‘Myanmar Army is Indirectly Pressuring Media’

By The Irrawaddy 28 July 2017

YANGON — The Office of the Commander-in-Chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, released a statement on Wednesday prohibiting the usage of military ranks employed by the Myanmar Army for non-state armed organizations.

“We hereby declare that military ranks, which are entitled only for military personnel of the Tatmadaw (Army, Navy and Air), are not to be used in reference to persons of other unconcerned organizations; and that military ranks are to be used correctly in line with existing laws,” reads the statement.

The Irrawaddy has interviewed legal experts and journalists about the potential impact of the prohibition on news reporting and beyond.

U Sein Win, training director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI)

Yes, it is true that the previous military government had enacted a law about how the organizational structures and terms should be used in reference to members of people’s militias. I can accept it because people’s militias had agreed to follow those instructions in order to be formed as people’s militias. But the Tatmadaw can’t impose such a ban on other organizations. Such restriction is a negative sign.

We are still trying to achieve peace. How can we continue to engage in the peace process if [the Tatmadaw] doesn’t recognize the organizational structures of other armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and Karen National Union (KNU)? For example, if Gen Gun Maw attends the peace process, will he be referred to as Gun Maw? We can’t do that. Doing so is disregarding other organizations. The [Tatmadaw] can’t act like they are the only one. This contradicts the peace process.

It will also have an impact on the media. I view it as the [Tatmadaw’s] second step to deter the media to make reports about ethnic armed organizations. As the first step, it applied Article 17 (1) [of the Unlawful Associations Act]. They are making it difficult for the media to report on the peace process.

U Aung Thein, lawyer

There have never been cases of prosecuting and imprisoning for using military ranks [in reference to people not belonging to the Myanmar Army]. The government of the Socialist Program Party imposed a ban on using ranks like lieutenant and captain in reference to robbers.

Armed organizations formed according to the structures of an army would use military ranks. Persons such as Gen Gun Maw [of the KIA] have attended the peace talks [with the government] in his capacity as a general. And people’s militias also use the military ranks such as major.

How can we complain about them using their own military ranks while peace is still in the negotiation process? The government has invited and talked with those people and those organizations at peace negotiations. Though there is the [Unlawful Associations Act] which was enacted in the past, the government was meeting with rebels in the peace negotiations. I don’t want to argue about if they are right or not. But [the rebels] have their own forces, armies and organizations for their own causes. So, there are armies and clashes. And they would hate to be addressed themselves as ordinary persons.

The media did not invent the military ranks for them. When you interview someone who identifies himself as Gen Gun Maw, you can’t refer to him as U Gun Maw in the report. He won’t accept it. As long as a [single] Union Armed Forces can’t be formed in the country, the separate armed groups will use their own ranks. If this is prohibited, they won’t even come to the peace negotiation table.

It is nothing to do with journalists. Those organizations have used such ranks and risen up against the government for around 60 years. And they won’t just remove these ranks when they come to the peace negotiation table to talk with the current government. The media will refer to them according to the term they describe themselves. Journalists should not be prosecuted for this.

U Myint Kyaw of the Myanmar Press Council. (Photo: Photo by Myo Min Soe/The Irrawaddy)

U Myint Kyaw, Myanmar Press Council

It is not that the media have given them those ranks. The media has to refer to them according to the way they describe themselves. And the media don’t have the right to change that.

The [military] statement [issued on Wednesday], I think, is not yet an order. But it is still too early to say. Maybe they will issue an order. But it is absurd if the media will be given such an order. It is censorship and restriction on media.

Regarding the ethnic armed groups, the [military] sent letters to journalists in Irrawaddy Region last year [restricting the use of military ranks for non-state armed groups.] But no journalist has agreed to do so.

Editor of Mawkun Magazine, U Zeyar Hlaing. (Photo: Photo by Myo Min Soe/The Irrawaddy)

U Zeyar Hlaing, editor of Mawkun Magazine

The Tatmadaw applied the law based on the 2008 Constitution. So, the question is whether the Constitution has an effect on the entire territory of Myanmar, because, according to the Constitution, there must only be one armed forces, and the head of all the armed forces is the commander-in-chief.

As journalists, we are ethically responsible to present all information from all sources in different perspectives. It is journalistic ethics to make balanced reporting without bias.

While we are working for national unity, it is important that people get all the information about what is happening in ethnic areas. By doing so will help us understand each other. And it is the duty of the media to do so. So, it is not sensible that the Tatmadaw refers to a law that does not even have effect across the country.

My view is that they are attempting to impose censorship by threatening the media. Censorship was abolished in 2012. But if you think there is no censorship now, you are wrong. There have been many challenges. For example, some media agencies practise self-censorship because of the concerns of the owners of media agencies. The current government has even sued the media. The senior leaders of the ruling party have made derogatory remarks about the media. And the Tatmadaw has started to oppress the media as an example. This is not a good sign for a democratic society.

U Arr Man says the military are indirectly pressuring the media. (Photo: Photo by Myo Min Soe/The Irrawaddy)

U Arr Man, chief editor of 7 Day News Journal

In the statement, the military gave the example in reference to a militia major who was killed in a bomb attack recently. It is not clear whether the ban is only for people’s militias or both signatories and non-signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) too. We’re trying to get it clear. But we still can’t reach the military spokespersons.

If the ban is meant for all [armed groups], we have to question it because local media have widely published reports about the peace process and referred to them according to the ranks that they use to describe themselves since 2011-12.
The peace process has received greater attention since 2011-12. With more and more instructions, we feel like we are being restricted. This is indirectly pressuring the media.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.