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Premature praise for Burma's press reforms

U.S. President Barack Obama and President Thein Sein of Burma meet in the White House. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

Burmese President Thein Sein made a historic visit to the White House on May 19, the latest in a series of high-level symbolic exchanges between the two nations. While Thein Sein has been regularly commended by U.S. officials for his broad democratic reform program, President Barack Obama's praise this week overlooked a significant backtracking on promised media-related reforms.

To be sure, Burma's press has enjoyed significant gains under Thein Sein's quasi-civilian administration. Since taking office in 2011, the Burmese leader has ordered the release of all the journalists jailed under the previous military regime, ended pre-publication censorship of the local press, and lifted blocks imposed on the Internet, including bans punishable by imprisonment for accessing foreign and exile-run news sites.

Relaxed media restrictions have ranked among the most visible and measurable of Thein Sein's reforms. In response to Burma's opening, the U.S. has suspended economic sanctions, promoted private investment, and opened the way for renewed multilateral lending from financial institutions like the World Bank. On Tuesday, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, a staunch critic of Burma's previous military regime, announced his intention to allow key sanctions legislation to lapse in response to the country's recent democratic progress.

But as Thein Sein has won Western accolades and concessions, certain reforms of his have stalled or gone into reverse. That was seen tellingly in late February when the Ministry of Information unveiled a Draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law that aims to impose broad and vague censorship guidelines, including a ban on any media criticism of existing laws. That provision underscored laggard legal reform, including over laws used in the past to suppress and imprison journalists. Violations of the proposed censorship guidelines in the new draft law would be punishable by six months in prison.

Ministry officials tried to push the bill quickly through parliament in March, but resistance from local journalists and press groups suspended those deliberations until June. If the bill is passed into law in its current form, Rangoon-based journalists believe its censorship provisions, as well as an arbitrary licensing system, will undermine the authority of a separate Press Law now being drafted by the Myanmar Press Council with an eye toward protecting, rather than eroding, press freedoms. Ministry officials have since indicated they would make revisions to the Draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law, though a new version has not yet been made public.

Obviously, the U.S. has a wider strategic agenda in engaging Burma beyond the promotion of democracy and rights. News analyses have pointed to Washington's desire to counter-balance China's rising influence and nip budding relations between North Korea's and Myanmar's militaries. But if the Obama administration's public tack is to reward reform progress with carrots, it should consider re-imposing sanctions and other punitive measures in cases of backtracking. While Thein Sein's media-related reforms have been hopeful, there is no guarantee they will deepen or last.

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