By Chino Gaston
A river of red overflows Pyi Htaung Su Road in Yangon as the mass of party faithful make their way to Myo-o-Pagoda to listen to their world famous leader address the final poll rally before Myanmar’s first real election in a quarter century.
Tens of thousands of supporters of global democracy icon and leader of Myanmar’s opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi are coming to the rally ground, sporting the vibrant NLD colour. Cars decked in red, inch their way through the crowded road, forcing people and bicycles to the side. The hot dusty air is heavy with the smell of spice and tobacco as vendors busily hawk food and NLD souvenirs. Marooned in the sea of red, a jeep bristling with loudspeakers and NLD flags, blares out the party’s rap jingle “Khut Daw Man Che NLD” (The NLD Fighting Peacock): Naing ya mi (We must win)NLDPeople Party Suu Kyi calendars and posters are everywhere. The Lady, as she is known, looks tired in these pictures, wisps of gray hair framing her gaunt face. The steely eyes, however, seem fixed at some unseen point in the distance as if reassuring her supporters that she will soon take charge of the country’s future. Posters of her equally revered father, the late Gen Aung San, show the legendary leader looking out with stern, questioning eyes. The arresting stare slows me down as I walk with my interpreter and guide, former local journalist Kyaw Lynn through the throngs of NLD supporters, and have to be reminded to pick up speed.
As I stop to take a picture of a food cart covered in NLD campaign regalia, a burly man with thick arms and a dark, scowling face quickly blocks my way and points at my camera. “What channel?” he asks in heavily accented English. His thick fingers close around the press ID holder around my neck. Just in time, Kyaw comes to my side and waves him off, speaking quickly in Burmese. A small man with an easy smile who was a journalist with a local paper based in Yangon and now reports for a foreign news agency, Kyaw reassures me that the man was a part of the NLD rally security team and only making sure that I was not a government security personnel disguised as a journalist. Despite the dramatic loosening since 2011 of decades of restrictive military rule, political opposition parties and journalists in the country are still suspicious of security agencies in the country. Serious looking men with the traditional Burmese longyi wrapped around the waist, form a cordon around the rally ground, their quick, searching eyes scanning people’s faces before allowing entry to the field. Kyaw talks to them and motions me to follow him to the field. “Don’t mind them. The Lady knows the foreign press is sympathetic to the NLD,” he says. The rally field is filled with NLD supporters with the golden Myo-O pagoda bathed in sunlight. Closer to the stage, a huge Buddha statue towers over the crowd, a serene smile on its alabaster face. The crowd suddenly erupts in a deafening roar, followed by repeated chanting as Suu Kyi finally arrives. The stage for the media, already sagging under the weight of the TV equipment and journalists, moves beneath my feet as the cameramen reposition for a better view.
Looking tired but with a rare smile on her face, Suu Kyi, wearing a deep violet-coloured blouse, can be seen standing in the sports utility vehicle, its sunroof open, tossing flowers into the outstretched arms of people screaming their endearment: “Mei Su, Mei Su!” The local journalists join the cheering, chanting in unison. “There’s no danger here now,” says Kyaw. “But we are not totally free,” he adds. More freedom but still a long way to goKyaw’s concern has basis in fact as meetings with local journalists in the country reveal. Most acknowledge that the media is much freer now. Incidents of violence against journalists by the state security apparatus are largely a thing of the past. Gone are the days when journalists were arrested without a warrant and beaten up in custody. Democracy Reporting International (DRI), an independent international media monitoring group, has not found any violence against journalists during the election period. The Asian Network For Free Elections (ANFREL), an independent international election observer, has also not reported physical threats to journalists during the elections. But something less conspicuous, albeit no less sinister has taken the place of overt threats, local journalists say. In a statement two days after the November 8 election, ANFREL said: “Like ANFREL observers themselves, media faces scrutiny from security forces and must exercise extra caution as a result. The arrest of activists who shared political jokes via Facebook had a likely additional chilling effect on the media’s reporting of certain sensitive issues related mainly to the military.” The new Media Law enacted in 2014 has provisions that journalists believe were inserted to suppress the press. It supplements three older laws – the Electronic Transactions Law, the State Secrets Act and the Penal Code. Ten local journalists are still in jail charged with violating one of these four laws among others. The Electronic Transactions Law requires clearance from authorities in order to publish online, for example starting a blog. Burmese journalists say it is very difficult to get the clearance and most activists ignore this requirement, thus exposing themselves to the risk of imprisonment of between 7 to 15 years under the law. They fear that registration required for the clearance will make them vulnerable to state surveillance. In 2008, former political blogger and NLD candidate Nay Phone Lyatt, who will be a member of the new Parliament, was charged with violating the Electronic Transactions Law for his extensive Facebook posts about the crackdown on anti-government protestors during the 2007 Saffron Revolution led by activist monks. Imprisoned for 20 years in 2008, Lyatt was, however, released in 2012 under the mass pardon of journalists and political activists.
