The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Escape from Fear

A Burmese journalist’s long journey to professional freedom

San San Tin was first exposed to the repression under which she was destined to live when she saw her father arrested in the middle of the night in December 1958.

She was just eight years old. “In those carefree days of childhood, I knew little about my country’s history or my father’s past,” she recalls in this fascinating account of her life under years of military rule.

NO Time for Dreams. Living in Burma under Military Rule, by Carolyn Wakeman and San San Tin. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 2009. P 195.
Her father, Ba Tin, was one of the pioneers of independent Burma, a comrade of Aung San, who appointed him secretary of the headquarters of the fledgling Burmese Independence Army in the midst of the war between Japan and British colonial forces.

After the war, Ba Tin worked for an independent Burma and was on the ground floor of the Secretariat building in Rangoon when gunmen broke in and assassinated Aung San and six members of the Executive Council, in July 1947.

Ba Tin went into business. But his “success in business never altered his leftist sentiments,” wrote his daughter.

The army took control of the country in November 1958 when Ne Win was invited by Prime Minister U Nu to form a military caretaker government. One month later, Ba Tin was arrested as a suspected communist sympathizer. He was released in March 1960.

Ba Tin was again arrested following a 1962 coup that installed Ne Win as Burma’s strongman. He was held for three months and was in failing health when freed from his second term in prison. He died in 1965, at the age of 49.

Her father’s exemplary life and early death clearly had a deeply formative influence on his rebellious daughter, who describes with touching frankness her embrace of socialist ideals during her late school years and entry to university. She even wore a Mao badge—until Burma’s Revolutionary Council banned them, sparking the first of many student riots San San Tin was to witness.

Her socialist beliefs were shaken by her experiences as a student volunteer in a government-sponsored rural literacy campaign, during which she encountered the abject poverty of villages neglected by years of central mismanagement. Volunteers were also instructed to gather data to help the government shape its economic program—leading a now critical San San Tin to question the use of such “amateur efforts to plan the country’s economic development.”

Family connections helped San San Tin to get her first job, in the Periodicals and Research Department of the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). Accepting a government position was the first of several challenges to her political conscience that San San Tin was to encounter on the difficult path to fulfillment as a professional writer.

Her dilemma is probably typical of millions of liberal-minded young Burmese who seek to develop their academic skills and true potential within a system that keeps them within a straitjacket of restrictions.

San San Tin appears to have aroused suspicion by failing to join the BSPP. She fell victim to the party purges of 1978 and lost her BSPP job. But two years later, again with the help of family connections, she was hired as a reporter by the BSPP’s official newspaper, The New Light of Burma.

San San Tin’s description of her time at the newspaper—the only woman in its busy editorial department—makes intriguing reading.

Some of the professional standards that accompanied the newspaper’s birth in 1914 seemed to survive. However, the official censorship that strangles the current New Light of Myanmar also haunted the newsroom in San San Tin’s time—and the daily routine included a meeting of a so-called “marking board,” which assigned incoming news reports one of four categories: compulsory, approved, ignored or prohibited.

Although reporting and editing foreign news, environmental issues,  and the arts, San San Tin was able to avoid what she describes as “policy stories.” With commendable frankness, she confesses that she feared losing her job by resisting assignments covering party guidelines, economic planning and other officially-sanctioned issues.

The uprising of 1988 brought a brief renaissance of press freedom under the short-lived administration of Dr Maung Maung. But, before the year was out, San San Tin found herself writing and editing propaganda for Burma’s new military rulers.

The turning point in San San Tin’s life came when she read an essay by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, the year the pro-democracy leader won the Nobel Peace Prize. “Like the captive spirits she described, I knew that I too was being held like water in the cupped hands of the ruling powers…I vowed that day to free myself from passivity and the grip of fear.”

The vow took her on the path into exile—eventually to the United States, where she now broadcasts for Radio Free Asia, and where she wrote her story in collaboration with University of California professor Carolyn Wakeman.

Together, they have created a compelling personal account of living under successive regimes of mounting incompetence and oppression.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |