20 January 2005

Inside Myanmar III: Censor's pen makes it difficult to read between the lines

20 January 2005
The Hindu

Inside Myanmar - III

Censor's pen makes it difficult to read between the lines

Yangon: In the 1949 film, Patanga, Shamshad Begun sang wistfully about waiting for a telephone call from her piyaa, or lover, in Rangoon:

Mere Piyaa Gaye Rangoon
Kiya Hai Vahaan Se Telephoon
Tumhari Yaad Sataati Hai, Jiya Mein Aag Lagaati Hai

In 2005, our Bollywood hero would probably use email to stay in touch from here, but he would have to make sure it's not Hotmail, Gmail, Sify or Yahoo. For along with the hundreds of websites that Myanmar's military rulers block access to, most popular web-based email services are also firewalled out. The idea is to prevent dissident groups (like mizzima.com) from disseminating information within the country. English language newspapers from the West are accessible but Indian news sites weren't until the Indian embassy requested that they be unblocked. One can also access Google without a problem, but a search for the key words `Myanmar' and `human rights' is likely to generate an error message: "Inappropriate search field".

The Internet being what it is, of course, local residents can always open an account with less well-known email providers and receive `contraband' information in their inboxes. And the situation today is a huge improvement over what prevailed earlier, when there was no Net and modems were illegal. But the systematic censorship of the web here suggests the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) government is perfectly capable of adapting its political and administrative practices to the changing technologies and modes of communication that economic openness inevitably brings.

Sanitised pages

As for older media technologies like newspapers, good old-fashioned pre-censorship ensures that Myanmar has the most anodyne, sanitised news pages within 2,000 kilometres of Pyongyang.

If all one reads is English, the only daily newspaper here is the New Light of Myanmar, a Government-run tabloid where the lead story on a typical day last week was, `Senior General Than Shwe enjoys Tatmadaw (Army, Navy and Air) Golf Tournament.' There are virtually no opinion pieces, and editorials deal with such virtuous topics as `Try best to become noble-minded nurses' and `Knowledge of history the key to a better future.' The only news from Myanmar consists of brief accounts of official announcements and visits, though coverage of foreign news — especially from China, and from Iraq — is ample.

In the Burmese language, the situation is better: there is a choice of three state-run dailies. But, in a variation on Henry Ford's dictum on the colour of his cars, you can buy any newspaper you want but the news in them will always be the same. There are a number of private weeklies and fortnightlies, including Myanmar Times, an Australian joint venture. But pre-censorship by the `Literary Works Scrutiny Committee' means the papers' contentis tightly regulated.

Last September, a Burmese business weekly, Dhana, was reportedly suspended after it carried a photograph of the jailed student leader, Min Ko Naing. The photo was actually inadvertent. The paper had interviewed the famous artist, U Thet Nyunt, who happened to be the father of the student leader, and it was a portrait of his son which was visible in one of the photo frames. Today, Dhana is back on the stands. And in one of those bizarre turns of event, Khin Nyunt — the military intelligence chief and Prime Minister who oversaw the censorship process — is in jail while Min Ko Naing is a free man, released by the SPDC in an amnesty following Khin Nyunt's arrest.


The state of the media, of course, closely mirrors the state of politics here. Though the visible trappings of military rule are absent — gone are the ubiquitous hoardings in praise of the Tatmadaw — and Yangon is no longer the economic backwater it was a decade ago, the SPDC regime is in no hurry to usher in a wave of glasnost. The National League for Democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest in May 2002, was rearrested a year later and remains in "protective custody". Since then, the authorities have come up with a `Myanmar Roadmap' to "genuine and disciplined democracy" involving the convening of a National Convention. A number of rallies and meetings with `national race groups' (i.e. ethnic minorities) have been held and the National Convention met in May last year. Though as many as 54 NLD delegates were invited to participate, the party decided to stay away.

While there are many who question the credibility of this roadmap, it is clear that the NLD has not been successful in working out a strategy that can combine a flexible response to the SPDC's overtures with fidelity to its basic programme. It is also apparent that pressure from the U.S. and others is not helping the process of national reconciliation but only hardening attitudes all around.

With the dismissal of Khin Nyunt as PM, the perception here is that the government will adopt a tougher line towards it opponents. However, Myanmar is due to hold the rotating chair of Asean in 2006 and it is possible that some members of the South-East Asian grouping could insist on more visible progress towards democratisation by then.

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