Impressions on media coverage of Burma’s election

SEAPA's 2015 Fellows pose for a group photo outside Aung San Suu Kyi's house in Rangoon. [Photo courtesy of Chino Gaston]
SEAPA’s 2015 Fellows pose for a group photo outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s house during the NLD press conference in Rangoon. [Photo courtesy of Chino Gaston]
The peoples in Burma finally achieved their much-awaited political victory, after the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 8 November general election. NLD won about 80% of the contested seats , making the prospect of the first people-elected president in more than half-a century highly likely to materialise.

U.S president Barack Obama congratulated the country it once sanctioned for having been able to break through the political gridlock with this rather peaceful and clean political exercise. Other world leaders are expected to follow suit in due course for their respective thumbs-ups.

The euphoric moment, shared by many Burmese citizens at home and abroad, may herald an even freer media environment under the next administration. But, the real challenge inevitably remains with Burmese the media to direct the changes they want in this long transitional journey.

SEAPA’s four 2015 Fellows witnessed this momentous juncture in Burma’s political transition, writing their stories on how the country’s media is covering the election.


All about Her

More than 1,000 international media arrived in Rangoon for the most extensive coverage of any event in the country.

Most cameras and microphones were trained toward one person: Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD leader and arguably Burma’s highest profile political.

Capturing the moment of the Nobel Laureate casting her ballot during Burma’s first genuinely contested elections in 25 years was a trouble worthy of elbowing and jostling for many journalists.

However, this is a bit of puzzlement for a Filipino journalist Ryan Rosauro, though he himself was among the swarm of journalists trying to get the best shot of that moment in the early morning of November 8.

“I am still trying to understand why all the media –both foreign and local– are obsessed with capturing the image of one person voting”, said Ryan, who is a returning Fellow for 2015.

A common scene during the campaign trail: everyone is trying to get a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi.

His first trip to Burma under SEAPA’s 2010 fellowship preceded the rigged 2010 elections. Back then, the ruling junta kept a constant eye on movements of journalists flying into the country. Election procedures were already preset to ensure a win for the military-backed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

This time around, the election landscape and mood has changed. Although it was not framed as colour-coded politics as in neighbouring Thailand and Malaysia, NLD’s red-wearing and USDP’s green-clad supporters painted the colourful campaign trails nationwide.

“What moved me the most in this trip is the first hand experience of seeing police and polling station officers in Burma handling such a big crowd of voters and the press”, recalled Ryan, a correspondent based in the southern Mindanao island for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Unlike his first trip, Ryan found the Burmese officials and security personnel at ease and very accommodating to the press.

“We can even do the choreographing with those who are casting the votes. Officers were laughing so that we know they are not faking, but [we’re] so natural.”

Initial unease

Another Filipino TV journalist was also among the 2015 Fellows to witness the media coverage of the elections.

Having entered into the country with a tourist visa, Chino Gaston at first felt very uncomfortable to cover the election under such terms. He asserted that having a press visa is one of the safety tickets for him, considering with the country’s volatile politics.

However, his unease disappeared gradually upon seeing the full swing of campaign activities by the various political parties on the streets of Rangoon and the surrounding suburbs. The campaign songs – especially NLD’s catchy campaign theme song – echoed in his ears as he pursued his story.

Later on, he sensed that the electoral environment is freer than expected as a press accreditation card from the Union Election Commission was issued to him regardless of his visa status.

Like most foreign journalists in Burma for the election coverage, Chino attended the press conference of Aung San Suu Kyi on 5 November.

He mused about how the international press closely covered the democracy icon for their news bulletins, while most of the local press crews devoted their stories on the emotional support for Suu Kyi and NLD’s subsequent victory.

He recalled that he rarely saw coverage of the ruling USDP party by privately-run media, even though local journalists tellhim that they are trying to cover the election fairly.

On the other hand, according to a report by the Myanmar Institute for Democracy, state broadcaster MRTV focused nearly half of its political and elections-related coverage to the activities of state authorities, specifically 31.1 percent for coverage on the government, 36 percent on incumbent President Thein Sein, 13.6 percent on the vice-presidents and 9.8 percent on the military.

“Despite having different outlooks of the political unfolding in Burma between foreign and local press, all the election coverage speak of the urge of change in this country”, said Chino.

As a safety trainer for the combat zone reporting, Chino has prepared himself for election-related violence, as usually happens in the Philippines’ election context.

