The Irrawaddy

Under a Dark Cloud: Censorship in Burma

The scanned cover of The Irrawaddy Magazine 17 years ago with a cover story on censorship in Burma.

On World Press Freedom Day, The Irrawaddy revisits this article published in The Irrawaddy Magazine in January 2001 about how writers and publishers remained targets of one of the world’s most draconian censorship systems.

Writers and publishers in Burma remain targets of one of the world’s most draconian censorship systems. Early one morning in December 1994, a group of Military Intelligence Services (MIS) officers and police surrounded a house in the northern quarter of Mandalay, Burma’s second city.

The house was a bookshop called Ottaya Lwinpyin (“Northern Plain”), which belonged to Than Htay. Though they had no search warrant, they broke down the door and searched the whole bookshop. After a comprehensive search, they found a lot of pages that had been torn from books, magazines and periodicals. All the pages contained the slogan of the military regime and an official denunciation of the democratic forces, which must be printed on the first page of all materials published in Burma by order of the military.

After the search of his bookshop, Than Htay was arrested and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment by a summary court. Now Ko Than Htay is in Mandalay Prison, where he suffers torture and mistreatment like all other political prisoners.

Although Ko Than Htay was a democracy activist, he had never been involved in any political organization, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. He opposed the military as an individual and in his own way. His bookshop was the biggest in Mandalay, and he was the main distributor of all published materials for the market in upper Burma, with a population of 20 million.

What Ko Than Htay had done was very simple. As a distributor to the upper Burma market, he regularly received packages of books, journals, magazines, and periodicals. Before he distributed them to customers and retail shops, he tore the first page out of every book as his own action against the military. Therefore, people who bought the books from his Northern Plain bookshop didn’t have to see the slogans of the military regime. This was the extent of Ko Than Htay’s revolutionary activity, but it was not to last very long.

This event illustrates the oppressive censorship of the press in Burma, a situation that has existed for several decades now. In 1962, the military government, which called itself a “Revolutionary Council” and was led by General Ne Win, introduced a State Publishing Act as a new law. As a result of this law, Press Scrutiny and Registration Board (Board of Censor) was formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

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

All the officers appointed to this board come from the MIS and a special branch of the police. Their duty is to scrutinize all the books, novels, magazines, and periodicals that have to be submitted to them before publication. They have the authority to reject, cancel, delete, and delay permission to publish without reason.

They can demand that the publisher cover with silver ink any paragraph that they suspect contains a criticism of the regime. They can also demand that the publisher omit any pages that they don’t like, or insist that an author or columnist explain what he or she wrote and why he or she wrote it. They can delay publication, which can cause the publisher to suffer great financial losses. Even now, the military regime is still using this law and this board of censorship.

Unofficially, it is known as “the Gestapo board of literature”, after those who guarded Hitler in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. After the bloody suppression of the pro-democracy movement in September 1988, the military regime began to rule Burma with an iron fist. They accused all democratic forces of being destructive elements, the pawns of foreigners and the puppets of Western capitalists.

At the same time, they declared themselves to be patriots, supreme loyalists to their nation, the only institution that could save the country. First, they wrote all their slogans and denunciations on billboards and placed them in every corner of the towns. Then they put their slogans on the first page of their own newspapers Myanmar Ahlin (“New Light of Myanmar”) and Kyemon (“The Mirror”). After that, they issued orders to all publishers to put these slogans on the first page of their published materials. Therefore, when anyone opened a book that had been published in Burma, they would see the military’s slogans and denunciations on the first page.

After 1988, as instructed by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the board of literary censorship also insisted that all authors and publishers submit a personal biography. The purpose of this was to enable the censorship board to check authors, journalists and publishers for any political party involvement and other “undesirable” connections.

According to a member of the board of literary censorship, they have a list of authors, poets, journalists and publishers who are involved in any political movement, or who are suspected of having any connection with the democratic forces.

Sadly, writers whose names have appeared on have never been allowed to publish their work. One young poet who had spent four and half years in prison for his involvement in an anti-military movement was honored when his poems were selected by the editors of Hanthit (“New Style”) and Shwe Wut Mhone magazines.

