Rocky Road Home from Exile

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 14 December 2012

“Don’t read The Irrawaddy.” That’s what former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt of Burma’s notorious military regime advised late Karen leader Gen Bo Mya during peace talks in Rangoon in 2004. The powerful then-spy chief, dubbed the “Prince of Evil,” added, “Because it only reports untruths and rumors.”

His words showed how the former junta, known as one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships, hated The Irrawaddy. Freedom of the press and independent media were the enemy of the generals. In return, Burma has long been named as an “enemy of the press” by international media advocacy groups.

Eight years after Khin Nyunt made these remarks, The Irrawaddy magazine is set to be distributed inside Burma for the first time. It is a historic moment for a publication that has survived in exile for almost two decades. Of course, most people view this as a step forward after the administration of reformist President Thein Sein relaxed media restrictions since assuming office in 2011.

Burma’s lack of press freedom meant that media groups mushroomed in exile, especially after the 1988 nationwide popular uprising. But most of these organizations, including The Irrawaddy, have now started opening newsrooms inside the country to continue their good work. This has been a breakthrough for the exiled media and democracy movement generally.

Burmese military leaders rarely met the press in the past. Instead, they used the media as a propaganda tool to prop up the regime. Former ex-junta supremo Snr-Gen Than Shwe never talked to a journalist for the entirety of his 18-year reign. Few of his subordinates did either.

Instead, they deliberately muzzled the media. In Burma, there was no such thing as a “press conference.” No journalists were recognized and no foreign reporters were allowed to work in the country. It was a dark era during which the huge population of the country had to rely on media groups in exile and short-wave radio broadcasts from foreign countries.

We can now say that this era has finally passed.

Thein Sein began meeting the press after taking office. The 67-year-old has given interviews to international media such as BBC Hard Talk, the New York Times, Channel News Asia, Voice of America and so on. Whether or not the president gave straight answers to journalists’ questions is another matter.

After his trip to the United States in September, Thein Sein said he wasn’t afraid of the press anymore and also encouraged his ministers to talk to journalists. Indeed, there are a couple of ministers attached to the President’s Office who are certainly not shy when approached by reporters.

But many cabinet ministers remain reluctant to address the media, and not many high-ranking officials are familiar with how the industry works. A constant refrain around Burmese newsrooms is that Naypyidaw ministries cannot be reached for comment.

After his American sojourn, Thein Sein also met a scoop of local journalists in response to complaints that he was only speaking with foreign media. The move was a positive reaction to legitimate requests for access from domestic journalists.

For the whole government, learning how to handle the press in a positive manner is an integral facet of the wider reform process—one that would aid that lofty goal of transparency.

But media reform, mirroring Burma’s overall political reform process, hasn’t really gotten off the ground yet. Nevertheless, compared with other ministries, there seems to have been some progress as officials have been instructed to behave with more openness.

But many journalists on the ground, including reporters for The Irrawaddy, still feel intimidated as they do not know how far they can go when covering sensitive issues, despite pre-censorship having been abolished in August.

Over the past two decades, just possessing a copy of The Irrawaddy magazine could put a person in jail for many years. Most people just heard of The Irrawaddy secondhand through broadcast media groups. But people are now free to grab one of more than 5,000 copies of the December edition distributed inside Burma for the first time.

They will be able to read the once-banned publication in public. It is an exciting moment, especially for The Irrawaddy staff.

Unlike Khin Nyunt, I don’t think many current government and military officials will be advising, “Don’t read The Irrawaddy.” Instead, I’m sure they will devour a copy with relish in their Naypyidaw offices.

I hope that President Thein Sein, who is known to enjoy reading, finds some time to pick up the debut issue. Hopefully, he has the strength of character to read stories that are critical of his government and move to address the issues concerned. I expect this will help him put 2012 in perspective and think ahead to 2013.