[Burma and Thailand] Controlled narrative for mutual benefit

SEAPA Op-Ed on the Media Coverage of the Aung San Suu Kyi Visit


ASSK trip
SOURCE: Official Facebook Page of the Myanmar State Counsellor Office


Last week’s three-day visit of Myanmar Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi to Thailand exposed the unfavorable environment for media freedom in both countries. The visit mainly intended to strengthen stronger bilateral economic and border cooperation.

As a prelude to the democracy icon’s visit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Thailand issued a set of strict guidelines for the press covering Suu Kyi’s trip. The guidelines provided a mantle of control to the public fanfare for Suu Kyi and her host, setting aside some of the usual practices for coverage for such visits in either country.

Journalists covering her trip were required to wear a formal attire at all times. More menacingly, reporters were told that they will have no opportunity to question Aung San Suu Ski during a joint press conference in Bangkok with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Her agenda of mostly visits to Burmese migrant worker areas of concentration was carefully planned with limited access for the media. The media pool composed of the state press and only two representatives from the international media was granted exclusive access to her arrival and departure. All openings which journalists can take to gain access to Suu Kyi were thoroughly sealed off.
To requests for reconsideration of these restrictions, Thai MFA replied that these were “the instructions we have received.” No further explanations were provided after the terse reply, including saying who sent the instructions.

It was apparent that muzzling the press through the imposition of these rules benefited both leaders — Prayuth on Thai’s political situation, and Suu Kyi, who recently issued instructions to the government and some diplomats not to use the term “Rohingya”.

During the trip, Suu Kyi was visibly upfront and instructive in dealing with the Thai military regime with respect to her migrant worker agenda. She managed to take constructive steps and strike number of agreements for the welfare of millions of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand.

As a democracy champion turned pragmatic politician, a number of groups and individuals surely wanted to hear her views on the path that Thailand has taken in terms of democracy. Much to the dismay of those who have expected such utterances from The Lady, she was too polite to her hosts to at least give a hint on these issues.

“The Thai government took her trip very seriously, so the security was very tight. And, the space for the media to do our work was much regulated,” said one Thai journalist who prefers to remain unidentified.

She added, “We were given a very limited time to remain in the hall where she was giving her speech, let alone ask questions. We were prevented to ask any questions to the lady.”

In Burma, too, Suu Kyi’s party has been receiving criticism for continuing to limit media access since it took power last April 2016. She has been very defensive on the international media reports that her government has been turning a blind eye on the plight of the Rohingya in western Burma.Sources say, Suu Kyi, who is also the State Counsellor of Myanmar, specifically requested that the media be kept out of a private meeting with Burmese students at the Thailand Foreign Ministry, presumably to avoid the inevitable questions about the issue of Rohingya.

On the sidelines, the Thai military forced to cancel a 23 June press conference organized by Thailand-based Rohingya activists who wanted to urge Suu Kyi to address the situation of the Rohingya refugees as well as the human trafficking issue in Burma and Thailand.

When Aung San Suu Kyi completed her first official visit, images of migrant workers emotionally welcoming her during a monsoon downpour — as well as of the various lavish receptions she attended — were the most widely circulated pictures of her trip.

These visuals, though, do not tell the entire story; and nor does the almost uniform narrative of the trip told through mainstream media. How both governments handled the coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip also provides a glimpse of the challenges faced by the media in both countries.

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