Forward, back goes Myanmar transition

Ayee Macaraig
The controversy over a media bill in Myanmar reflects the country's unfinished democratic transition

GOLD RUSH. Myanmar's opening up sparked a gold rush but the country's journalists and political observers warn that the democratic transition is still incomplete. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

YANGON, Myanmar – These days, this city is the place to be. Businessmen and tourists flock the narrow streets of Yangon, the former capital of what once was a tightly locked country. Kyaw Zwa Moe also found his way here. It is not investment or a visit to the golden pagodas that he is after. His trip is a homecoming.

An exiled journalist for 13 years, Kyaw Zwa Moe returned last year to Myanmar, also known as Burma. He was forced to flee to Chiang Mai, Thailand after spending 8 years in jail for his role as a then 19-year-old student activist. Rapid developments in his homeland lured him back.

“Now we can publish this magazine which was banned in the past 20 years,” he said, holding up a copy of The Irrawaddy, where he is editor of the English edition. His elder brother Aung Zaw, also a former exile journalist, founded the magazine in 1999 to give readers in and out of Myanmar an alternative to propaganda. 

“In the past, if someone was found with this magazine in Burma, he could be sentenced for 20 years. That is change,” Kyaw Zwa Moe told Rappler in an interview at The Irrawaddy’s new Yangon office. 

The abolition of censorship forms part of the political and economic reforms that transformed Myanmar from the region’s pariah to its flavor of the month. When the generals dissolved the notorious military junta after 50 years in 2011, US President Barack Obama, Google’s Eric Schmidt and other world leaders and business titans came one after another, hailing the so-called Burmese spring. Global interest is high in the country strategically situated between China, India and Southeast Asia. 

Kyaw Zwa Moe isn’t as euphoric. He points to the media uproar over a bill that resembles laws from the censorship era. Two years after the reforms began, he and observers say the controversy in his industry is a snapshot of where the country’s democratic transition is now. 

“I think it is going around, not moving forward and not moving backward. We are stuck at the moment. I don’t know where we are now,” he said.  

'WE'RE STUCK.' Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English edition of newsmagazine Irrawaddy, says reforms in his country are stuck and uncertain. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Media honeymoon over?

Forward and back may very well describe the city at the center of change. Dilapidated buildings from the British colonial rule now share Yangon’s skyline with new towers of multinationals.

Men in the traditional longyi, a cloth worn around the waist, and women with the thanaka facial paste walk the street under a Samsung billboard ad for the Southeast Asian Games, which Myanmar is hosting in December for the first time in 4 decades. 

OLD, NEW. Yangon's classic pagodas and old colonial buildings now share the view with buildings under construction as the country's real estate market booms to meet investor demand. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Billboards of foreign brands are not the only novelty here. Newsstands now carry 12 private daily newspapers and counting, something journalists like Kyaw Min Swe only dreamed of years back.

“That’s incredible change for us,” he said while manually editing the now daily and weekly versions of The Voice in a newsroom a few steps away from Myanmar’s majestic Sule Pagoda. 

He recalls the days he had to submit his newspaper to the Ministry of Information’s (MOI) infamous Press Scrutiny and Registration Division that checked every inch of space and crossed out with red ink content it did not want to see print. Known as “literary torture,” the practice is now a thing of the past after the MOI closed down the bureau last year.

The lifting of censorship ushered in what journalists call a honeymoon period with the government but this may be short-lived. Kyaw Min Swe’s expression turns grim as he discussed the MOI’s Printing and Publishing Enterprise bill that the Lower House of parliament passed in July.  

His Interim Myanmar Press Council (MPC) was up in arms, saying the bill pre-empted its media code of conduct, which the government tasked the group to draft in the first place. The printing bill also excluded changes journalists proposed to the MOI after the ministry first submitted the measure to parliament in February to their surprise.  

MOI’s deputy minister Ye Htut did not respond to Rappler e-mail requests for comment. In past interviews, he said that the printing bill is not meant for journalists but for the printing industry.

The press council did not buy it. Its members called the bill a step back to the censorship days by allowing an MOI registration officer to control journalists through their publishers. The bill authorizes the ministry to issue and revoke licenses of publishers for violations like “aggrieving races and religions and portraying obscenity,” and to announce even more rules.

'WE'RE READY.' The Voice chief editor Kyaw Min Swe says contrary to the mindset of the government, Burmese journalists are ready for democracy and need not be controlled. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Kyaw Min Swe, MPC spokesperson and secretary, said the measure effectively gives the ministry administrative, legislative and judicial powers. 

“In the past, only one organization controlled all 3 powers: the military. So the government looks at everything like the old regime. They look at every sector as not ready. ‘The people are not ready to accept democracy.’”

He countered, “We are ready but we are not perfect. Sometimes, we make mistakes but the judiciary should decide.” 

Since then, Kyaw Min Swe and the press council have been meeting with members of parliament including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the MOI and even President Thein Sein in search of a compromise. The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Zwa Moe would have taken a different route if he had his way.

