On November 13, 2010, Nobel Laureate and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. A few days later a sports magazine called First Eleven ran a full front-page story with three innocuous-looking headlines -- "Sunderland Freeze Chelsea," "United Stunned by Villa" and "Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope" -- about a trio of English Premier League soccer matches. The journal submitted its advance copy of the page in black and white to the country's notorious censorship board for approval. It was passed.
But when the journal reached newsstands, the combined headlines -- "SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE" -- were splashed with an ingenious play of color variations. The parts of the text highlighted in bright red revealed a new message: "Su ... free ... unite ... & ... advance to grab the ... hope." That struck a rather different note from the coverage at the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which reported that Suu Kyi had been "pardoned" because of her good behavior during her years of house detention.
No wonder Eleven Journal quickly became the talk of the town in Rangoon. As a result, the censorship board, officially known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), suspended the magazine for two weeks. At least seven other news weeklies, including 7Day News, The Venus News, People's Era, and The Voice, were also suspended for a week for their coverage of Suu Kyi's release.
That was almost two years ago, and much has changed in Burma since. On August 20, the pseudo-civilian government dramatically shifted course by announcing that its 48-year-long practice of media censorship is now over. This announcement marks the culmination of a series of media reforms introduced by the new government that took power in 2011. In June 2011, the government started the first phase of reform by lifting censorship on publications involving the arts, health, technology, and sports. The second phase, which began in December 2011 , removed censorship requirements from publications related to economics, crime, and the law. The third and fourth phases, which took place in March and May of this year, rolled back restrictions on the media dealing with education and literature. And the latest reform -- the one from last month -- lifted censorship on publications dealing with politics, religion, history, calendars, and songs.
Today, if you find yourself strolling past the newsstands of Rangoon, the latest issues of the weekly journals are likely to have picture of Suu Kyi and other opposition figures splashed across their covers. Not surprisingly, Burmese readers tend to be better informed these days -- and not only about the pro-democracy forces (who once had to rely on the exile media to transmit their messages to the public), but also about once-taboo topics such as the ethnic civil wars in the country's borderlands, critical reporting 0n the Chinese government (long the Burmese regime's patron), and public protests against government policies.
For instance, the August 30 issue of 7Day News, which has one of the largest circulations among the weekly journals, bears the front-page headline: "Chinese government repatriates Kachin war refugees [back to Burma]," with a photo of the refugees. Inside, there's even more candor. Its article on the war starts off this way: "The parliamentary sessions held until now have not discussed comprehensively the wars in Kachin ethnic state, which have caused tens of thousands of refugees and cost the country massive military spending in just over a year."