Polls in 2010 shape Burma’s political and media landscape

All eyes are on Burma as it heads to national elections in 2010. Even as advocates, activists, and citizens of Burma debate whether or how to participate in the exercise, one clear consensus is that Burmese media—both inside the country and those exiled in neighboring countries and elsewhere—must be supported in their efforts to educate Burmese citizens as well as monitor the credibility and integrity of the polls, or potential lack thereof.

To be sure, with the junta’s voiding of the elections in 1990 and the iron grip with which the country, its citizens, and their media have been managed since then, the upcoming polls do not inspire much optimism. Hardly anybody would call the exercise free, not even with the cautious support of western governments and ASEAN. Meanwhile, the main opposition group, the National League of Democracy (NLD) which was denied its clear victory in 1990, had announced that it will boycott the elections if the junta continues to keep Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners detained. All the same, some political parties have expressed their intention to participate—from administration groups, to the opposition, even third force organizations made up of activists from the 1988 uprising.

All the same, without a clear and unfettered role for independent media coverage before, during, and after the elections, all will be for naught.

If 2009 is anything to go by, there is indeed every reason to keep expectations real.

In May last year the junta ordered strict control of all news coverage of the first anniversary of Cyclone Nargis’ devastation of the Irrawady delta. Cyclone Nargis, which pummeled Burma on 2 May 2008, left about 140,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million people devastated.

The censorship board ordered that coverage of the anniversary should have a positive angle. It also restricted and banned stories that highlighted the relief efforts of international and local non-governmental organizations.

Related to this, there was a rash of arrests and intimidations of journalists, bloggers, and activists in 2009, all having to do either with the anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, or that of the Saffron Revolution in 2007.

Going after bloggers
A blogger was arrested in November 2009 and remains detained. Prior to that, poet and layout designer for the Rangoon-based “Ahlinkar Wutyee Journal” Khant Min Htet, was picked up by the police on 22 October 2009.

Blogger and former journalist Pai Soe Oo, 23, was arrested on 28 October 2009. Two days earlier, Thant Zin Soe, the Burmese translator-editor of “Foreign Affairs” weekly was nabbed by authorities. The two are members of “Lin Let Kye” (“Shining Star”), a volunteer group that helps victims of Cyclone Nargis. Also arrested were five of their colleagues.

On 1 December 2009, authorities released Khant Min Htet, Pai Soe Oo and Thant Zin Soe and other Cyclone Nargis volunteers.

During the same period, blogger Win Zaw Naing, 24, was arrested and now faces a possible 15-year jail sentence for posting pictures and reports about the September 2007 Saffron Revolution.  He is detained in the Rangoon district of Kyauktada, where he has not been allowed to see a lawyer.

Heavy-handedness

That same heavy-handedness was also clearly being directed in anticipation of greater media coverage and interest in the upcoming elections. On 12 September 2009, U Win Tin, a senior leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, and who had spent 19 years behind bars until his release in 2008, was again taken in for questioning by the police.

The veteran journalist wrote a critical article on the junta, entitled, “An election Burma’s people don’t need”. It was published in the 9 September 2009 issue of the “Washington Post”. He was released after a few hours of questioning. But Burma’s censors and military kept on with a campaign of intimidation.

Just before the year ended, on 31 December, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) video reporter Hla Hla Win was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for violation of the Electronic Act. She had earlier been sentenced to seven years imprisonment under Section 51 of the Export Import Act for allegedly using an illegally acquired motorcycle.

Such, therefore, was the consistent messaging of the junta as 2010 rolled in. Not even the commutation of a staggering prison sentence slapped on comedian and poet Zargana (from 59 years to 35 years), or the release of four journalists (from a symbolic batch of 7,000 prisoners, most of whom were jailed for common crimes), could mask or blunt the harsh actions of the junta in 2009.

Beyond its consistent contempt for journalists and the press, the junta has made it clear that neither will it tolerate protests. For that matter, the elections itself—for all its presumed inevitability—is still shrouded in uncertainty. A required election law to govern the exercise has yet to actually be promulgated, and even as 2010, people were not sure as to when the polls will actually take place.

Many Burmese journalists are genuinely surprised. Although all have been living with strict censorhip and under harsh laws for decades, one local editor said they “expected that press freedom would be curbed to some extent after the 2010 general elections but not before it.”

But the Burmese junta clearly has things planned out. In 2009 it effectively prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from again taking part in the 2010 elections, whenever that may be. Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention was supposed to end on 27 May 2009, making her available for candidacy in the 2010 elections. But a bizarre incident involving the sudden and apparently uninvited visit of an American citizen in her prison home was all the junta needed to extend the opposition leader’s house arrest, and thereby bar her from taking part in this year’s elections.

More control

Meanwhile, the junta in 2009 also stepped-up its control of the Internet. Learning lessons from the Saffron Revolution on what new media can do, the government came up with new policies to shorten the leash on all forms of new media.

Internet café managers were warned not to use proxy software to circumvent online censorship, or else risk closure. Those caught in the act of opening e-mail accounts for clients run the risk of having their operations shut down.

It has also been reported that infrastructure have been put in place to slow down Internet signals on demand, thus limiting the kinds of activities, files, and documents that users could be involved with. Multimedia content which demand more bandwidth such as video and audio files, in particular, can be dissuaded with a mere slowing down of access, without having to shut down the Internet entirely.

The junta also clamped down on the local population’s access to satellite TV.  Burma’s state-run newspaper, the “New Light of Myanmar”, carried an article on its 24 April 2009 issue warning readers that international news and entertainment programs are allegedly being manipulated by Western governments and thus must be banned in Burma.

Mizzima.com said the sheer number of satellite sales, especially illegal ones, is too much for government to completely rid the country’s households of the technology. What authorities are doing, however, is to go after restaurants and teashops that offer free satellite TV viewing to their customers.

And to make control of the media more efficient, at least on the part of the censors board, authorities announced that it will require publications to submit their content on soft copy, meaning in digital form, stored in either CDs or memory sticks.

Pushing the envelope

There is little sense that media reform will come completely from within Burma. Although Burma does have a burgeoning private media sector—hundreds of journals and periodicals publish under private licenses—the past two years have demonstrated the limits of the government’s tolerance for the same.

All the same, the media sector—as compromised as it is—is crucial to support and monitor in a closed society such as Burma. The struggling journals inside the country stubbornly demonstrate the potentials of independent media, and the promise of aspiring journalists. Burmese periodicals have pushed the envelope in the coverage of health, environment, HIV/AIDS, crime, and even business and economy. In 2009, a botched operation on a private citizen saw state health authorities directly responding to media coverage and resulting private outrage over a case of medical malpractice. But after disciplining the doctors involved, the government then reverted to warning private media against reports that could paint the overall public health sector in a negative light.

Such episodes show the inevitability of information even in the harshest of terrains, as well as the untenability of completely ignoring the societal ills that journalists (even under a regime of censorship) manage to expose. But they also show the risks the same journalists and media face should they find that they had pushed too far.

In the coming elections for Burma, the tension between allowing for greater coverage and keeping the media in check will continue to cause anxieties for the Burmese media sector. And it will cause the junta to behave in predictable, as well as unpredictably dangerous ways.

(SEAPA thanks Mizzima News for its contribution to this report.)