New-Look State Dailies Herald Historic Power Transfer

By Lawi Weng 31 March 2016

RANGOON — The newsrooms of Burma’s state-run dailies appear to have been swept up in the winds of change blowing down from Naypyidaw this week, with redesigned front pages and glowing coverage of the triumphant National League for Democracy’s long-awaited swearing in to power.

The shift in tone was particularly notable coming from newspapers that, little more than five years ago, were known to print cartoons depicting NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi as a witch and traitor to country, with accompanying articles expounding on that general sentiment.

Thursday’s The Mirror deviated from its typical layout and content, featuring a sketch from well-known cartoonist Awpekyal, along with a poem from democracy activist Min Ko Naing, describing the country as a traditional dance show in which the long-neglected truth is now on stage, with young people fighting to protect it. Myanmar Ahlin daily also updated its layout and design.

Photos of the long-awaited transfer of power ceremony were front- and back-page news, and the papers included pictures of ex-President Thein Sein, newly appointed President Htin Kyaw, Suu Kyi (in a traditional blue ensemble, not witch garb), and various army generals.

The new layouts coincided with a transfer of cabinet personnel, including the head of the Ministry of Information—under which the dailies operate—from Ye Htut to Pe Myint.

Information Minister Pe Myint has said he will work to promote freedom of the press, and that media groups need to actively participate in the fight. He is a writer of renown in Burma, who serves as the vice chairman of the Myanmar Press Council, a role he is expected to step away from with his new job in Naypyidaw.

He added that Burmese media organizations should learn from international media laws, reform the current Broadcasting Law and take it upon themselves to draft new legislation.

He said that it was too soon to talk about releasing imprisoned journalists, but that in the future he would work to change a system that in recent years has punished reporters with fines or jail time for doing their jobs.

Some critics have said a democratically elected government does not need state-run newspapers, which under control of the ruling administration would be unlikely to print content critical of the party in power. That view is informed, in part, by the three state-run dailies’ track record as a brazen propaganda machine for the former Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government and the junta that preceded it.

But Ye Htut posted on Facebook that the new government still needed its own media in order to inform the public of its plans.

“You can change the staff, but the government still needs their own press to let people know their policies,” he said.

Thursday’s editorial page in Myanmar Ahlin praised the results of a 50-year effort on the part of pro-democracy activists, and the smooth transfer of power and state dinner held by the new NLD government on Wednesday evening.

But it also stated that the week’s momentous events did not mark the end of the journey in the fight for democratic reform, and that the new government still had a long way to go.

The editorial went on, “It was easy to talk about having peace and national reconciliation, but it will be harder to work for it.”

Opponents of their perpetuation, who say state-funded newspapers’ wider reach and subsidized budgets threaten private media competitors, will no doubt continue to watch the dailies’ metamorphosis unfold.