Inked over, blotted, ripped out...
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Inked over, blotted, ripped out...

By Sai Lu MAY, 1998 - VOLUME 6 NO.3


The blind leading the blind: Censorship keeps the people of Burma in the dark, as the generals remain blithely unaware of the demands of the Information Age.

Is journalism in Burma dead? If not, it must be in a coma. In 1987, the publication of a poem which closed with the words, “...gone down is the circumference of the sun,” caught the attention of Burma’s hawk-eyed censors. The sun, or “ne win” in Burmese, sounds much like the name of the then-Chairman of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), Ne Win. The sentence, according to the censors, implied that “Ne Win had passed away,” and they ordered the line deleted.

The magazine which carried the poem, however, had already been printed, and so the publishers were ordered to blot out the line with silver ink.

The poem had been translated from English to Burmese by Maung Thaw Ka, a popular speaker and satirist who was later arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was tortured to death in Insein prison in 1991.

Another example of such anxious censorship can be seen in the handling of a short story written by Min Thit. The story concerns a father telling his son about Kyan Sit Thar, o­ne of the great kings of the Pagan dynasty who ruled over a peaceful and prosperous Burma. At the end of the tale, the son exclaims with emotion, “Papa, I want to meet Kyan Sit Thar.” The two-page story was banned. At the time, Burma had just been designated a Least Developed Country (LDC) and was quickly descending into economic ruin. It seemed the authorities feared that, if the story was published, it would rekindle interest in the golden era of King Kyan Sit Thar.

Such paranoia has become a feature of the Burmese leadership since Ne Win took power in 1962. Even under British colonial rule and during the era of Prime Minister U Nu, Burma enjoyed a flourishing free press. More than 30 newspapers, including English and Chinese language titles, were in circulation. But when Ne Win overthrew the government, all private magazines and newspapers were shut down, and many editors, journalists and critics were rounded up and thrown into jail. The 1962 coup not o­nly ended parliamentary democracy, but also signalled the end of freedom of expression and an independent press. Freedom of the press ended when Gen Ne Win staged his coup in1962. All newspapers were taken over and o­nly government-owned newspapers, Lok-tha-pyi-thu-nei-zin, and the English language Working People’s Daily were allowed to publish and report. The BSPP decreed that freedom of expression was o­nly permitted “within the accepted limits of the Burmese Way to Socialism.”

Hence, most Burmese who grew up under Ne Win’s socialist regime do not know what freedom of press and expression is.

Later, the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) whom artists referred to as the “Kempeitai office,” because their offices were the same o­nes used by Japanese Kempeitai officers during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, ruled that all books must be submitted to its censors before going to print. The PSB even limited the numbers of books to be published. From 1962 to 1988, many writers, cartoonists, poets, and singers were imprisoned for writings, words and stories which were deemed harmful to the government and country. Moreover, they were accused of being either pro-Communist or pro-rightist. Their work was double- checked and sometimes sent to the military intelligence services, with which the PSB worked closely. o­ne other result of this tight control was the popularity of light stories and poems, love-triangle stories, as well as futurism and symbolism.

After 1985, the BSPP allowed more private magazines to be published, while maintaining tough restrictions over what could be said. By 1988, more than 20 magazines and six newspaper were being published.

Three government-controlled magazines and all newspapers were controlled by BSPP. The newspapers each reported virtually the same stories about BSPP activities, and any criticism of the government was forbidden.

However, during the summer of 1988, when Burma’s streets were filled with peaceful demonstrators, almost 100 private newspapers, journals, newsletters and bulletins were in circulation. Even the government-controlled newspapers were accurately reporting events. For a brief period, the Burmese people were re-acquainted with freedom of the press. But this would last o­nly until the military staged a bloody coup in September.

“I was surprised, but happy that journalism in my country had flourished again,” said Aung Win, who was publishing a successful weekly journal during that democracy summer. “We never had a chance to try out our journalistic skills, although we also learned how to practice self-censorship,” he added.

Expressing the different view of the government, Gen.

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