However, the poems were omitted five times by order of the board of literary censorship because of his prison record. It appears that these editors were warned not to publish his work by the officers of this board. It is common practice in Burma that many published materials are incomplete. It is necessary to read those works without an introduction or a conclusion or a part of the main body or an illustration.

In Burma, November is “Literature Month.” During this month in particular, literary talks or speeches are held nationwide. On these occasions, invited authors or poets come and give a speech about literature to the public. But the military regime forces some literary speeches to be cancelled by refusing to issue a permit for public gatherings.

In some places, the authorities want to be involved in selecting the authors to be invited. Some famous authors who the people respect highly are forced to withdraw by the authorities, as they don’t like their political background. Furthermore, the authorities brief all authors not to speak about political issues. Members of the MIS attend these events and tape all the speeches. If they suspect that any speech touches on a political issue, action will be taken against the author and organizers of the event.

Generally, Burmese people have a great admiration for literature, and a great fondness for authors and poets. They can be strongly influenced by an author whose work is respected and admired, such as Aung Thinn. Many people want to invite Aung Thinn to give a literary speech in their region, but some regional authorities don’t allow the invitation to be made, as they are worried about Aung Thinn’s ability to agitate and organize. He is only allowed to talk in a few limited places with a lot of restrictions. Since he cannot go to talk with the people personally, tapes of his speeches have been distributed all over the country.

In places where these traditional literary talks are banned, people gather in one place and listen to these tapes together. Concerned about Aung Thinn’s influence on the people, the military authorities have announced that the distribution of these tapes is illegal.

Tin Moe is a poet much loved by the Burmese people for his simplicity, kindness, and honesty. He was one of the founding members of the NLD and a close aide of Aung San Suu Kyi. He was put behind bars for 3 years along with other party leaders. After he was released from prison, he was not allowed to publish any poems and books, and he was banned from giving speeches at literary ceremonies. As a result he fled from Burma to Belgium, and gave a literary speech in Sydney, Australia in December 2000. Away from the stifling censorship of his homeland, he can now talk freely, independently, fearlessly and openly.

Frequently, privately owned magazines are ordered to print articles supporting the military, written by pro-military authors, which always denounce Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD. Publishers have no choice but to accept these orders. The worst experience for authors is when they are told to write for the military regime’s propaganda magazines, such as Myawaddy and Myatkhinthit. This is a nightmare for authors whose loyalty is to the people and democracy. If they refuse such a command, their lives are in grave danger. If they agree, they are misunderstood and lose the respect of the people.

Besides these problems, there are many military officers who are also given responsibility to investigate authors, such as Colonel Chit Naing (a.k.a. Chit Naing), Colonel Maung Maung Oo (a.k.a. Tin Than Oo), Colonel (retired) Tin Kha (a.k.a. Takkatho Tin Kha), Colonel (retired) Soe Nyunt (a.k.a. Htila Sitthu), etc. Their main function is to find authors who will support the military regime by offering them a piece of land, a literary award or a publishing license.

Another of their duties is to find out which authors are anti-military. One of the senior reporters of Myanmar Ahlin, the official government mouthpiece, said he had a special duty to gather news about authors and publishers and report to Col Soe Nyunt, who at the time was deputy minister of the Ministry of Information. He said there were many government reporters with special assignments from “Htila Sitthu” (Soe Nyunt’s alias), who rewarded them with cash and other things. He added that Soe Nyunt collected the news from his disciples and reported directly to Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, Secretary 1 of the State Peace and Development Council.

These few examples show the complete lack of freedom of the press in Burma. To anyone living in a democratic country, this situation may seem unbelievable, but unfortunately it is true and similar things have been happening in Burma for many years.

Some authors have been detained in prison for their support of anti-military movements, while others have fled the country to escape from the military dictatorship; the really unlucky ones have been forced to collaborate with the military. The sad reality is that years of repression have systematically eliminated press freedom in Burma.

Aung Din is a writer and poet living in exile.