Busy preparing for a poll campaign event in his campaign headquarters in Yangon, Lyatt points out: “The government will use the law to intimidate and punish not only journalists when they don’t like what you are saying.” “People can still be jailed if the government does not like what you are saying or writing about,” says Nyo Nyo Thin, a local politician contesting as an independent candidate for the lower house of Parliament. Even Suu Kyi cautioned against optimism. “I would like to remind you since 2012 I have been saying that what we need is a healthy dose of skepticism,” she told over 300 mostly foreign journalists at her house in Bahan district on the shores of Inya Lake a few days before the Myanmar election. Nyein Chan Naing, a photographer for the European Press Agency (EPA) explains: “If they do not like the journalist, they can still charge (you) with the electronics law. This means we still don’t have freedom.” DRI has also noted self-censorship by the Burmese media which avoids writing stories critical of the Burmese military. Journalists contacted in Myanmar confirmed this. “We don’t have censorship like in 2010. On the other hand, are journalists really free? I have doubts. I feel there is something like self-censorship. There are red lines (journalists are) not willing to cross. One of these red lines is talking about the military,” says DRI representative Rasto Kuzel.
The unexplained October 2014 death in military custody of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, arrested while reporting from an area in southwestern Myanmar held by the rebel Democratic Karen Benevolent Army, added to the media apprehensions. No military officials have been held accountable for his death, despite a complaint filed by his widow. As Nyo, who did not get elected, says, the slight improvement in the media environment since 2011 is a result of the Thein Sein government’s bid to show the world that Myanmar is on the road to genuine democracy. “To some extent we have a slight change but we are still in a semi-dictatorship. People in government lack the willingness for real change. The international community has been too optimistic about the changes in the country”, she adds. Defending the messengers One of the few people, journalists, activists or ordinary citizens turn to when they are in trouble with the government, is lawyer Robert Sann Aung who describes himself as a fighter for democracy. The 50 year old lawyer has been arrested six times for his involvement in the pro-democracy movement. “It is a very dangerous time for journalists (in Myanmar). Journalists have no freedom of expression. Five journalists from the Unity Journal are now in jail serving seven-year prison sentences”, says Sann Aung, twirling a freshly-lit cigarette between his thick fingers. Sann Aung is the lawyer for the five who were arrested for violation of the State Secrets Act for reporting allegations that the military was running a chemical weapons factory somewhere in Central Myanmar. He acknowledges that it will be an uphill fight, not only for the journalists but for him as well. “It is very difficult because even in the courtroom there are members of the intelligence personnel watching. They even follow me where I go. I think they want me to stop defending the journalists.” Asked if he risks death or imprisonment, should the NLD lose the election, the chain-smoking democracy campaigner smiles and shakes his head, reaching again into his pack of local Ruby Red cigarettes. “No. Prison is my mother,” he says nonchalantly. The long-time human rights campaigner is hoping for an NLD win which could bring about a big improvement in the rights situation in the country. Although the NLD poll manifesto does not expressly commit the party to changing the four media laws should it form the government, the NLD has promised to uphold the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights which stands for freedom of expression, he says. Choosing sidesMyanmar’s decades’ long struggle for democracy has made freedom of the press synonymous with the opposition’s campaign for political freedom. Peace and gender activist, May Sabe Phyu, winner of the United States Department of State’s 2015 ‘International Women of Courage’ award, believes this cannot be helped given several decades of strong-handed military rule where press freedom was virtually non-existent. But she says that linking the demand for media freedom and democratization in Myanmar exposes journalists to risk. “Government sees the press as troublemakers. Because we have been fighting for freedom for so long…the press is aligned with the democracy movement.” Sabe Phyu herself has seen how the government uses the law to retaliate against people considered “unfriendly”. Her husband, activist Patrick Khum Jaa Lee is in jail for online dissemination of a Facebook post of a photo of a man stepping on the picture of military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. In his Facebook repost, Khum Jaa Lee criticized the original social media posting and cautioned against its further online distribution. She thinks her husband may have been arrested because of their social and political activism. “It may have been his or my work (as activists) that is to blame.”
