Myanmar is liberalizing, but press freedom still has a long way the go

The government owned English newspaper of Myanmar/Burma

Davey Meelker

An essential step in the democratisation process in Myanmar is freedom of speech. I gladly observed that after 50 years of suppression the local population is getting less and less afraid to express their political concerns and preferences. They were happy to share their opinions about the regime and their support to the opposition. Nevertheless, the media is still subject to severe censorship. In order to make the next national elections of 2015 a democratic success, the censorship – among many other things – has to be lifted.

In preparing my trip to Myanmar I learned that I should be careful to talk about politics with the locals. The secret agents are everywhere and the persons criticising the military junta can get into serious problems. I was advised to talk about politics only when others will touch upon this subject. Well, it took the first person I spoke to about two minutes to lead the conversation to his ‘awful government’ and how his ethnic group is still being suppressed. When I met a monk an hour later it took him not much longer to stress his political concerns too.

It weren’t only those conversations that made me realise that the people are feeling more and more free to express themselves. What was most noticeable was the huge public support for the opposition. The face of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, was seen everywhere. It was impossible to walk on the streets and not notice the many pictures, paintings, calendars and other items featuring her image. She is to be seen in houses and shops and her pictures are for sale everywhere. On the streets people walk proudly with the face of the national hero and her party, the NLD, printed on their t-shirts.

The population dares to express themselves more and more. The next step is the media. Independent media are of indispensible importance in informing the people and monitoring the government. Unfortunately, the latter is impossible due to severe censorship. For example, there are two English newspapers in Myanmar (to my big surprise). To start, The New Light of Myanmar is government owned. The articles consist out of praising the generals and the ruling government, completely ignoring the recent political developments. While the world is writing about Aung San Suu Kyi, this newspaper did not mention her name once in the last two weeks. To balance this out, the other English newspaper, The Myanmar Times, used the first three pages to cover stories about her. Nevertheless, this independent newspaper can only publish stories after they sent it to government media departments for strict censorship. Consequently, the newspaper is published only once a week, never being able to cover the latest news.

In a country were 0.1% of the population has access to the Internet and only few can afford satellite tv to watch foreign news programmes, local and independent newspapers are an important source of information. Although there are improvements – for example, it was  forbidden to write about Aung San Suu Kyi not long ago – there are many more improvements needed. The population has the right to be informed and media has the duty to monitor the government. The first big test to show the Myanmar’s population and the whole world that government’s intentions to make Myanmar a free democracy are sincere are the next national elections.  One of the many requirements to pass the exam is that the censorship is lifted.

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