Shifting gears to reforms?

[Burma country report to SEAPA’s 2012 Press Freedom Report, Online media is the space to watch]

The most significant prisoner amnesty ever in Burma saw hundreds of political prisoners released on 13 January 2012. Among them were high profile activists Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Ashin Gambira and many journalists.

Starting in mid-2011, the new rulers of Burma began loosening state controls to burnish their image as a democratically elected government. Till July, the government seemed little different from the military regime it had replaced, continuing with the familiar state repression of civil liberties and media freedom. The sudden, apparent move towards openness saw democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi being allowed to travel freely, waiving of pre-publishing censorship for certain categories of publications, and full publication of interviews with exiled media figures.

However, hopes sparked by these encouraging developments were dampened by the government’s continuing war with ethnic Karen, Shan and Kachin groups for most of the year and its silence on human rights abuses. Reports of harassment of some of the released prisoners have also surfaced, calling in question the government’s commitment to genuine democratization.

January to June 2011: Media repression as usual

During the first half of 2011, the media remained subject to tight government control and repression. Besides routine censorship, authorities banned journalists from the opening of the new parliament, slapped a two-week suspension on a news journal for a minor publishing error and arrested English newspaper publisher Ross Dunkley on vague charges.

Despite the initial permission by Minister of Information, Kyaw Hsan, journalists were not allowed to cover the first session of parliament on 31 January. Local and foreign journalists, who had come with high anticipation to witness the country’s first parliamentary session in two decades, were denied permission to report the proceedings by the newly set up Committee for Professional Conduct (CPC), a branch of the Censor Board. Roads leading to the parliament building were barricaded. Although the ban was lifted for the subsequent parliament session in August, journalists were not allowed to interview members of parliament without prior official permission and faced other restrictions. Family members of some local journalists were questioned and harassed by authorities.

In late June, the Australian publisher of Myanmar Times, Ross Dunkley who had earlier been arrested on charges seen as politically motivated, was convicted of assault. However, the Court freed him after he paid a 100,000-kyat (USD120) fine, saying that he had already served his time in jail during his 47 days in detention from February to March. According to Dunkley’s business partner David Armstrong of Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Post, Dunkley’s case was linked to the struggle for control over Myanmar Times, a paper Ross co-founded with the son of deposed Prime Minister Kyin Nyunt. Dunkley himself has admitted that higher authorities had told him that he was no longer “trusted”.

There was extensive news censorship. Media organizations were ordered to publish only the official casualty figure of 75 after the 6.8 magnitude earthquake near the Burma-Thailand-Laos border in March, although other estimates put the toll as high as 150. In May, news reports of the visit of the UN Secretary-General’s Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar and Aung San Suu Kyi’s statement related to the visit were censored. The censorship board also suspended True News weekly for allegedly publishing erroneous information about GSM phones.

The Electronic Transactions Law was invoked for a two-pronged clampdown: censorship of the Internet and persecution online journalists and users. In February, the Court sentenced underground journalist Maung Zeya of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) to a total of 13 years in prison and blogger Kaung Myat Hlaing to a 12-year jail term. In both caseswere tried under the Electronic Transactions Law. The two had earlier been arrested for alleged links with the April 2010 bomb explosion in Rangoon but the charges against them could not be proved. The authority lengthened Kaung Myat Hlaing’s sentence on the basis of his confession that he belonged to a dissident group, was involved in poster campaigns, and blogged for the release of political prisoners. The confession was extracted under torture while he was held in prison for the unproven link with the explosion. Maung Zeya was also arrested and sentenced on the basis of his son’s Sithu Zeya’s confession of their journalistic activities. Sithu Zeya had been detained earlier for photographing the explosion. In December 2010, Sithu Zeya was sentenced to eight years in prison and would receive an additional sentence in September 2011.

Former army captain Nay Myo Zin, a volunteer with the National League for Democracy (NLD), was arrested in April and four months later was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of emailing an interview of Major Aung Lin Htut who had defected from the Burmese embassy in the United States where he was posted as Minister Counselor.

In March, the government banned the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology used for Internet call services such as Skype. Owners of Internet cafes where most people access cyberspace due to the prohibitive cost of private Internet connections, were ordered to shut down VoIP services or face imprisonment. In October, the Citizen Lab in the University of Canada reported evidence of Internet filtering and surveillance by Burma’s primary ISP, Yatanarpon Teleport.

July 2011- Feb 2012: Changes, but no reform yet

The changes in Burma cover three areas: the press, the government’s relationship with Aung San Suu Kyi and political prisoners. A couple of positive laws dealing with freedom of assembly and association were enacted but these appeared to be only on paper. In September, the government set up a National Human Rights Commission. But, as time showed, it did virtually nothing for human rights.

Of the three areas, the press probably benefited the most. In June, the government lifted pre-publishing censorship for sports, entertainment and technology publications. The exemption was extended to crime and business publications in December.

