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LinkAsia | Aug 23
In August 1988, Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi led thousands of fellow students, ordinary citizens, monks, and civil servants into the streets of Rango...
Now while Singapore's cracking down on freedom of expression, things seem to be loosening up in Myanmar. According to our contributor Adam Kaufman, as censorship eases, journalists have the most to gain. Here's the story.
Since Myanmar's ruling generals stepped down in 2010 in place of a semi-civilian government, the Southeast Asian country has experienced a wave of democratic reform. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, controls on political and labor association were relaxed, and journalists can write with greater freedom. A few years ago, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and her National League for Democracy party was outlawed. Now, Suu Kyi is in parliament after by-elections in April, in which her party won 43 of 45 seats.
I feel excited people are allowed to do this freely. No one is afraid anymore. Just look around you. Almost everyone is coming on the street to support the NLD. I believe that the changes occurring now are going to continue for a long time.
Leading the reform is the new president, Thein Sein. Once a top general in a regime that jailed dissenting journalists, the new president is now calling for an independent press. It's a role embraced by veteran journalist Maung Wuntha. For years, Wuntha experienced the wrath of authorities. Now, he's testing the new limits of what he's allowed to report.
Maung Wuntha, Editor of People's Age:
Three or four years ago, people were very fearful, fearful to talk to strangers about politics and even about their sufferings. At the time, they were thinking that they were being watched.
As the public now dares to speak out, Wuntha wants to supply his readers with the political material he deems most important to advancing change. His weekly journal, "The People's Age," is filled with coverage of the political reform.
This picture is very sympathetic.
Having his say on what to write about is not something Wuntha takes for granted. For years, he worked for state-controlled newspapers, where he was forced to turn out copy glorifying a regime he detested.
We are called journalists but actually we are just the state functionaries. Journalism under one-party system is to obey your superiors' orders. You are under no obligation to see the public opinion.
In 1988, after mass protests calling for democracy, Wuntha temporarily traded journalism for politics and joined the National League for Democracy. Frequent imprisonment ensued. Since the government has eased restrictions on the press and stopped framing critical journalists as enemies of the state, Maung Wuntha has turned into something of a journalistic celebrity. With his new influence, Wuntha has lobbied for wider coverage of political issues.
People who have been involved in politics write about their sacrifices and gain the audiences' sympathy. Audiences will look forward to articles, pay attention to their stories and learn from their experiences. Previously, they focus only on entertainment. And so now I try to encourage them to be aware of public service, to push the people to be aware of politics.
Wuntha's work is still highly restricted, though. Despite the president's call for more press freedom, the government still requires most newspapers to submit their articles to a censor board before publication. The government says it will soon do away with this draconian system. Many journalists are concerned about new rules that will take its place, as is Wuntha. But he's experienced the worst of the military regime's repression. So it's easier for him to take today's struggles in stride and enjoy what he's gained for now.
We are very in touch with the people. I'm very proud to be a Burmese journalist. I think it is very effective for our democratic cause.
Indeed, it's a cause that Wuntha finally sees materializing as Myanmar makes a little more room for the power of the pen. For LinkAsia this is Adam Kaufman and Brendan Brady.
The government's approach to the media is still inconsistent. Last week, for example, it suspended a weekly newspaper called "The Voice," because the paper reported on a rumored cabinet shuffle without getting approval. But then the government backtracked, saying that "The Voice" could resume publishing again.