Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from 19 months of house arrest on May 6 did nothing to improve conditions for the media in one of the world’s most repressive countries. More than seven months after the Nobel Peace Prize laureate was freed with the help of a U.N. special rapporteur, the ruling State Peace and Development Council had not fulfilled its promise to open a dialogue with Suu Kyi.
The generals who oversee all aspects of life in Burma, including the press, barred local newspapers from printing stories about Suu Kyi’s release, despite the fact that it made headlines worldwide. “What has changed since she was let out? Nothing,” said Aung Zaw, editor of the respected Thailand-based exile magazine The Irrawaddy.
Around the time of Suu Kyi’s release, the government began allowing foreign reporters relatively free access to the country, although limits on the number of visas allowed for international correspondents were reimposed later in the year. In October, the regime barred the press corps traveling with Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, the first Australian foreign minister to visit the country in two decades, from the capital, Rangoon.
Newspapers, magazines, and all other media in Burma (which the current military government renamed Myanmar after crushing a pro-democracy revolt in 1988) are either state-owned or subject to harsh censorship through the official Press Scrutiny Board. Burmese rely on shortwave Burmese-language broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, or the Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Norway, for uncensored information. However, those caught listening to such broadcasts can be arrested.
The only Internet access in the country is through a partially state-owned company, Bagan Cybertech, which in the last year was allowed for the first time to offer prohibitively expensive public access to a heavily restricted Burmese “intranet.” This service provides about 900 carefully selected Web sites, none of them containing news or access to the rest of the world, through Web-based e-mail. The government announced in September that it would allow the company to open a handful of Internet–or, more properly, “intranet”–cafés in Rangoon and Mandalay.
The litany of news topics that the Burmese people are not allowed access to includes everything from social issues, like widespread poverty and a burgeoning AIDS epidemic, to human rights developments, such as allegations that Burmese army troops have been involved in the systematic rape of ethnic minorities in northern areas of the country. News coverage in the country is generally devoid of political developments, with the exception of ribbon-cutting ceremonies and official government announcements.
A border conflict with neighboring Thailand reportedly led the regime to issue an order in May barring mention of Thailand or Thai products in the Burmese press. The exile group Burma Media Association (BMA) reported that the fashion magazine Beauty was banned in October for carrying advertisements from a Thai company. BMA noted that the ban has damaged the Burmese private media, which rely heavily on their prosperous neighbor for advertising revenue. In July, the government forbade 15 Thai journalists from visiting Burma, accusing them of “damaging bilateral relations, causing disunity among ethnic minorities and belittling [government] policies.”
When the architect of Burma’s retreat from the modern world, Gen. Ne Win, died in December at the age of 91, the event was also absent from the press. The former dictator held power for 26 years, starting with a coup in 1962. Ne Win imposed a reclusive, authoritarian form of socialism that impoverished what was once one of the richest countries in Asia. At the time of his death, he was under house arrest. Ne Win’s son-in-law and three of his grandsons were arrested in March 2002 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the current government. The stunning arrests, a subsequent trial, convictions, and pending death sentences against the supposed plotters all went unreported in Burma.
Although the government claims to have released more than 600 political prisoners in the last two years, the regime still holds at least nine journalists in jail. The best known of these is U Win Tin, 72, who has been imprisoned since 1989 and is in poor health. Sources in Burma have told CPJ that his long detention is due not only to his influence as one of the country’s leading journalists and intellectuals, but also to his role as a close adviser to Suu Kyi.
Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation
Thepchai Yong, The Nation
Suparak Kanchanakhundee, The Nation
Suvit Suvitsawad, Siam Rath
Wassana Nanuam, Bangkok Post
Trirat Sunthornprapat, The Daily News
Sorakon Ayulyanonda, Mathichon Daily
Yeow Thala Lom, Mathichon Daily
Lom Pianthit, Thai Rath
Maha Sethi, Khao Sod
Burma’s military junta, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), announced that it had banned 13 Thai journalists and a historian from the country. Labor Minister Tin Win said that they had been banned for writing anti-junta articles and “belittling” government policies, according to the Bangkok Post.
ccording to the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association, the blacklist includes: Chongkittavorn, Yong, and Kanchanakhundee, of the daily The Nation; Suvitsawad, of the daily Siam Rath; Nanuam, of the daily Bangkok Post; Sunthornprapat, of The Daily News; Ayulyanonda and Lom, of Mathichon Daily; Pianthit, of the daily Thai Rath; Sethi, of the newspaper Khao Sod; Phubua, Krithula, and Pairirak, whose affiliations are unknown; and Dr. Charnvit Kasetsiri, a Thai historian.
The Burmese junta, which tightly restricts the foreign media’s access to the country, has maintained a blacklist of Thai and other foreign journalists for years. The announcement of the most recent blacklist came amid heightened tensions between Burma and Thailand after the SPDC blamed Thailand for aiding ethnic Shan rebels who had attacked a Burmese military base in May.