Myanmar Stop-Go on Free Press

Last week Myanmar hosted a travelling circus of academics in Yangon for a “Challenges of a Free Press” conference organized by the East-West Center in Hawaii. Established by the US Congress in 1960 for policy studies and to build networks into the Asia-Pacific region, the center has 57,000 alumni worldwide. It radiates American media soft-power. Its modus operandi is to distribute fellowships to selected local journalists. Chemical weapons! Unfortunately, while a free press was the drum roll in Yangon, five reporters who discovered a secret chemical weapons facility in Pauk township in central Myanmar and disclosed it in Unity Weekly, were arrested last month under the Official Secrets Act. Chemical weapons production, stockpiles and deployment raise distressing implications. Deputy Information Minister and presidential spokesman U Ye Htut is quoted by the Democratic Voice of Burma News as saying this was a national security question, not a freedom of press issue. “We guarantee they will get a fair trial. They will enjoy all their legal rights during the procedure.” He likened the government’s response to the US on the Snowden affair, for breach of national security. Busy minister stays Cognizant of the potential global impact of the media talk-fest, U Ye Htut attended the full proceedings of the two-day conference. For long stretches he sat bolt upright, alone on the VIP front row, staying awake through the drone of academics. Alert to criticism of the government and his ministry, he fielded questions and comments from the floor with timely damage control. In his keynote, U Ye Htut declared that media “empowers citizens to make informed choices to achieve democratic reforms in our society.” Media has progressed rapidly in the last two years. Private daily newspapers were licensed last year, 20 international news bureaus opened offices and hundreds of domestic news outlets have sprung up. This surge of media activity, he believes, has raced ahead of journalistic capacity, training and experience. Mutual mistrust The foremost media problem he identified was “mistrust” between government and press. His ministry was developing guidelines for government departments to deal with the media for better information flow. Lack of training and code of ethics for journalists is a problem, said the deputy minister, which undermines public trust in press. U Ye Htut wants the industry to work out a mechanism for rectification of errors and inaccuracies and to handle public complaints. On the lack of coverage of minority and ethnic issues beyond the capital, U Ye Htut noted that “99 percent of private media is Yangon based,” which limits its scope. He hopes new media laws being discussed at the national assembly will encourage diversity of ownership and content. Acknowledging the shortcomings of the government in handling minority and ethnic media issues, he added “We have a clear vision for a new Myanmar. We have a reform strategy. We have the political will to implement it.” Visa denied The refusal of a visa for Hannah Beech, TIME’s China Bureau Chief, explained U Ye Htut was because resentment against Beech would have compromised the security of the international conference and her safety. “This is not the appropriate time” he said, “however if she wants to come back later, we are ready to accept.” Hannah wrote a cover story last year on the plight of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state. The TIME issue with monk Wirathu on the cover was banned in Myanmar. Wirathu is a rallying point for those who target defenseless Rohingya villagers. Killing, arson, rape and looting have been well documented by human rights organizations and UN observers. The government vacillates between denials and pledges to rein in rampaging mobs. The dominant political narrative here is that Rohingya don’t exist. They are Bangladeshi refugees who are not Myanmar citizens. That somehow justifies terror unleashed on women, children and the elderly, as deserved. All good citizens look the other way. Commission can’t find bodies Responding to international and UN pressure to get the facts on the January violence in Rakhine state where 48 Muslims died, the government set up a commission headed by U Tha Hla Shwe, chair of the Myanmar Red Cross Society. At the press conference last week to present the commission’s report, he said “We didn’t see any evidence of murder. We didn’t find where bodies are buried. We can’t say how many people were killed.” Upset by the persistent questioning of journalists, U Tha Hla Shwe blustered “I’m not biased. I’m not incompetent. Why don’t you trust us?” The commission’s report raised more questions than it answered. Lady treads softly Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – always a draw for local and international media – said media freedom is a responsibility, not a license and called for training in the disciplines of a free press. “We have a generation of young journalists today who are very enthusiastic, very dedicated but without sufficient training.” She is the Leader of the Opposition in the current national assembly and has been building bridges to the military, sitting with senior generals at public functions and serving diligently on various committees. “Reconciliation, not revenge” is her mantra as she treads gingerly over the eggshells of Myanmar politics where the military has granted itself a 25% block of seats in the national assembly and the right of veto. She does not wish to antagonize a restive regime which holds all the cards in the corridors of power and the civil service. When her party the National League for Democracy overwhelmingly won the 1990 general election, General Ne Win annulled her victory. She was under house arrest the next 20 years. She has learned her lesson not to confront the men in boots. She has her eye fixed on the 2015 general election, for the people’s mandate. The Lady used the forum to launch the Suu Foundation dedicated to providing health care and education to the rural poor. Former US First Ladies Hilary Clinton and Laura Bush are co-chairs of the foundation. Timing could not be better. How about survival? The vexed question of commercial sustainability of the press in Myanmar went begging. The conference produced little useful discussion of it and the session on future of the press deteriorated into a litany of complaints about current issues everyone was only too familiar with. Myanmar publishers hanging on the razor edge of survival were left no wiser as media educators and alumni folded their tent on a missed opportunity.