RANGOON — While many have praised Burma for a broadening of media freedoms over the last couple of years, pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has cautioned that “absolute press freedom” in the country remains elusive.
The chairwoman of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Burma’s main opposition party, made the remarks while addressing about 300 local and international journalists at the launch of her new charity organization, the Suu Foundation, in Rangoon on Sunday.
The Suu Foundation was founded with the help of international health and education advocates, and Burmese intellectuals. It will serve as a humanitarian organization dedicated to advancing health care and education initiatives for young people in Burma.
Suu Kyi, who is also a member of Parliament, on Sunday criticized the Burmese government led by President Thein Sein, a former general of the ex-military regime, for failing to fully unshackle the country’s long-suppressed media. At the same time, Suu Kyi warned the country’s young reporters that their lack of experience left them susceptible to practicing journalism that did not meet professional and ethical standards.
“Many people talk about the amazing change in Myanmar. I would like to say this frankly: Greater freedom demands greater responsibility. Without press freedom, we cannot build a healthy democracy. If people ask me whether we have absolute press freedom, I will say no,” Suu Kyi said one day before an international media conference in Rangoon organized by the US-based East-West Center.
Under the country’s former military regime, Burmese media was stifled. Heavy censorship was enforced on publications, private daily newspapers were outlawed and reporters were often jailed for their work. Given the climate of fear instilled by the generals in power, self-censorship among journalists was as much a constraint to press freedom as any overt government oppression, and critical reporting of the government almost never made it to print.
While there is widespread agreement that Burma has come a long way since the darkest days of media suppression, recent government actions—including the arrest of a handful of reporters this year and a curbing of journalism visa issuances last month—has brought condemnation from press freedom and human rights advocates.
On Monday at the opening of the East-West Center media conference, presidential spokesman Ye Htut pushed back against speculation that the visa restrictions were implemented due to reports by some news outlets about an alleged massacre of dozens of Rohingya Muslims in western Arakan State in mid-January. The government has denied any killings took place.
“Reporters who belong to news bureaus here can still enjoy three-month, multi-entry visas,” Ye Htut said, claiming that the issuance of shorter-term visas for foreign journalists not based in country resulted from a reassessment following the World Economic Forum and the Southeast Asian Games, both of which were hosted by Burma last year. More than 100 foreign reporters who entered Burma for the two events overstayed their visas, prompting the new policy, Ye Htut said.
The presidential spokesman, who also acts as deputy information minister, said one foreign journalist’s visa request to attend the East-West Center conference this week was rejected outright. That denial was issued to Hannah Beech, a reporter for US-based Time magazine and the author of an article printed in the publication last year that was banned by Burma’s government.
“Some people are very angry about her,” Ye Htut said of the journalist, who penned an article about the controversial Burmese monk U Wirathu headlined “The Face of Buddhist Terror” for the magazine’s July 1, 2013 issue. “That will affect not only her but also this international media conference. We sent a letter to her that now is not an appropriate time [for her to visit].”
Meanwhile, the Suu Foundation’s immediate goal will be the restoration of Rangoon University and Rangoon General Hospital, which the organization hopes will one day serve as symbols of Burma’s progress in advancing its education and health care sectors—two areas neglected for decades under the former military junta.
Dr. Miemie Winn Byrd, chairwoman of the Suu Foundation, said at the conference that the foundation believed a healthy and educated population was key to fostering self-reliance and improving the livelihoods of the people of Burma.
“We believe that all of us can contribute to making a difference in the lives of the Myanmar people by improving their health and education. Our dream is that every Myanmar child may have access to proper health care and qualified education,” said the Honolulu-based Burmese academic.
Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh also spoke at the Suu Foundation launch, pointing out that the Burmese higher education system was highly regarded 50 years ago, with many students from Southeast Asia and beyond seeking to study at Rangoon University.
However, mismanagement under successive military governments from 1962 to 2010 saw a major decline in the Burmese education system, which continued nonetheless to graduate students with degrees of depreciating value into an economy with fewer and fewer opportunities to earn a living.
“To be a part of rebuilding the nation, it is always in my heart,” said Yeoh, who was cast to play Suu Kyi in “The Lady,” a 2011 biopic of the democracy leader directed by Luc Besson.
During the Suu Foundation’s official launch event, video greetings from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush were also screened, with the two women expressing their support for the effort.
The Irrawaddy reporter Yen Snaing contributed reporting.