Burma’s Privileged Pressman
covering burma and southeast asia
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Burma’s Privileged Pressman


By Kyaw Zwa Moe and Ko Thet JANUARY, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.1


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While other publications labor under draconian press censorship, The Myanmar Times enjoys freedoms few journalists in Burma can even begin to imagine. Relations between Burmese journalists and Ross Dunkley, the editor-in-chief of the Rangoon-based Myanmar Times, have yet to recover since the outspoken Australian issued a harsh criticism of Burmese reporting standards in the middle of last year. Angered by his remarks, journalists contacted by The Irrawaddy complain that Dunkley’s privileged position among pressmen in Burma has completely blinded him to the realities faced by other working journalists. The Myanmar Times has been dogged by controversy since its inception in early 2000, with many journalists working outside of the state-run press regarding it as little more than another mouthpiece of the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The weekly newspaper, which last year expanded its operations to include a Burmese-language edition, is closely connected to the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), an SPDC think tank, through its deputy CEO, Sonny Swe, son of OSS deputy chief Col Thein Swe. The media-savvy Thein Swe is widely considered to be the prime mover behind The Myanmar Times. Although The Myanmar Times enjoys little support among Burma’s hard-pressed journalists, who continue to labor under some of the world’s most draconian press restrictions, it has been well received by readers. The new Burmese-language version has become one of the most popular publications in Burma, despite its relatively steep 250 kyat (US $0.30) cover price. (The English-language version currently sells for 400 kyat, down dramatically from its original price of US $2.) But local readers say the weekly’s major selling point is its glossy look and feel, rather than the quality of its reporting. In a country where most newspapers and magazines are printed on cheap, coarse newsprint that barely holds ink, the smooth finish and color photos of The Myanmar Times certainly put it in a class of its own. But even slicker than its appearance are its modern marketing techniques, which give it an incredible edge over its post-socialist competitors. For instance, unlike other publications, which rely on the services of freelance deliverymen, the tabloid-style newspaper has its own private army of paperboys. Another undeniable difference between The Myanmar Times and other publications in Burma is its content, especially its coverage of political developments and the international response to the regime’s many human rights abuses. Although this coverage clearly toes the SPDC party line, the fact that it mentions such matters at all is remarkable by Burmese standards. No other publication has dared to even mention the ongoing dialogue between the SPDC and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi; even printing the names of senior opposition members is strictly off-limits for most newspapers and magazines in Burma. Similarly, The Myanmar Times has touched on sensitive social issues, such as Burma’s HIV/AIDS crisis, that other publications deal with very obliquely, if at all. Does The Myanmar Times represent a great leap forward, then? Perhaps, but few people in Burma seriously believe that Dunkley—who is the first foreigner to gain a foothold in the Burmese publishing industry in over forty years—is really pushing the envelope with this unwonted "openness". "Some of the news is worth reading," opines one infrequent reader in Rangoon. "But there is no doubt that most of it represents the views of the junta. It’s just a more subtle way to deceive people by making them believe they’re getting the whole story. But of course there’s much more they aren’t telling." In a country where there are no real alternatives, however, many feel it is better than nothing. "Of course, everybody knows that The Myanmar Times is controlled by the military," says one regular reader. "But who cares? If we didn’t read this, we’d be completely in the dark about everything." Whether or not Dunkley and his colleagues are lackeys of the ruling junta, there is little question that they enjoy an uncommonly high degree of trust among key generals. Not only is the paper relatively free of interference from the press censors (a freedom otherwise enjoyed only by state-run publications); its reporters are also able to glimpse unfiltered reports about their country and the world beyond. According to one Myanmar Times correspondent, the paper’s staff writers in Rangoon have regular access to the Internet—an almost unimaginable privilege in Burma, where the Internet is still the preserve of the well-connected few. What they do with such privileges is, of course, another matter. "The Myanmar Times has more rights than us," notes an editor of a weekly journal. "They can interview top generals and report things that we can’t.


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