In 2010, when the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell visited Burma with Chargé d’Affaires Larry Dinger, all publications in the country were heavily censored and journalists were subject to arrest for any infraction. Censorship from the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division was so heavy that using Aung San Suu Kyi’s name in print or showing her photograph publicly was forbidden. Doing so gratuitously was an act that could get a journalist a prison sentence of several years. The responsible publication would have been forced to close.
In May 2010, international onlookers saw a photograph of Suu Kyi with Campbell and Dinger that accompanied stories of the visit. In 2010 a new spotlight on The Lady was refreshing for the world to see and indeed the photograph displayed a feeling of hopefulness. Meanwhile, inside Burma’s oppressed labyrinthine world of censorship and misinformation, The New Light of Myanmar published the same photo but without Suu Kyi. It showed Campbell and Dinger standing five feet apart looking inward while holding umbrellas over at a vacant space where Suu Kyi should have been.
At that time I was teaching a group of student journalists at the American Center in Rangoon. When the Burmese government version of the photo appeared, with Suu Kyi edited out, all of my students laughed at the calamity. However my journalism students also acted, deciding to publish the original photo of Suu Kyi, Campbell and Dinger in the inaugural issue of the American Centre student publication, Open Window Journal, in defiance of the censorship board.
The decision to print the photo wasn’t one made casually. Several months earlier, aggressive undercover police threatened students at the corner teashop near the American Center. They were told not to get involved with journalism. Those students quickly left the American Center never to return, except for one who continued working with Open Window Journal. A new batch of students knew of this and yet unanimously voted to move forward.
Though new to journalism, the students were not new to politics. They fully understood the risks involved. One of the students on the journal had appeared in the movie Burma VJ as a protestor rushing the attacking line of police on the day of the 2007 Saffron Revolution in Rangoon. He later escaped Rangoon and spent a year up-country in a village home of a relative. Two others had a brother and a father who were political prisoners. Another had a brother who was marked for death after the Saffron Revolution, who had absconded to a refugee camp in Thailand and then asylum in a Western country.
We met several times a day over a month and discussed the consequences of each story. As the journal is published in English, we discussed how the stories translated into Burmese and would be read by censors. The student journalists made the calls on everything. I would take the blame if anything came up and if I got deported, so be it. If that were all that would have happened it would have been ok. I was actually afraid for my students since if arrested, there would be no one to help them.
Much of the entire first issue was considered controversial. There were stories of topics not usually printed or even discussed openly in public. One story was of a woman who contracted HIV; one on the persistent daily electricity shortages; one on the long-term drought’s effects on the elderly and villagers, and the government inaction to alleviate their suffering; another on water donations made to them by students and activists; a subversive poem; and a second photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi.
No one feared for their own safety as much as for the safety of their family members. The former military government was famous for punishing entire families for the political actions of one family member. It was a very effective way to keep youth out of political activism. Yet, the students made the decision to distribute. Later in the day the censorship board called the US Embassy.
The censorship office declared the Open Window Journal must limit distribution to 150 copies. They could only be distributed to American Center students and library patrons; however the students were told they would not be held accountable for the journal being found outside of the American Center.
Nevertheless, the backlash from the censorship office was unnerving to the students and they kept a low profile, stayed home or visited relatives. While in the following weeks there was some minor harassment by undercover police, Special Branch police and Military Intelligence operatives, we were most agitated by some of the American Center students rumored to be working for the police as informants. The American Center in 2010 was a hot zone for spies who were paid money to report information on people and activities there. The local Burmese administrative workers tipped us off to them, but there were certainly others who were more discrete and unknown. Yet, the student journalist and other activists refused to live with fear.
When in June 2013 Burma decreed an end to press censorship, its leading proponent Tint Swe said, “There will be no going back to the past.” Yet there is no unhindered freedom of the press as was promised. The press freedom allowed today is merely half-measures designed to placate international opinion of the so-called reforms underway in Burma. The jailing of Zaw Pe, a journalist for the DVB, and the imprisonment of several journalists from Unity journal is a typical example of government doubletalk on press freedom and political reforms. This is the real nature of the still military controlled “civilian” government. It fears transparency.
Burma today is as far from being a democracy as it was in 2010. Its leaders are backsliding, imprisoning journalists again, imprisoning land rights activists, instigating land seizures, still waging wars in ethnic regions, and letting ethnic division in Arakan State slip dangerously close to a preventable genocide of Rohingya people. Many of Burma’s government cronies and politicians say they want to enforce “disciplined democracy.”
Adding to the problems facing Burma today is the unwillingness of Burma’s military elite to allow Suu Kyi to campaign outside of her own district in support of her fellow National League for Democracy candidates in the upcoming 2015 elections. They have also begun a campaign to resist the very public campaign being waged by Suu Kyi to repeal an article in Burma’s Constitution that prohibits her from running for president. The military leaders and parliamentarians opposing Suu Kyi claim that crowds of NLD supporters gathering in the last election reminded them of the 1988 uprising. They claimed that the people who rallied by the hundreds of thousands to see Aung San Suu Kyi were “too free”.
There are far too many people in Burma who have nothing to lose; who eat small bowls of rice; who can’t afford the low cost of sending their children to public schools; who can’t pay a doctor with cash when they’re sick. Freedom from shackles and fetters is not the only freedom tens of thousands of Burma’s ex-political prisoners were seeking when released from prison. Time is no longer on the side of the military government. Burmese people are tired of the past, tired of the abuse, of the lack of electricity, of the neglected infrastructure and they are tired of discipline.
In spite of all of the talk about Burma having turned a corner towards openness, it’s highly probable that national elections scheduled for 2015 will get postponed to a later date to ensure further rule by the military if pressure for real reforms becomes threatening to the military rulers. Too many people assume things in Burma are going well, when in fact all past indicators point to political and social upheaval leading toward a relapse into disciplinarianism.
Which way will Burma turn? The current parliamentarians and military leaders who last year were scared by memories of 500,000 “too free” people in the streets supporting Aung San Suu Kyi as seen in 1988 could be in for a shock if they don’t stop their double-talk and capitulating on political progress and fundamental reforms. They may see two million “too free” people in the streets next year.
One way or another, in 2015 there will be change in Burma. By imprisoning journalists the current government has plainly demonstrated they have limits to how much freedom they’re willing to tolerate.
However there will be no going back to the days of shackles and fetters for tens of thousands of democracy activists.
Daniel Opacki is an educator, consultant and writer. He was an English Language Fellow grantee in Burma from 2010 – 12. For over five years in Burma, he has taught journalism, mentored democracy activists and ex-political prisoners, and worked on human rights issues and educational initiatives. He is currently completing a collection of true stories about his time in Burma titled Five Years in Burma: Stories from the Eye of the Storm.
The comments and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.