Journalists have also been taking a second look at media ethics. May Thingyan Hein, CEO of Myitmakha News Agency says the best protection for her journalistic staff is balanced and fair reporting. “We always cover both sides…balanced stories are okay…sometimes it cannot be helped (when) journalists are biased to one side.” May Thingyan says her news organization strives to be balanced all the time and has good relations with both the government and pro-democracy forces.DRI has also taken note of these divisions in its monitoring of 5 TV stations, 10 newspapers and 3 online news organizations in the run up to the elections. “One can see that the media environment here is rather split and divided and I would say, divided along political lines,” says DRI’s Kuzel. “You have state-funded newspapers which very much present the position of the government and a number of private newspapers that very much, during these elections, appear to be supporting the main opposition NLD,” he adds. He refuses to speculate whether this division poses a danger to journalists, noting there have been improvements in terms of press freedom since 2010. ANFREL has also seen these political divisions. Risks while covering ethnic and religious conflict Though the main threats to journalists are now largely in the form of lawsuits or verbal warnings, those reporting the decades-old ethnic conflict and the emerging ethnic-religious tensions, far away from the capital, tell a different story. J Maung Maung, a photographer at 7Days newspaper, one of largest private newspapers in Myanmar, recalls being dragged out of his car by an angry mob of Buddhist monks and their sympathizers in Meiktila city in Mandalay Division. He was there to cover the March 2013 clashes between a minority muslim group and Buddhists. “Some of us were taking pictures along the road from our car when they stopped the car and dragged us out. Everyone was out of control and people were running around with weapons. They demanded we give them the memory cards from our camera or delete the photos we already have.” he recalls. Maung believes the people who attacked them did not understand the role of journalists and may have seen them as a threat. “I can’t say journalists will not be threatened again, when covering the conflicts again, because in Myanmar there are just a few people who can understand media and that media is just doing their job and not doing anything wrong so I expect more threats to the journalists,” he adds. On March 10, 2015, several journalists were beaten and arrested following clashes between student protesters and police in Letpadan city, also in Mandalay Division. European Press Agency photographer Nyein Chan who was covering the incident, recalls how even the police do not seem to understand the role of the media. “The police hit whoever they see, they don’t care who. One of the officers (we tried to speak to) …did not understand who we are. Some journalists got hit. I got hit (too) but not much…good thing, I have a helmet.” Working for an international news organization, he considers himself lucky for having received proper safety training and being provided with safety equipment. The rest of the press in the country, are not so fortunate. “Some local media have security procedures…safety training is mostly from someone who attended before…not real safety procedure some they learn from the book or manual…not like the real training procedure…” he says. BBC World Service Reporter Mratt Kyaw Thu who has extensively covered the conflict in ethnic areas like Rakhine, says journalists have been attacked for just doing their work. “The (ethnic) party members threaten us not to write about their weak points and their problems. If we write, they physically attack us,” he says, recalling one such attack in 2010. “Potentially it can happen there is no state security there,” he added, also citing the need for proper safety training for journalists covering the ethnic conflict. The dawn of a new day It is 5:30 in the morning. Dawn is breaking over Yangon and Sule Pagoda in central Yangon shimmers in a golden hue as the darkness retreats. Myanmar’s date with its political future has arrived.
A serious looking poll station guard, standing behind a flimsy cloth barrier, takes a long look at my election press card before waving me through. The voting booth is located in a colonial era building with fire trucks parked outside and I soon realize that it is a fire station.
As voters inside the polling station, chat excitedly, local journalists and civil society representatives waiting there tell me that expectations are very high from what is widely perceived to be the first free elections since 1990.
Among the first to vote is a white-haired man of around 60 with an easy, toothy smile. As he takes the ballot – a foot-long, rectangular piece of yellow paper – and goes to a nearby table to mark his choice, he is surrounded by foreign and local journalists eager to catch the big moment. There are no names on the ballot – only the symbols of the contesting parties.
He rises slowly from the table after marking the ballot, cradling the yellow paper in his wrinkled hands and walks towards a row of tables on which the ballot boxes – transparent plastic containers – are kept. The paper drops in and settles haphazardly among the other ballots.
A few hours later, Suu Kyi herself would exercise her franchise at a primary school in Bahan Township, fervently kissing the yellow ballot paper before placing it in the box, the watershed moment in Myanmar’s political history recorded by hundreds of journalists from around the world.
As social media channels explode with reports of the unofficial tallies of the vote count coming in from across the country, I meet Kyaw Lynn again at the NLD headquarters along Shwegondaing Road.
NLD red has flooded the street, forcing traffic to a standstill. Video screens in front of the party office show a live video feed from the polling centers as the voting closes. NLD campaign songs thunder out from loud speakers. People sing and dance, led by Mickey and Minnie Mouse amidst a swarm of local and foreign press. “NLD is winning almost all seats,” Kyaw Lynn tells me, a big smile on his face.Suddenly, a hush falls on the crowd as NLD patriarch Thin Oo appears on the top balcony of the NLD building. “We just won another township,” he shouts, his voice quavering. The crowd leaps into the air with a deafening roar. “I am very happy. Not as a journalist, but as a citizen of my country,” Kyaw Lynn later told me. Subsequently, as the final results would come in with the NLD securing a landslide win, the military-backed ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) and the military joined the world in congratulating Suu Kyi. Hopes are running high in the country that the massive victory of NLD would mark the start of the genuine democracy and freedom of expression in Myanmar. A hope articulated in the NLD Fighting Peacock song which continues to resound in my head. It is a new day for history for there is changeThe poem that was written in our heartsIs now being written for the future End This article is produced for the 2015 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program raising a theme “Covering the coverage of the 2015 elections in Myanmar.” Chino Gaston is a Filipino journalist working for the GMA News TV. In his spare time, he advocates media safety.