Under a Dark Cloud: Censorship in Burma
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Under a Dark Cloud: Censorship in Burma

By Aung Din JANUARY, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.1

Writers and publishers in Burma remain targets of one of the world’s most draconian censorship systems. Early one morning in December 1994, a group of Military Intelligence Services (MIS) officers and police surrounded a house in the northern quarter of Mandalay, Burma’s second city. The house was a bookshop called Ottaya Lwinpyin ("Northern Plain"), which belonged to Than Htay. Though they had no search warrant, they broke down the door and searched the whole bookshop. After a comprehensive search, they found a lot of pages that had been torn from books, magazines and periodicals. All the pages contained the slogan of the military regime and an official denunciation of the democratic forces, which must be printed on the first page of all materials published in Burma by order of the military. After the search of his bookshop, Than Htay was arrested and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment by a summary court. Now Ko Than Htay is in Mandalay Prison, where he suffers torture and mistreatment like all other political prisoners. Although Ko Than Htay was a democracy activist, he had never been involved in any political organization, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. He opposed the military as an individual and in his own way. His bookshop was the biggest in Mandalay, and he was the main distributor of all published materials for the market in upper Burma, with a population of 20 million. What Ko Than Htay had done was very simple. As a distributor to the upper Burma market, he regularly received packages of books, journals, magazines, and periodicals. Before he distributed them to customers and retail shops, he tore the first page out of every book as his own action against the military. Therefore, people who bought the books from his Northern Plain bookshop didn’t have to see the slogans of the military regime. This was the extent of Ko Than Htay's revolutionary activity, but it was not to last very long. This event illustrates the oppressive censorship of the press in Burma, a situation that has existed for several decades now. In 1962, the military government, which called itself a "Revolutionary Council" and was led by General Ne Win, introduced a State Publishing Act as a new law. As a result of this law, Press Scrutiny and Registeration Board (Board of Censor) was formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs. All the officers appointed to this board come from the MIS and a special branch of the police. Their duty is to scrutinize all the books, novels, magazines, and periodicals that have to be submitted to them before publication. They have the authority to reject, cancel, delete, and delay permission to publish without reason. They can demand that the publisher cover with silver ink any paragraph that they suspect contains a criticism of the regime. They can also demand that the publisher omit any pages that they don’t like, or insist that an author or columnist explain what he or she wrote and why he or she wrote it. They can delay publication, which can cause the publisher to suffer great financial losses. Even now, the military regime is still using this law and this board of censorship. Unofficially, it is known as "the Gestapo board of literature", after those who guarded Hitler in Nazi Germany in the 1940s. After the bloody suppression of the pro-democracy movement in September 1988, the military regime began to rule Burma with an iron fist. They accused all democratic forces of being destructive elements, the pawns of foreigners and the puppets of Western capitalists. At the same time, they declared themselves to be patriots, supreme loyalists to their nation, the only institution that could save the country. First, they wrote all their slogans and denunciations on billboards and placed them in every corner of the towns. Then they put their slogans on the first page of their own newspapers Myanmar Ahlin ("New Light of Myanmar") and Kyemon ("The Mirror"). After that, they issued orders to all publishers to put these slogans on the first page of their published materials. Therefore, when anyone opened a book that had been published in Burma, they would see the military’s slogans and denunciations on the first page. After 1988, as instructed by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), the board of literary censorship also insisted that all authors and publishers submit a personal biography. The purpose of this was to enable the censorship board to check authors, journalists and publishers for any political party involvement and other "undesirable" connections. According to a member of the board of literary censorship, they have a list of authors, poets, journalists and publishers who are involved in any political movement, or who are suspected of having any connection with the democratic forces.

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