Latest Burma 'Reforms' Another Farce

Why recently announced free press policy changes are meaningless.

While much ink has been spilled in the Western press about Russia’s worrisome attempts to reassert its influence over the former satellite republics of the USSR, relatively little attention has been paid to the extent to which the People’s Republic of China remains a malignant leavening force on the entirety of Southeast Asia. The “Republic” of Myanmar is one of the foremost exemplars of this Chinese influence, as the military junta which exercises an iron grip over the populace is both propped up by the PRC government and is insulated from Western pressure or sanctions by the same.

In an indication that the Burmese government is feeling some pressure to at least put on a show that democratic reforms are taking place, the government announced last weekend that it was relaxing its rigid censorship rules on the press. A closer look at Myanmar’s announced policy, however, indicates that the proposed reforms – like the alleged elections of a civilian government earlier this year – are almost entirely illusory (emphasis added):

Myanmar media reacted with caution on Saturday after the country announced a slight easing of repressive censorship rules for some publications, but kept its tight grip on news titles.

Sports journals, entertainment magazines, fairytales and the winning lottery numbers will not need to have prior approval from the information ministry before they are printed, publishers were told at a meeting on Wednesday.

However, officials said these titles would still be scrutinised before they go on sale.

What a huge leap towards democracy – newspapers in Myanmar can now publish the winning lottery numbers without checking with the government censor first. Of course, the real trap here is that even the superfluous and non-political sections of the paper will still be censored, they just won’t be censored before printing.

Under the current system, newspapers must submit all copy to the government’s information ministry before printing in order to prevent the newspapers from saying anything whatsoever critical of the government, which is prohibited by law. Under the new system, the newspapers can print without checking with the government first, but if the government inspects them after publication and finds the pieces unsatisfactory, the reporters in question can simply be jailed. Given that the Burmese government currently holds roughly three dozen members of the media in prison for writing pieces that displeased the Myanmar government, one can be sure that only reporters who are ready to serve a lengthy prison sentence will risk even the most mildly critical article about the ruling government.

The government’s ominous clarifying statement on the policy clearly indicates that it has no intention of allowing any sort of truly free press in Myanmar:

“If all publishers cooperate with us by really believing in us, they will get complete freedom for writing and publishing soon,” Tint Swe, deputy director general of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), told Wednesday’s meeting.

But the sports editor said a new media oversight committee, which will work alongside the PSRD censors, had added uncertainty for publishers.

Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Myanmar 174th out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index, has said the country’s pre-publication censorship of more than 150 privately-owned newspapers and magazines was “virtually unique in the world.”

Meanwhile, the Burmese government, along with their defenders in the PRC, will surely wave around this latest “reform” as evidence that things are changing in Myanmar, even while continuing to prevent their people from hearing anything mildly critical of the government. The government is likewise consolidating and tightening its control over Internet usage in the country, even requiring Burmese citizens to report on each others’ Internet usage:

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders released a report shortly after last year’s elections alleging that what the government had presented publicly as an Internet “upgrade” would in fact improve its on-line surveillance capabilities. “The new system requires Internet requests to go through even more ISP [Internet service provider] servers and therefore users are subjected to more screening and controls,” the report said…

Underground journalists who have kept the world informed about pivotal events that the regime has tried to censor will in future struggle to feed footage and information to foreign news outlets, as they did so effectively during the August-September 2007 uprising and crackdown.

The government’s improved online surveillance capabilities are already on display: in April a former army captain was arrested for possessing an e-mail with the words “national reconciliation” in its title. He faces up to 20 years in prison under the draconian Electronics Act and may well carry the distinction of being the newly elected government’s first political prisoner.

These are not the actions of a government that has the slightest intention of encouraging or even allowing true democratic reform.

The forecast for Myanmar looks bleak on almost all fronts. Like many countries in Southeast Asia, it remains pressed between the totalitarian PRC on one side and totalitarian-minded Islamists on the other. Sadly, much of the region looks to remain hostile to the interests of Americans, Christians, and the basic freedoms of its own citizens.

Leon Wolf is a Nashville attorney, and contributing editor to, as well as numerous other online publications. He is a veteran of several Republican political campaigns.