Myanmar is a country rich in literature, culture and art, drawn on 3,000 years of civilization in Southeast Asia. The country’s myriad ethnic groups speak over 100 languages and use more than 15 distinct writing systems.
The 20th and early 21st centuries have put enormous strain on the cultural and social life of Myanmar, as successive authoritarian governments—from the British colonial administration to multiple military regimes—sought to control the country in all aspects. Many hoped that the transition to democracy that began around 2010 would finally unshackle the media and allow for a rigorous and free public discourse, but so far this has not been the case. Under the current, largely civilian government journalists and civil rights leaders have been arrested and intimidated, and historically peaceful inter-communal relations have been exploited for political gain.
Historically, Myanmar’s writers, journalists and authors have played a central role in the life of the country. From independence in 1948 until the first caretaker military government in 1958, there were hundreds of newspapers, magazines and journals active. But successive military governments stifled all forms of independent media for the next 50 years, leaving citizens with only government-censored news. Even when, in 2016, some of the last restrictions on a free press were lifted, many of the old habits of censorship and oppression still pervade the media landscape, and the journey back to a practically independent press stretches ahead.
Ruling elites in the current government, including military holdovers and Burman-nationalists in the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), have shown little interest in protecting an independent press and have in many cases persecuted members of it. Neither NLD leader and Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi nor her hand-picked president U Htin Kyaw have taken significant stands for a free press, and that message has made it down government structures. In the last 150 days, there have been almost weekly reports of abuse, intimidation or arrest of journalists by police and the military. Reporters are arrested for uncovering land seizures and official corruption, or for commentary deemed insulting to ruling elites. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies are silent on almost all of these cases, raising serious questions about her storied commitment to human rights.
In the1990s, exiled students and democracy activists began to form small, independent news organizations from refugee camps in India and Thailand. Using information smuggled out of Myanmar, we wrote reports for the BBC and VOA. After ten years of hard work, a few talented activists became full-time journalists in exile and the news organizations they created, such as the Irrawaddy, Mizzima and a multitude of ethnic-based groups, continued to expand their operations, finally reaching broader outside audiences with the spread of the internet. Many of these journalists joined forces in 2003 to form Burma News International (BNI), a group of mostly ethnic news sources. With strong networks of sources on the ground, BNI was soon approached by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), RFA and BBC for content.
It was these news organizations in exile that kept the pro-democracy movement engaged and rooted in the reality of life under the military government. Predictably, the government regarded these journalists as “elements of danger” to the state, a fact that has not changed even with the advent of civilian government. The recent detention of DVB and Irrawaddy reporters in northern Shan State offers a disturbing example. NLD leaders, who were themselves imprisoned and harassed between 1988 and 2008, have been quick to jettison their principles in their pursuit of political compromises with the military. Journalists, on the other hand, have no interests aside from reporting on stories if importance to Myanmar and the world.
The contributions that writers, journalists and public intellectuals have made to modern Myanmar are immeasurable. It was the students of Rangoon University led by Aung San who showed the injustice of British colonial rule in essays published in the 1940s. The mass movement for independence was rooted in the ideas of the countries intellectual leaders, who later constituted the first civilian government. Likewise, since the 1960s Myanmar writers and journalist have led the fight for freedom of expression and civil rights at great risk to themselves.
In short, Myanmar’s writers and journalists have always striven for freedom from fear, freedom of expression and civil liberties for all people, regardless of race and religion. In 2015, Myanmar’s media became so relevant as to truly constitute a fourth pillar of the state, widely respected both in the country and among international piers.
The role that journalism plays in a democratic transition is vast, and there cannot truly be said to exist a democratic government that severely restricts the media. Personal liberties and civil rights cannot thrive unless they are informed by an active and critical press. Unless the public is engaged and informed of current affairs, the government will not reflect their will, but that of the powerful.
Governments in Myanmar have long sought to neuter the media through violence, but if the last half century of history is an example, a free and independent press cannot be eliminated. In the fight for democracy and liberty, artists, writers and thinkers have a weapon more powerful than guns.