Burma: A Reporter Looks Back

In a country long silenced, people are speaking truth to power.
A commentary by Dan Southerland
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Comedian Zarganar (C) is welcomed by supporters following his release from prison, Oct. 12, 2011
Comedian Zarganar (C) is welcomed by supporters following his release from prison, Oct. 12, 2011

A visitor to Burma coming back for the first time in 38 years sees much that has changed, but also much that endures.

A country that seemed frozen in time now speaks in many voices—some of them voices that were once silenced.

Talking with a dissident no longer requires a furtive meeting at midnight far from one’s hotel.

But one thing in Burma’s largest city of Rangoon, at least, hasn’t changed—something hard to define but easily noticed on arrival: an eagerness on the part of many Burmese to welcome outsiders.

Now they can show this more openly.

The public’s fear of the isolationist military dictators who dominated the country for nearly half a century now seems to be fading as a result of political reforms, although those reforms have yet to prove lasting.

Speaking truth to power

As The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos wrote in a recent blog, no one “seems more energized by the signs of political change” than Burmese journalists.

But when I arrived in Rangoon on a short visit in early August, Burma’s nominally civilian government had just shut down two weekly journals.

They also censored a cartoon that offended some of the country’s still-influential generals.

If the shutdowns were meant by hard-liners among the generals to intimidate an increasingly assertive press though, they failed.

Journalists donned black T-Shirts that read “Stop Killing Media” and launched protests in the cities of Rangoon, Mandalay, and Monywa.

The government then lifted the ban on TheVoice Weekly and Envoy  magazine, declaring that it had intended all along for the ban to be temporary.

During my visit in August, I met informally with several Burmese editors who clearly recognize that hard-liners can still reverse the progress that has been made toward a society in which the media can speak truth to power.

But the government then took another step forward on Aug. 20, removing requirements that journalists submit articles on politics or religion to state censors for review before publication.

On Aug. 27, the government announced a cabinet reshuffle that included the reassignment of Kyaw Hsan, the information and culture minister, who was regarded as a hard-liner on media issues.

Some restrictions remain

But private daily newspapers continue to be banned and regulations against publishing information “harmful to state security” remain in place.

And a 2004 law still on the books states that it is unlawful to use electronic transactions to receive or send information relating to “state security.”

Broadly interpreted, this law could severely restrict the flow of information via the Internet and send a violator  to prison for up to 15 years.

Meanwhile, the biggest issue for the media at the moment may be the government’s formation of a press council whose aim is to compile a code of journalistic ethics and settle press disputes.

The press council is expected to replace a much-maligned censorship board, but editors say that the make-up of the members of the new council does not bode well for press freedom.

Building trust

Kyaw Min Swe, chief editor of The Voice Weekly, says that pro-democracy groups and the military now need to learn better how to negotiate and compromise.

“We need to learn to speak to each other without emotion,” he says. “We need trust-building.”

This, of course, will take time. Just as it will take time to reform the judicial system, provide for a more open investment environment, and, perhaps most difficult of all, resolve the Burmese government’s conflicts with a multitude of ethnic groups.

In Kachin state, a cease-fire collapsed and fighting continues against rebel insurgents.

And in Rakhine State, tensions still simmer between ethnic Rakhine and the Rohingya minority following an outbreak of violence in June that left dozens of people on both sides dead and tens of thousands displaced.

Moving at top speed

Meanwhile, journalists, artists, poets, and filmmakers act as if they must forge ahead at top speed in order to make up for lost time.

No one epitomizes this sense of urgency more than Zarganar, a comedian and documentary filmmaker, who was jailed several times in the late 1980s and 90s.

He was given a 59-year prison sentence in 2008 for criticizing the government’s failure to adequately aid disaster victims after a cyclone killed more than 140,000 Burmese.

Zarganar himself launched relief efforts to help the victims, but the government imprisoned him for it.

Zarganar, whose real name is Ko Thura, spent a total of 11 years in Burma’s jails and was released from his last prison term only toward the end of last year.

Today he has resumed with a vengeance his role as a critic of government malfeasance.

So far in this year alone, he’s organized a film festival, created a company to produce documentaries, and screened a film about the government’s 2007 crackdown on protesters.

Zarganar is currently working on a film about a company that is attempting to evict hundreds of villagers from a copper mining site. The mining project is a joint venture between a Burmese company and a Chinese one.

He shows me raw footage for the film of a Burmese police officer waving a pistol in the air and yelling at a protesting village woman to “shut up.”

The woman refuses to shut up. And I conclude this may be the most important change taking hold at the moment: Many Burmese are no longer willing to remain silent.  

Burma’s greatest asset

I made my first trip to Burma in 1973 on a 48-hour tourist visa. The country was normally off limits to reporters at the time.

In 1974, I was able to get a one-week visa that allowed me to visit Mandalay as well as Rangoon. And thanks to Burmese contacts, I got out to the countryside to talk with several farmers.

But there were limits to what I could do.

On that trip, I stayed at the old colonial-era Strand Hotel. And I recall that an opponent of General Ne Win’s dictatorial government insisted that we couldn’t meet at the hotel because, he said, too many of the government’s secret agents were there.

But despite widespread public fear at that time of informers and the secret police, one Burmese family invited me into their home for a cup of tea and gave me their view of the country’s situation.

I wrote afterward that “Burma’s greatest asset is its people.”

I think that still holds true today.

Dan Southerland is RFA's Executive Editor





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