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Burma’s commerce ministry has given the go-ahead for two leading Thailand-based English-language dailies to be distributed inside the country, but analysts have warned of heavy censorship before they reach the public.
Success International, which distributes Singaporean paper The Straits Times in Burma, announced it received the distribution license for the Bangkok Post and The Nation on Friday, DPA reported. Managing director Nyo Aung said he had been hesitant to request the licenses because of the papers’ stance. “Now the government has changed, so I thought it was a good time to apply for the license,” he told DPA.
Both the Bangkok Post and The Nation have long been critical of the Burmese military’s brutal authoritarian regime. Recent elections, decried by much of the international community as a rigged attempt to paint a democratic veneer on de facto military rule, have failed to blunt that criticism.
In an editorial in April, the Bangkok Post wrote: “The Burmese model of prisons, torture and secret arrests remains government policy; some 2,000 Burmese remain as political prisoners. This is sad, but perhaps not so sad as the way Burma’s neighbours and world opinion has bought into the fake claims that Burma is on the road to democracy.”
The move comes as President Thein Sein’s freshly elected government tries to employ its new “democratic” credentials to expand its role within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Burma even hopes to assume the bloc’s rotating chairmanship in three years’ time.
Last week The Nation poured scorn on such efforts. “Without positive developments in Burma, ASEAN should not even consider allowing it to be chairman of the regional body in 2014,” it wrote. “Since its admission to ASEAN in 1997, Burma has got away with years of brutal atrocities and dubious undertakings.”
But readers inside Burma will almost certainly not be exposed to such content, with both papers facing the scrutiny of Burma’s chief censor, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD).
Zin Linn, the Thailand-based vice chairman of the Burma Media Association, said the PSRD would ban entire issues of the papers if they contained material that displeased the Burmese government. Editions of international news magazines such as Time and Newsweek had recently been banned for featuring coverage of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, he said.
Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher, said the censors would probably cast a wide net, targeting anything that implicitly criticised or threatened the Burmese government’s position. Stories about Thailand’s forthcoming elections, its red- and yellow-shirted protest movements and its population of Burmese refugees could all face the censor’s knife, he said.
“That being the case, I think it’s very difficult to see this as progress by way of freedom of expression,” he said. “It strikes me more as a business deal than it does a sign of any free press progress.”
With the Thai papers likely to be priced at more than 2000 kyat ($US2.30) each – two or three days’ work for an average Burmese worker – and English-language skills in short supply, few Burmese will be able to read either newspaper.
Nevertheless, said Zin Linn, Burma’s weekly political journals will likely attempt to test the censors’ boundaries by translating the content into Burmese. Few had previously dared to do so because the newspapers had to be smuggled into the country. “They were not officially inside Burma.”
Soon, it seems both papers will be “officially inside Burma”. How often they escape the censors’ attentions remains to be seen.