However, censors remained wary of news about Aung San Suu Kyi. Thailand’s English language daily Bangkok Post with a small circulation in Burma, saw its June 19-25 Sunday pullout Spectrum censored as it had a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi on the cover and an article about her inside.

The situation changed abruptly in mid-July after Suu Kyi began talks with high-ranking government officials. Her photos became popular front page material in local newspapers. In September, news journal Pyithu Kyit (People’s Era) carried a Burmese translation of Suu Kyi’s article which was earlier published in English in Mainichi Daily as well as an article by Win Tin, one of Burma’s longest serving political prisoners and now a central committee member of Suu Kyi’s party NLD. The Suu Kyi article, about her travel to Bagan with her son, was her first to be printed in the local media in 23 years.

But Suu Kyi’s political views continued to be censored in the media. Her interview with Messenger News Journal, published in July, was completely snipped down to its non-political portions or 25 percent of the entire interview after a 10-month censoring process.  In November, her speech about the need to establish “rule of law” was censored, a Burmese editor speaking on condition of anonymitytold The Irrawaddy. In that speech, delivered at the NLD office, Aung San Suu Kyi mentioned the censorship of her third article written for People’s Era, the Irrawady source said. Observers noted that the now almost widespread appearance of her pictures in newspapers and on the streets meant little so long as the corresponding political statements were not published. Topics such as the war in ethnic areas, corruption and criticism of the military also remained censored. Access of journalists to the ethnic insurgencyareas remained severely restricted.

Foreign visitors and a handful of exiles who returned to the country in 2011 and January 2012 reported that ordinary people could speak openly about Suu Kyi who also seemed to be able to travel outside Rangoon to meet thousands of her supporters without serious restrictions. The government opened the door to visits by foreign government representatives and business contingents who were allowed to meet “The Lady” as Suu Kyi is respectfully known. Denied entry since 2010, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana made two visits in August 2011 and January 2012. Quintana noted continuing systemic violation of human rights in the country despite the positive changes.

There was a remarkable improvement in the government’s attitude towards foreign and exile-run media. In August, state-run media dropped its hostile criticism of BBC, VOA and DVB. In September, their websites along with those of Mizzima News, Reuters, RFA, and the Bangkok Post were no longer blocked. To date, media websites are no longer blocked, although access to Internet and its speed are serious problems. Local newspapers were also allowed to publish interviews with Burmese editors living in exile including Aung Zaw of The Irrawaddy and Sein Win of Mizzima. For the first time, officials agreed to be interviewed by the media in exile. Another major development was the granting of journalist visas to foreign news outlets, including to exiled activist-turned-VOA journalist Tin Maung Than in October. Irrawaddy’s Aung Zaw and Mizzima’s editor-in-chief Soe Myint visited Rangoon on short term visas.

Journalists, especially foreign, can now meet leading dissidents freed under the three presidential amnesties so far – in May and October 2011 and January 2012. The former prisoners have spoken freely with the media. One of them, comedian Zarganar was even issued a passport to travel abroad, rare for most dissidents. Zarganar visited Bangkok in December where he recounted his experience in jail and future plans to a packed audience at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand before proceeding to Cambodia and the United States.

The amnesty in January 2012 freed not only leading dissidents but also several journalists including those working secretly for the media in exile. Three journalists were released in the May 2011 amnesty and another five in the subsequent amnesty in October. The latest amnesty, following much pressure from Burma campaigners, the United Nations, United States, United Kingdom and other European countries, freed 651 prisoners including 300 political detainees. Among the latter were 12 journalists, bloggers and writers such as Maung Zeya, his son Sithu Zeya and Kaung Myat Hlaing. DVB reported that all its imprisoned staff members, including those whose identities were withheld, were released. But their freedom was conditional. All are subject to Article 401 of the Criminal Code, which allows the President to order their re-arrest and imprisonment for the remaining portion of their sentence at any time, or if they are convicted in future. They were also required to sign an agreement promising good behavior before being released.

“It’s like we are being freed with leashes still attached to our necks. So I’m happy but with a leash still on my neck,” Sithu Zeya told DVB on the day he was released. Later, in an interview with AlertNet published on 20 January 2012, he described the physical assaults he had to endure while in solitary confinement in Insein prison.

More needs to be done

Analysts and observers have strained to gauge the genuineness of the changes given the ex-generals’ habitual opacity and still substantial grip on power. It is clear that the changes became somewhat  insignificant in view of the latter, and the fact that state human rights abuses, as well as curbs on freedom of speech, have by no means ceased. The bureaucracy also appears unenthusiastic about the change even as the upper echelon waxes lyrical about it.

Attention is now on the proposed media law touted as aiming to end the pre-publishing censorship regime. However, in a January 2012 workshop, supposedly to consult stakeholders and journalists, state representatives failed to disclose the draft legislation to participants. There is much concern that the proposed law, crafted for post-publishing regulation of media content will strengthen the existing self-censorship as happens in Malaysia and Singapore. When Censor Board Deputy Director Tint Swe unveiled a proposal for a council to regulate media standards and ethics, the impression given was that it would be state- rather than industry-led.

