The Irrawaddy

The (Martial) Art of Writing

Reporters shout as they march to demonstrate for press freedom in Yangon, January 7, 2014. / Reuters

On World Press Freedom Day, The Irrawaddy revisits this article published by The Irrawaddy Magazine in January 2001 about the subtle ways in which writers and publishers had to defend their work against military censors.

Burmese writers and publishers have become masters of journalistic kung fu, using subtle means to defend their work against the lethal attacks of military censors. With retirement looking increasingly likely for Burma’s top military leader, there may soon be more time for him to indulge in one of his more passionate pastimes: reading Chinese martial arts novels translated into Burmese.

Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the aging and reportedly ailing chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is also known to be a big fan of Chinese soap operas, which have become familiar fare on state-run Burmese television over the past decade.

But despite this vogue for all things Chinese, there is one subject related to China that few publishers dare to touch: Beijing’s relations with the Burmese junta. Like all other subjects that touch upon how the regime maintains its ruthless hold on power, writing about China’s role as the SPDC’s major arms supplier is strictly taboo.

“It is true that we cannot write about China,” said one Rangoon-based writer recently. “If we did, it would never get past the censorship board.”

Worse still, the offending article could land both the writer and his publisher in jail for up to five years, and force the magazine or newspaper to shut down—temporarily or forever.

Less sensitive are articles that deal with anti-Chinese sentiment in Burma. With large numbers of illegal Chinese immigrants flooding into the country in recent years, social tensions between them and local people, particularly in Upper Burma, have become a growing problem. But much of the resentment towards these settlers is based upon the perception that they are beneficiaries of an arrangement between China and the regime in Rangoon.

The original print version of this story appeared in the January 2001 issue of The Irrawaddy Magazine.

“We do write about Chinese influence in Burma, but in a very subtle way so that the censorship board won’t notice it,” remarked the writer in Rangoon.

In a country that has been kept in the dark for decades by successive military regimes, writers and publishers have become adept at indirectly shedding light on sensitive subjects. But even masters of the fine art of journalistic shadow boxing will occasionally fail to duck a punch from their faceless sparring partners in the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) until it’s too late.

Often, ironically, it is the more innocuous-seeming subject matter that incurs the strongest response from the censors. By now, most writers in Burma have learned to think twice before reporting on international sporting events involving Burmese teams.

In 1998, for instance, writing about the Burmese national football team was banned for almost a year after Sr-Gen Than Shwe, disappointed by the team’s loss in an important match in Brunei, told his aides that he didn’t want to hear another word about it.

Following another poor showing at the Tiger Cup tournament in Chiang Mai, Thailand late last year, the team was once again consigned to media obscurity. In one striking instance of play-by-play censorship, a decisive goal by an Indonesian striker against the Burmese team caused the state-run TV Myanmar to go off the air for several minutes.

But the censors’ responses are not always so predictable. According to writer Tin Maung Than, there are no policies or guidelines telling publishers what they can or cannot put into print. Citing his own experience as editor of Thintbawa magazine, Tin Maung Than describes the time he was forced to pull a story on the growing popularity of t-shirts and jeans among Burmese youths. The report, based on a survey, happened to coincide with a speech given by a top general on the importance of preserving Burmese culture, and the evils of Western ways.

“It’s shameful for our country that we cannot even write about t-shirts,” said the writer, who recently fled from Burma to escape persecution.

But Tin Maung Than can also commiserate with the people who have long been the bane of his profession.

“You cannot blame the PSB officials. They also have to look at their superiors,” he said sympathetically.

There was a time, indeed, when censors were well-read individuals who established personal relations with writers and publishers. Until the 1980s, many PSB officials were retired army officials or bureaucrats with a mature appreciation of the value of the stories that crossed their desks.

Under the current regime, however, most censors are young military intelligence officers who have no familiarity with or interest in the work of writers.

“They don’t have a clue about the subjects of our stories,” complained one writer who edits a well-known journal in Rangoon. “They don’t understand what we are writing about, so they are always suspicious of our work,” he added.

Despite the dearth of qualified “critics” in the PSB, however, the number of publications in Burma has grown considerably in recent years.

While this may be seen as a relaxation of restrictions on the press, few writers believe that they enjoy any greater freedom now than they did in the past. “They will never tolerate it if we write about politics,” remarked Tin Maung Than. “I don’t think there is any relaxation.”

A recent decision to allow a Time magazine report on the HIV/Aids situation in Burma to enter the country uncensored has also been seen by some as a sign that the regime has relaxed its guard against criticism. Even foreign magazines, which have a very limited readership inside Burma, are normally subjected to stringent censorship.

But the decision to let the Time article pass is not so remarkable, considering that in 1995, Tin Maung Than’s Thintbawa ran a cover story on HIV/Aids without running into trouble with the authorities, even though it pointed out some inaccuracies in official figures on the disease.

Official ambivalence about this subject appears to have created a gray zone into which more intrepid writers may occasionally stray. Considering the risks, however, it’s not surprising that many prefer to stick to writing kung fu novels.