The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
A Parallax View

The Myanmar Times has boosted transparency and improved journalistic standards in Burma, says the newspaper’s editor. While traveling in Shan State along the road to Mandalay, artist Zaw Win Pe, 43, caught a glimpse of the sun setting over the landscape, highlighting the earth in reds and pinks, purples, blues and yellows. "We arrived at this place just at sunset, and the rising mist threw purple shadows on the red earth of the fields, and the sun’s last rays pierced the atmosphere and splashed on the hills like molten gold," he said. "I thought I had been transported to another world." The colors overwhelmed his thoughts and emotions. Zaw Pe Win realized then "it would be a great painting." He successfully expressed that beautiful Shan landscape in oil on canvas. The painting recently won the 2004 Myanmar [Burma] Contemporary Art Awards. Zaw Win Pe’s painting competed against 226 other works in this national art competition. The three winners between them received US $6,000 in prize money. This week [March 18] the exhibition will travel to Hong Kong where Myanmar’s up-and-coming artists will be introduced to an international market. Today, there are changes in the way younger artists relate to society. They are breaking out of old social restrictions, not with arrogance, but with confidence. As U Ba Nyan and his contemporaries were the pioneers of change from the classical art in the early parts of the 20th century, the young artists of today are at the vanguard of another change, a change that reflects the strength and vitality of this new century. Third prize winner, Zin Linn Yuu, a Mandalay modernist, summed it well: "In the past my paintings were full of pain and despair. But now I feel that in tune with the hopes of the new century, I seek to feel the throb of life at every moment in time and I want my paintings to reflect this." I mention this art competition because The Myanmar Times sponsored it—filling the gap caused by the Philip Morris company’s pitiful, even hypocritical, decision to exclude Myanmar competitors from its "Asean" contest. Without us such a nationwide event would never have gotten off the ground and that’s the whole point: The paper provides a valuable service to a community hungry for better news and information. It creates social awareness and better transparency at a time that very community is grappling with its future. In fact MT in both languages is a large contributor to the community. Amongst other things, we sponsor the national food awards, we support various charities and provide free publicity for numerous causes. In some ways we are also a social focal point; there would certainly be a void if we were not part of the publishing landscape. I don’t intend to write a defense of the newspaper in this space, but I can’t help but feel some satisfaction at some of the things we do. The activity that gets me the most is the journalist training program we run in our Yangon [Rangoon] office. During the past two years (and four courses) we have given a thorough grounding in journalism to 25 bright, young people. I also take some satisfaction that since The Myanmar Times was launched we have "raised the bar" so to speak for all publishing in the country. The result has been that publishers here have had to become more professional, cater more to reader and advertiser requirements, and produce publications that are of higher quality. Advertisers and readers have been prepared to pay for that and the price of advertising and subscriptions has risen to levels where the professional players can break even and make profits. Local publishers have nothing to fear from us. Quite the contrary in fact. We are a positive influence and I believe government leaders in Yangon and across the political spectrum would support this view. I am very optimistic about our next two or three years. I also believe The Myanmar Times has taken an instrumental lead in creating a more favorable environment for all of the media. It has also served as an educational tool for decision-makers in understanding the role a more transparent media can play—how it can actually help, not hinder. We have been very successful in that respect and we have broken a lot of new ground. I certainly believe that most ministers and senior officials are reading our papers, from the Senior General and PM to others in the cabinet. I get the impression they really like reading it. What we printed in the early days was significantly different from what is printed now. These days we talk rather more freely about AIDS, education, social challenges, business and the economy. Of course, at this point we are not free to publish what we like. However, I hope that in the not so distant future that papers like ours will be able to exercise responsible journalism without the censor’s red pen. I’d like to think we were doing our bit. I have been asked to comment on the roadmap. Naturally, everyone continues to speculate on its progress and the truth is we are at another juncture in Myanmar’s political history—the most engrossing I have seen in my time here. I remain optimistic that its momentum will continue. The important thing we have to acknowledge is that the government, a military administration, has finally mapped out the journey and appears committed to carrying it out. It’s their call and they appear genuine. Of course many "Burma watchers" complain that the roadmap is another ruse by the government and that it doesn’t intend to follow it through, therefore no timeframe has been set. I disagree with that because I believe the process is moving along, and that, as always, the hardest part is actually starting. Right now there is maneuvering behind the scenes. For the PM it is a most challenging time, perhaps his defining moment. He is negotiating with a range of parties prior to the start of a National Convention. The government says all political stakeholders in the country will be invited to participate in drafting a new constitution. This is no easy process. There are 135 national races and ethnic minorities in this country of 50 million. Furthermore, there are 10 registered political parties from the last election in 1990. Of these 10, the biggest are the National League for Democracy, or NLD, and the National Unity Party, or NUP. Then you have the military factions. The PM is focusing first on the national races and ethnic minorities before he moves onto substantial dialogue with the NLD and others. I want it to happen sooner; the international community wants it now; the Myanmar people are waiting. It was therefore interesting to note the visit of UN envoy Razali Ismail to Yangon just a couple of weeks ago. Some political watchers have said he is pursuing a plan for the United Nations to become more involved with the roadmap. According to an AFP report, the envoy had come to Yangon to propose that the NLD take part in a new forum with the ruling State Peace and Development Council and ethnic parties, thus paving the way for the National Convention. There is commonsense in the idea because there could be close to 1,000 delegates at the convention. I cannot imagine 1,000 people, anywhere, sitting in a room and reaching agreement. So, we should be patient for a little while longer. In the Myanmar community there has been a decade-long wait or more and there is bitterness in many quarters. Careful preparation is the key at this time. Generally, I get the feeling that the government wants to be more involved in the international community. I am optimistic about the prospects for meaningful progress towards implementing the roadmap ahead of 2006. Ross Dunkley is Editor-in-Chief of The Myanmar Times, a weekly newspaper published in Rangoon in English and Burmese. Mr Dunkley’s Burmese partner is Sonny Swe, a son of Thein Swe, a department head at the Office of the Chief of Military Intelligence.

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