Burma: The Censored Land
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Burma: The Censored Land

By YENI MARCH, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.3


Burma’s scribes use old ruses and new technology to stay true to their word and dodge the junta’s efforts to censor freedom of expression

Burma’s censorship board, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, continues to face new challenges in its never-ending efforts to sanitize the country’s print media. Armed with magnifying glasses and mirrors, the censors are on a mission to root out hidden political messages in poems, novels, stories and advertisements.

Burma has a well-earned reputation as “an enemy of the press,” but Burmese writers say they are undaunted by the ruling regime’s efforts to muzzle free expression. Censors or no censors, they say, writers of real mettle will always find creative ways to give voice to their true feelings.

Some, indeed, seem to find the challenge of working around draconian constraints almost irresistible. In January, popular Burmese poet Saw Wai published “February 14,” a poem about a man who fell for a fashion model but ended up brokenhearted.

Read vertically, the first letter of each line of this innocent looking Valentine’s Day poem spells out the words, “power crazy Snr-Gen Than Shwe.”

As soon as the authorities deciphered this surreptitious dig at the junta’s military leader, Saw Wai’s fate was sealed. On January 22, the day after his poem appeared in print, he was arrested and locked up in Rangoon’s Insein Prison.

In the wake of the crackdown on last year’s monk-led protests, the regime has imposed ever more stringent restrictions on the free flow of information. A news blackout on all local coverage of September’s nonviolent demonstrations is strictly enforced.

Except for some opinion pieces that characterized the uprising as a threat to national security—penned by officials at the Ministry of Information, which forced several publications to run them—Burma’s media has been unable to even acknowledge that the events of last September ever happened.

Outside the country, of course, the story was very different. Viewers around the world were shocked by images of soldiers in full combat gear viciously beating monks.

Inside Burma, only a tiny minority with access to satellite television were able to get a glimpse of the news that was reaching the international media. At the height of the protests, the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), run by exiled Burmese journalists, and the Doha-based Al Jazeera network, became essential sources of information in Burma’s main cities.

Threatened by the information from the outside world, in January the regime raised the annual satellite television fee from 6,000 kyat (US $5) to one million kyat ($780). True to form, the drastic price hikes were made without any warning.

When The Myanmar Times, a weekly newspaper with close connections to leading junta figures, carried a report about the increase in its January 11 issue, it was forced to suspend publication for a week.

The same thing happened last year, when the newspaper inadvertently ran an advertisement purportedly promoting Scandinavian tourism to Burma, with the word Ewhsnahtrellik—“killer Than Shwe” spelt backwards—in its heading.

This time, Ross Dunkley, the CEO and editor in chief of The Myanmar Times, was forced to dismiss two senior members of his staff, editor Nwe Nwe Aye and reporter Win Kyaw Oo, after being summoned to the office of the head of the censorship board, Maj Tint Swe.

Dunkley, who denied that he was acting under pressure from the junta, also formed a nine-member “editorial steering committee” and wrote an opinion piece reiterating his support for the regime’s efforts to impose a new constitution on the country: “I believe that [the junta’s] seven-point road map to democracy is the best way forward, and I support that.”

Dunkley knows that to remain within the intimate coterie of “media entrepreneurs” close to Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, he has to show he knows his place.

Dubbed “brokeback journalists” by others in the profession—in reference to a controversial 2005 American film about a love affair between two cowboys—the state-backed media rides roughshod over principles of journalistic integrity and stays in business by maintaining cozy relations with the junta.

Three companies—MK Media, Yangon Media and Eleven Media, run by Myat Khaing, Ko Ko and Than Htut Aung, respectively—dominate the private media market in Burma. All three businessmen, along with Dunkley, maintain close ties with Information Minister Kyaw Hsan.

“They are only interested in making money,” commented one leading Rangoon-based journalist.

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