Journalists Beware
covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, March 23, 2019


Journalists Beware

By Aung Zaw AUG, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.7

Burma is not a journalist-friendly country. Reporting from Burma can be hazardous to your reputation, as a growing roster of foreign journalists is discovering. For foreign journalists, writing about Burma is no easy task, as they are not welcome in this military-ruled country. Many foreign journalists who have been to Burma felt nervous as they learned their activities have been monitored by intelligence officers or informers—and in addition to that, some of them have been harassed. Even after leaving the country, journalists are not safe yet. In Bangkok, Burma’s intelligence officials and their network are believed to follow the activities of journalists and, of course, check what they write in their respective papers, magazines or electronic media. If their report is not satisfactory for the intelligence officials, the journalists could be banned from entering Burma again for years. Rule number one is: Don’t be too sympathetic with the democratic opposition or with Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Dominic Faulder, who was the first foreign journalist to interview Sr-Gen Saw Maung, former chief of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc), now renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), also experienced difficulties from 1990 onwards, after he started reporting that the results of the elections were unlikely to be honored. "Up until the end of 1988, I visited anonymously and did not use my own byline. I had relatively good access in 1989, when I interviewed Saw Maung, up until Suu Kyi’s detention when I was perceived by some as being too sympathetic to her," he recalled. He is now allowed to go back to Burma. There are a few journalists who have not been allowed to enter Burma for more than a decade. Bertil Lintner is one of them. Lintner has written numerous articles and books on Burma, and is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable foreign journalists on Burmese affairs. The junta slammed him, saying his reports on Burma are groundless and based on wishful thinking. He is now on the blacklist, and has been barred from entering Burma since 1989. Does he care? Not really. "Blacklisting people never works," said the Swedish journalist based in Thailand. His argument is that journalists who get blacklisted are usually very interested in Burma and knowledgeable about the country. Besides, they have a better network of sources than other journalists who parachute in with new contacts and almost no background. That’s the chief reason they are not allowed in. Blacklisted people tend to be better respected, too. "If anything happens inside Burma, I am usually the first foreign correspondent to learn about it. For instance, I was the first foreign journalist to learn about Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 1995, and I had the news even before the diplomats in Rangoon knew what had happened," Lintner said. However, some journalists working for news services or international or regional magazines do not want to rock the boat. They would rather compromise and be quiet or at least careful in order to get a visa. Some less well-known freelance journalists apply for tourist visas to enter Burma, while others want to keep steady relations with some high-ranking officials in the intelligence service. Of course, it is helpful to have friends there, as incentives are also involved. Some officers at the intelligence service can be very cooperative. Col Kyaw Thein, Maj-Gen Kyaw Win, Col Thein Swe and Lt-Col Hla Min are favorites among foreign journalists. "They are interesting people. They speak English very well, and are well-educated," said a Western journalist based in Bangkok. What else? "They are hard-line, too," the foreign journalist told this correspondent at a coffee shop in Silom Road, looking around as if someone was monitoring the conversation. Megumi Niwano, a Japanese journalist working for a TV station in Tokyo, recalled that she applied for a visa several years ago but was denied. Yet she did not give up, and went to see Col Thein Swe, who was then a military attach้ in Bangkok. "I was surprised that I was denied the visa, because I had done nothing wrong," the Japanese journalist said. But Col Thein Swe thought differently. Upon meeting her in his office, Col Thein Swe told her that she had met some Burmese dissidents in Bangkok. The military attach้, now in charge of the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), told her bluntly: "I know you have met Aung Zaw [this correspondent] and a few other activists. They are no good for our country." It is still a mystery how he found out about Niwano’s appointments and meetings. It is, in fact, normal for reporters to meet with fellow journalists to find new sources of information.

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