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Among the small but growing number of foreign journalists that nervously gathered at the eastern end of Rangoon’s University Avenue Road on 12 November 2010, there were two distinct schools of thought: the first said every one of them would be rounded up, yelled at by a high-ranking police officials backed by plain-clothes spooks and promptly dispatched to the airport to catch the first plane to Bangkok. The second argued the exact opposite – that at this particularly time foreign journalists were, for once, welcome in Burma.
Had the government preferred to expel this couple of dozen foreign journalists during the period of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release it would have done, but it didn’t. So despite efforts by the BBC’s John Simpson to sex up his subsequent interview with Suu Kyi, putting the footage in one car and himself in the other before heading straight to the airport, the truth is there was little or no threat. For the regime, releasing its archenemy was a good news story and it wanted the world to know about it.
A similar process is happening now. Enter the words Burma or Myanmar into Google News and the result is a list of headlines littered with words such as ‘reform’, ‘change’ and ‘democracy’.
Inside the country it is little different. Not so long ago the prospect of The Irrawaddy’s exiled editor Aung Zaw visiting Burma, or a political prisoner staring out from the front page of a news journal, or representatives of the BBC or VOA taking part in a media workshop in Rangoon, would have been unthinkable. Yet all have happened in the past few weeks.
So is this the end of more than half a century of censorship in Burma? That depends on just how comfortable this increasingly confident regime feels and what threats it fears remain. In every single country that implements censorship the reason for doing so is always the same – to prevent the spread of information deemed a threat.
Only when that threat is diminished or ceases to exist do governments ease censorship, such as in England at the end of both the first and second world wars when there was no longer an enemy to take advantage of perceived military secrets. Or in South Korea in 1987 when the new government saw press liberalisation as a means to fend off the threat posed by seemingly endless demonstrations.
In Burma, while the regime apparently feels confident a number of its chief threats have waned, others still remain. This is clearly demonstrated by the government’s current policy on censorship which, far from being rigidly codified in theory, is in practice as fluid as the political tides of the time.
In a video conference organised by the US council on Foreign Relations at the end of November, Suu Kyi picked apart what had become acceptable in new Burma’s rapidly evolving public sphere. In negotiating with the authorities the publication of some of her writings, it was decided the term ‘political prisoners’ at that time was still unacceptable. Could the simple term ‘prisoners’ be used instead, the censors wondered? Suu Kyi replied this was not acceptable because she was referring specifically to people put in prison for their political views. Eventually, the term ‘prisoners of conscience’ was deemed suitable by both sides.
Two months later, after the regime released a wave of political prisoners and journalists, including a number from DVB, their images appeared on the front pages of Burmese journals including The Messenger. For the regime, it was the latest of an ever-growing number of good news stories it wanted people inside and outside the country to know about. Threats to the regime remain, however, and these remain off limits in the Burmese press.
Censors in recent weeks have continued to block any reference to the extent to which the November 2010 elections fell below international standards or criticism of the 2008 constitution. For the Burmese government, these two subjects remain the foundation – however flawed – on which it has managed to annul the results of its landslide election loss in 1990 and reverse this loss with a heavily criticised win of equal proportions 20 years later. The truth that Burma’s path to democracy originates with a process of wholly undemocratic proportions remains the main threat to the legitimacy of the new nominally civilian government.
The other main thorn in the regime’s side is, of course, Suu Kyi but the nature of this threat has altered significantly and can at times be used as an opportunity, especially in the current climate of positivity.
With Suu Kyi’s 1990 election win officially annulled and the process of a stage-managed transition to democracy all but complete, her threat has changed into one which is much more easily contained. Having been married to a foreigner she cannot assume power, according to the new constitution, and so the government is happy for her and the NLD to contest April’s by-election for a fraction of the available seats in parliament. This will surely lead to further praise from the international community and depends on the likes of the US, EU and the UN knowing about it as far and wide as possible, which is where the media comes in.
While the government’s mouthpiece the New Light of Myanmar no longer feels it necessary to run crude propaganda pieces criticising opponents of the regime, it still feels much more comfortable running articles on failed interventions in places like Afghanistan than it does human rights violators under scrutiny. While the crackdown on the Syrian uprising has dominated headlines across the world, not a single mention of the violence there has made it into Burma’s state-run press. Similarly, no mention has been made of China and Russia coming to Syria’s rescue in the UN Security Council, a situation the Burmese regime itself faced almost exactly five years ago.
The much celebrated press law currently under consideration by the government and due for discussion in parliament later this year will surely consider all these threats and opportunities in defining the parameters of what can and cannot appear in Burma’s rapidly reforming public domain. Given the recent confidence demonstrated by President Thein Sein’s government, Burma’s media, public and the international community have every reason to expect something approaching freedom of the press.
Clive Parker is a freelance journalist and has worked as a reporter at The Myanmar Times and The Irrawaddy.