WASHINGTON — Burma’s transformation from pariah state to aspiring democracy has been kind to blogger Nay Phone Latt. He was freed from a 20-year prison term imposed for his coverage of anti-junta protests. He now has a weekly program on US-funded Radio Free Asia and runs an internationally praised campaign against sectarian hate speech.
But he has a sobering message for US officials he’ll meet in Washington on Friday. While the nation’s media have more freedom than in decades, the powerful military is still “untouchable.”
US President Barack Obama visits Burma next week, and Nay Phone Latt and fellow dissident writer Ma Thida say he should call for the release of a mounting number of journalists facing stiff jail terms—one of the troubling signs that the political reforms in Burma, championed by the Obama administration, have stalled.
“Words are not crimes,” said Ma Thida, who speaks from experience. She spent five years in prison in the 1990s for her prodemocracy activities under the former ruling junta, on charges including distributing unlawful literature. She contracted tuberculosis in prison and was eventually released on humanitarian grounds.
Today, she and Nay Phone Latt lead PEN Myanmar, a branch of an international charity that represents 190 writers in the Southeast Asian country. It’s an organization that couldn’t have operated under the former regime, and it is a positive sign of the times that former dissidents are free to travel abroad. They will meet with senior officials at the State Department and the White House.
Easing state control of the media has been one of the most significant achievements of Burma’s transition from authoritarian rule. But optimism has ebbed since Obama became the first US president to visit Burma two years ago, and journalists are increasingly punished under antiquated security laws.
Ma Thida, 48, who edits Echo, a current affairs weekly magazine, contends that the recent jailings are meant to intimidate a fledgling free press, which is already struggling because of commercial pressures and a lack of training. Those concerns could intensify as the country prepares to hold general elections late next year.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the military and media are increasingly at odds over the reporting of information perceived as sensitive. The authorities typically defend arrests as a matter of national security.
Among the recent high-profile cases:
— Freelance photojournalist Aung Kyaw Naing died after he was detained by the military last month while covering clashes between the army and ethnic rebels. His wife Ma Thandar said his body, which was exhumed Wednesday, showed signs of torture. The military said last week they shot him dead Oct. 4 as he tried to reach for a soldier’s gun during an attempted escape.
— Four reporters and the chief executive of the now-defunct Unity journal are serving seven year jail terms for a January report about an alleged chemical weapons factory that the government said was false.
— Three journalists and two publishers of Bi Mon Te Nay journal, who got two years for a July 7 front-page story, reporting an activist group’s false claim that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders had formed an interim government to replace the current quasi-civilian administration of President Thein Sein.
Ma Thida attributed the misreporting to a lack of professionalism rather than political intent, and asks: “How does the government expect journalists to gain more skills when it puts them behind bars?”
Nay Phone Latt, 34, who was among 1,300 political prisoners who have been freed in the past three years, said the military remains isolated from the rest of society and above criticism, setting limits on Burma’s new democracy and freedom of expression.
“We have freedom, but it is a limited freedom,” he said.