of the New Burmese Year staged in Yangon in April last year and the official firework displays organized every year on Armed Forces Day. The military remains the biggest employer in the country and, according to U.N. data, every year absorbs a quarter of the annual budget.
Now that the opposition has an official presence in the national parliament and seeing that even some street protests have been allowed, there is hope that the change will actually take root. Outside big cities, however, there are few signs of these new winds of change. People in rural areas remain burdened by oppressive poverty and local communities’ representatives line the main roads of the country, holding big tin bowls and asking for donations to their communities.
Outside the big cities, where electricity is provided on a very irregular basis, poverty has not in any way been eased by economic policy reforms, which have rather created different parallel economies within the country. While a meal in a café at a mall in Yangon or Mandalay costs on average the equivalent of five to ten U.S. dollars, a construction worker barely makes a couple of dollars a day and a high school teacher is paid a little over 100 dollars a month. Social and civil rights activists still denounce continuing human rights violations, the forced recruitment of children in the armed forces, the use of political and common prisoners for heavy construction works, countless cases of abuse of power on part of the local top brass, and abysmal health care conditions throughout the country.