“We don’t really need a Ministry of Information in a democratic society. What I want is to just eradicate this department out of this world.”

“But when you look at the political transformation in this country, it’s still premature. The government is just comprised of the former military generals. They just changed their costumes. Journalists are aware of this that’s why they try to negotiate with the MOI,” said Kyaw Zwa Moe.

An editorial cartoon of The Irrawaddy newsmagazine in August on the controversy surrounding the Ministry of Information's printing and publishing enterprise bill. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Unlike EDSA and Arab Spring

The issue is an illustration of what an international development practitioner in Myanmar calls the “two steps forward, one step backward phenomenon” in the democratic transition. The source working for donor agencies spoke to Rappler on condition of anonymity so as not to compromise his work.

He explained that the media liberalization, like other political and economic reforms, is top-down. “It’s being led by a very small group of people unlike revolutions in other places. Arab Spring, EDSA People Power, none of that happened here.”

This small group of reformists led by the President struggles against hardliners who want to retain power and wealth in a country where big business, some newspapers and even the Myanmar beer are said to be tied to cronies of the former junta. 

“Reform is never linear. There are many phases to this reform process. Some are easy to do, window-dressing reforms like releasing political prisoners. No losers there. But at a certain point and I think we’ve reached that point, reforms will begin to bump into very strong vested interests,” the development worker said.

He pointed out that Myanmar has yet to start a process to hold the former junta accountable for human rights violations akin to South Africa’s Truth Commission.

Reforms also get more complex as the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) position for the 2015 presidential elections, he said.

Journalist and MPC member Myint Kyaw made the same observation. “The government would like to show that the media is free but the other factor is if the media is free, they will report issues like on the former [generals]. Their business interests will be the subject of investigative reporting and they worry about that.”

DAILY NEWS. Private daily newspapers are sold on the streets of Yangon after decades of pre-publication censorship. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Prison: University of life

Besides the premature nature of reforms, the media debate also exposed challenges in the transition: Myanmar’s weak institutions and huge capacity gap.

Ramon Tuazon, a media development specialist at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Yangon, said that while journalists were correct in highlighting the role courts should play in the law, there is a problem. “The country lacks a strong, functioning judiciary.”

Even Suu Kyi’s NLD has not yet flexed its political muscle. The democracy icon and her party were criticized for their initial silence on the printing bill.

NLD co-founder, respected journalist and former political prisoner Win Tin was the exception. He condemned the measure but admitted that the party has yet to strengthen its ranks and formulate its policies on media.

“Of course, we strive for democracy and we understand the importance of freedom of the press but for practicality, we don’t know how to develop it yet. We still have some deficiency because for 50 years, [the military rule stunted] our development. Maybe if we can set up our own administration, we will try but at the same time, now we have many friends in the media and we will have to help them.”

Be it in courts, parliament or newsrooms, the capacity gap in Myanmar is yawning. Fearing student-organized protests especially after the 1988 uprising, the old junta gutted down the education system. Kyaw Zwa Moe said the former generals imprisoned the country’s best minds.  

In prison, he first learned journalism by smuggling books and copies of Time and Newsweek. “Sometimes, I get just one sheet of paper and I just kept reading it again and again until it was worn out.”

“Many intelligent people, educated people and the young students from the universities were detained. Prison is the place where they met and discussed and came out to become leaders of the country. That’s why we call it the university of life.”

WEAK COURTS. Observers say the judiciary in Myanmar remains weak and lacks independence. This is Myanmar's old colonial High Court building in downtown Yangon located across the Independence Monument. Photo by Rappler/Ayee Macaraig, 2013 SEAPA Fellow

Critical moment

Despite the obstacles, journalists see that they have a role to play in the transition process.

The press council scored some gains in the media debate, with the Upper House of parliament approving some of their amendments in the printing bill. The measure goes back to the Lower House before parliament makes a final decision.

The council’s Kyaw Min Swe said, “If we can explain well, they can understand that we are not doing this for our sake. If we convince all sectors that we are doing this for the sake of the people and the nation, even if they are different parties, they will accept. I have optimism for the future.”

UNESCO’s Tuazon sees the journalists’ response to the debate as a step forward. “Press freedom is improving. In this divisive issue, you see media is no longer timid and it’s able to express its views, contrary views in fact. This is a healthy sign.”

Yet for Kyaw Zwa Moe, the fate of the media and political change in his country is uncertain. Much like the construction work near his office building in downtown Yangon and the rest of the city, reforms are still unfinished.

He knows that the struggle he started as a teenage activist, political prisoner, exiled journalist, and now editor in his own country is also far from over.

“We have to combine the mental, physical and intellectual power to move this country, to keep moving this country. It is a very important, critical moment for us. To predict what will happen in this country is premature.” –

This story was written under the Southeast Asian Press Alliance Annual Journalism Fellowship (SAF) Program 2013. Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig is one of the 6 fellows of the program.

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