He was quite surprised to see that there were no armed guards patrolling around the polling stations, only police specifically deployed for the polls.

A total of 40,304 election “special police” were recruited nationwide for the 8 November election.

“On the election days, voters were queuing quietly and anxiously. It is really a surreal scene. In Philippines, it is very noisy and chaotic right outside of polling stations”, he added.

Pro-democracy selfies


Members of the press are not the only groups chasing for a good shot of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ordinary voting citizens armed with smartphones also waited for long hours for the moment Suu Kyi cast her vote. They posted this immediately on their Facebook pages, said Bernard Cheah, a Malaysian journalist for The Sun Daily newspaper.

His first time in Burma, Bernard previously reported on the elections in his own country. He cut his tooth while chasing a star politician.

“It was a really crazy scene that everyone is taking pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi with their smartphones.”

“Some cast their ballots very early on the Election Day in order to reach to her polling station on time to catch a glimpse of her for their Facebook timelines ”, he said.

Social media, especially Facebook has become quite popular in Burma after the country opened its telecommunication sector. Currently, more than 6.4 million Facebook accounts are registered in Burma, according to tech industry estimates.

Apart from being a popular source of news and information, Facebook also serves as an informal dialogue platform between the people and government. The official statements of both government and the opposition usually first appear on their Facebook pages before the official release.

Teashops, the traditional hubs of Burma’s social and political conversation, are also being transformed by the sudden outburst of Facebook popularity.

“I am told that Burmese’s teashops are known as the vibrant dialogue spots of politics and current affairs on news from the papers. But now, I don’t often see people reading newspapers. A lot of people are sliding the screens of their smartphones”, Bernard observed.

To meet the demands of the general public, major news outlets are putting up the election-related news on their official Facebook pages.

Also, many candidates set up Facebook pages during the campaign period to reach out to public, especially to canvass youth votes.

There is much to be said on the role Facebook has played in facilitating conversations on the social and political transition in Burma.

After more than five decades of censorship and information blackout, people of Burma only seemed too eager to catch up from where they were left off.

Here, Facebook comes in with its connective features and timelines catering to Burma’s imformation needs for the election season. However, included this conversation on the social media platform is the proliferation of hate speech sites targeted at both sides of major election debates: ruling party and opposition as well as Muslims and Buddhists.

As someone coming from a relatively well-off and racially diverse country, Bernard thinks that relying too much on Facebook for information is very a immature way of consuming news.

People need verified facts and reliable news, he argued.

Blurry gender lens

Meanwhile, Indonesian journalist Shinta Maharani has directed her inquiry on women’s involvement in Burma politics, especially in the elections. Shinta is based in Yogyakarta, and covers the culture and economic beats for the media outlet Tempo.

Shinta jumps off from the situation in her country, which has a law mandating that 30 percent of House legislators be women, but who comprise only 14 percent of parliament. Despite Indonesia’s commitment through laws and international standards, reality is discrimination against women from cultural, political and economic factors remains a norm in local political environments.
“Women’s participation in politics and government should be a priority of any country to strengthen democracy,” she reflected on the bumpy journey of women in her home country.

Also, to change social attitudes towards women’s participation in public life, greater awareness is required, and this is where the media should be involved, she added.

In Burma, only 800, or 13%, of 6074 candidates for the 2015 elections are women.

With 168 women candidates of its total 1,151 fielded for the 2105 poll, the NLD has the largest number of women candidates from one political party. However, the total is only marginally better than the overall proportion of women candidates at 14.6%.

Some 51.8 percent of the whole population from the estimated 52 million total population are women.

However, this is still a slight improvement compared to the previous 2010 elections, where only four percent were women candidates.

The outcome of that exercise is the 53 current female lawmakers in the three parliaments and two female cabinet ministers out of 36 union ministers. Burma stands just above the last slot among 10 Southeast Asia nations in terms of proportion of elected female legislators in national politics.

Responding to Shinta’s question on women participation in Burma politics, Aung San Suu Kyi described the situation as a “big disappointment”. However, the NLD leader did not elaborate on her party’s strategy to raise women participation in Burma politics, if the NLD becomes the ruling party.
Days later, the National League for Democracy would trump all other parties to winenough seats to form the next government in March 2016.

All hopes are high across the country for change. In the meantime, harsh realities also await the new government.

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