Furthermore, the government has shown no intention of repealing repressive military-era laws. The Burma Media Association (BMA) has singled out as threats to press freedom, laws such as the Printers and Publishers Registration Act 1962 and Official Secrets Act 1923 which cover the print media as well as the 1933 Wireless Telegraphy Act, the 1966 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Law, the 2002 Wide Area Network Order and the Electronic Transactions Law which regulate electronic media and communication devices. A 9 February 2012 BMA statement said that the first group [epl1] of laws needed to be repealed while the second group warranted a revamp.

The “reform” of state rules regulating the freedom of assembly was largely rhetorical. In September, police arrested a man who staged a solo protest against the Myitsone dam project. In October, police dispersed a farmers’ protest against military confiscation of their land. Among the eight protestors detained was Pho Phyu who later said that he was interrogated for 12 hours and drugged. In November, activist Myint Naing was arrested under the 1996 Television and Video Act for filming a similar protest by farmers in the Irrawaddy Division.

In December, citing a technicality, authorities rejected an application by former independent election candidate Win Cho to organize a political rally and another by textile factory workers to form a trade union, thereby rendering meaningless the newly enacted Peaceful Gathering and Procession Law and the new trade union legislation. On a more positive note, provisions in the Political Parties Registration Law, barring prisoners from membership of political parties were removed, thus enabling Suu Kyi to contest the upcoming parliament by-election in April 2012.

The continuation of repressive laws means that very little of the changes in Burma affect political activists and ordinary people who are not in the public spotlight like Suu Kyi or Zarganar. Buddhist monks, for example, are still required since the 2007 Saffron Revolution to seek permission for a public sermon, requiring submission of details of the sermon and having to follow state-imposed conditions for the event. In September, the Ministry of Home Affairs banned two planned sermons on peace building by outspoken abbot Pyinnay Thiha. In December, the government-controlled national monks Council ordered the abbot to leave his monastery after he delivered a sermon at the NLD office on the anniversary of Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. Known for his sympathy to the political dissidents’ cause, the monk allowed freed student leaders and former political prisoners to organize an event at his monastery and met US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton during her visit in December. In November, the Council issued a warning to monk Ashin Thumingala for not having taken permission to organize a charity event and giving a sermon reportedly attended by 2,500 people.

The government’s ambiguous stand on political prisoners and human rights gave rise to much skepticism. While the President and his ministers have admitted neither to the existence of “political prisoners” nor of “prisoners of conscience”, the latter term was used by the President’s Adviser Ko Ko Hlaing and the National Human Rights Commission to refer to some detainees whose number they said was far lower than claimed by rights groups. Although the latest amnesty is the most encouraging so far, hundreds are believed to be still in jail. The question remains whether the partial releases of political prisoners are being used as bargaining chips with the international community as in the past.

The government still seemed prone to harassing critics and opposition sympathizers with dubious criminal charges. Newly-released Nay Myo Zin might go back to jail in 2012 for having received, while still in prison, a T-shirt with Suu Kyi’s image. Saffron Revolution leader, monk Ashin Gambira was arrested for several hours without a clear reason after authorities closed down a monastery that Gambira and four fellow monks had re-opened after their release under the amnesty. Gambira had continued to criticize the government since being freed in January 2012.

The prospects for freedom of expression were not helped by the fact that Burma’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has yet to inspire confidence. It ischaired by Win Mra, a former diplomat to the United Nations whose track record consisted of the absolute denial, of human rights violations under the previous junta. The NHRC has yet to show its commitment by publicly calling for the protection of free speech and media rights.

In calling for the release of “prisoners of conscience”, the Commission said this should be done to show the government’s “magnanimity” rather than on human rights grounds. Yet another noteworthy indicator of its ineffectiveness is its failure to probe rights violations and take note of a December investigation by human rights groups in the Kachin ethnic war zone. Instead, the NHRC limited itself to the “humanitarian aspect” of the ethnic conflict. In a statement on his visit to Burma in January 2012, Quintana questioned the Commission’s independence noting that its members were retired civil servants and its work was subject to government approval.

Outlook

The sobering reality abovewarrants continuing monitoring of the government despite the encouraging changes to make sure that these are meaningful and far-reaching. In the long run, the state should make good its words about instituting democracy and not just democratizations and show by its actions that it is sincere about its commitment to genuine democratization . This requires the presence of an independent and diverse media in the country.

The media in exile has made a remarkable contribution in terms of providing independent news and information, and the focus will be on how it approaches the “opening” and if it will have the capacity and freedom to operate within the country.

The year 2012 will see heightened interest by human rights groups in Burma seeking further improvement in the situation, by businesses seeking to exploit resources and market opportunities as well as by foreign governments as they reassess their relationship with the junta.

The excitement over the changes should be carefully tempered with the experience of other nations that have embraced similar reform to ensure that these are comprehensively planned and implemented.