Democracy Lab

Reporters with Borders

Burmese journalists are enjoying their newfound freedoms. But there are still plenty of limits to how far they can go.

March 30, 2013 marked the two-year anniversary of Burma's current reformist government. Two days later, on April 1, the first batch of private daily newspapers to be published in more than half a century hit the stands -- a fitting tribute to the country's gradual opening.

The past two years have seen a quiet revolution for Burma's media sector, which for so long knew only stifling censorship. The last of the private dailies was banned in 1965, three years after General Ne Win took power in a coup; the military junta he headed had brought the entire press industry under its control. Fearful that censors would find it hard to spot signs of dissent in the daily media, the new government made sure that news from there on out could not be news. Private publications were ordered to send pages to the censor board days in advance, which meant that content was both out of date and heavily sanitized.

Nearly half a century later, the official dissolution of the censor board in February 2013 marked a dramatic change in the media sector, and journalists have been able to capitalize on hitherto unknown freedoms -- press entry to parliament, access to government officials, and the demise of pre-publication censorship. But the shift masks a lingering reluctance to allow the fourth estate to operate wholly independently, with monitoring committees set up to ensure journalists adhere to vague media laws that still carry the threat of imprisonment. And then there are the risks of an unpredictable market, including the potentially monopolistic inclinations of Burma's well-connected business tycoons.

For the newspaper industry, the launch of dailies sparked a scramble among editors to transform their operations. "I've had to change the whole structure of the organization to meet the standards of a daily newspaper," says Ko Ko, chairman of the Yangon Media Group and publisher of the Yangon Times, which launched its first daily in May. "I need new desk editors and copy editors; I need to expand the circulation department and upgrade our marketing department."

The paper is in its eighth year, but Ko Ko makes it clear that the transition from weekly to daily coverage marks a new beginning for him and his team of journalists. There is a new crop of reporters, many in their early 20s, who are themselves emerging from an environment in which free media was harshly suppressed. (Journalists who refused to toe the regime's line could end up with prison sentences of up to 20 years for a variety of offenses.)

Yet the world they are entering remains filled with hazards. Many of the laws that put journalists behind bars remain in place, and a press bill approved by the Lower House in July 2013 bans publication of any material deemed critical of the military-drafted 2008 constitution. As human rights groups have pointed out, the bill's definition of "publication" is so broad as to include posters and emails. It essentially places media outlets under the control of the government.

What went largely unnoticed was the establishment via presidential order of a media monitoring committee in early January, which was tasked with ensuring that publications adhere to this press bill. The committee includes representatives from a range of ministries that should, on the surface, be of little concern to media, including the national police and the Military Security Affairs office. The composition of the body speaks to the fact that hawkish elements of the government and military are eager to retain a degree of influence over a media that should ostensibly be free to report on issues of malfeasance or abuses by the army.

The government claims the new press bill will break with the archaic 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law. Critics, however, have argued that it will merely institutionalize a less draconian but still dangerous form of self-censorship. The uncertainty over how far to push the boundaries of free expression is exemplified by a lawsuit launched against a journalist at The Voice Weekly who reported on rampant corruption in the mining ministry. It was later dropped.

The lingering hostility toward free speech bubbled over late last year when, in an unprecedented move, parliament voted in favor of creating an emergency committee to investigate a blogger by the name of Dr. Seik Phwa. He had criticized a move by military-aligned MPs to block a new bill that would lessen parliament's influence over the judiciary. Parliament's decision points to both a continued desire to control the courts and to limit the media when it interferes with the interests of the elite.

The international attention both incidents triggered may, however, have led to the deployment of subtler tactics. Some believe that a requirement in the press bill that newspapers reapply for a license each year is intended to control content. Editors are likely to avoid angering the government if it carries the potential for them to go out of business.

Journalists in Burma are now treading on shaky ground -- and this goes beyond just censorship. The economic survival of newspapers has also been called into question, particularly with their entry into the daily news cycle. Major hurdles loom, not least of which is competition for readership with the slew of other dailies being launched around now. Thirty-one titles in total have received licenses. Included in these are political party-run papers -- both the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the opposition National League for Democracy now have new mouthpieces with which to gauge public support for policy proposals.

Ko Ko thinks most newspapers will start out with a relatively small circulation of around 30,000 in a population of nearly 60 million, and go from there. Investing too heavily in such an unpredictable venture is dangerous, given the sea of logistical problems that exist in Burma, from a printing industry that will be suddenly forced to accommodate more than half a million new publications each day to the age-old problem of daily power cuts.

It's an adapt-or-die scenario, and the likelihood of all the dailies still being around next year is slim. The looming competition for readers goes hand in hand with competition for advertising revenue, and arrives just as a struggling print world turns to the Internet. English-language newspapers, which cater to a much smaller print audience in Burma, will feel this most, although all will have to make major adjustments.

"To survive, those [weekly newspapers] that don't go daily will have to become niche products rather than the general news publications they are at the moment," says Thomas Kean, editor of the English-language edition of the Myanmar Times, which was and still is the country's only private English-language newspaper. The Times is also bringing in new staff in preparation for the switch. It's an uncertain period, but Kean thinks the move to dailies will lead to a maturation of the media industry. "Although readers will have fewer publications to choose from, those they will be able to buy are likely to be better resourced and offer broader coverage than weeklies can at present," he says. "They will have larger newsrooms and also a better geographic reach."

But there's a flipside. "Often the newspapers that are going to go daily have access to capital, and usually that is because of their association with cronies or big business interests that were linked to the former or current government," says Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Crispin thinks that the nature of the media marketplace in Burma could lend itself to a consolidation of titles that are affiliated with the government, in turn allowing it to better control the press.

To make matters worse, a recent bill has transformed state mouthpieces into public service media outlets. These outlets will get 70 percent of their funding from the government. The other 30 percent will be independent revenue. Critics argue it will tip market competition heavily in favor of government-affiliated papers.

The problem could be further exacerbated by cronyism. 7Day News Journal, for example, one of the most popular weekly journals, is run by the son of former Foreign Minister Win Aung. Another title traditionally seen as close to the government is Weekly Eleven. Its attempts to forge a more independent path through close coverage of the Kachin conflict and the army's controversial aerial bombardment of rebel positions in December carried a cost. In January it was hit with cyberattacks that paralyzed its website. While no one claimed responsibility, it is widely thought that elements within military intelligence were behind it. Shortly after, the email account of its chief editor and those of three other Burmese and international journalists who had been closely covering events in Kachin were hacked.

Amid this uncertainty, exiled media groups who were traditionally cast as archenemies of the Burmese state are attempting to set up inside Burma. Two main issues are fuelling their return: First, that the fight for popularity in the new media environment will inevitably favor those with a stronger on-the-ground presence; second, that funding for exiled media groups will dry up as domestic outlets gain strength and Western countries forge stronger alliances with Naypyidaw.

Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma, says that its dependence on donor money, the future of which remains uncertain, is the real problem. As for competition, he thinks those media groups that cut their teeth independently from the government can steal a march on local media.

"Coverage of hardcore political issues is new for domestic media," he says. "They still can't compete with experienced outside media; they don't dare to face up to authorities and ask the types of questions they need to ask, which we know how to do."

The group's future in Burma won't be sealed until the government addresses its broadcast law, which currently bars foreign-based television media that broadcast inside the country from opening offices there, and that likely won't be until 2014. Despite no longer being entirely state-controlled, television remains closely monitored. Content aired by the likes of SkyNet, the country's only private station, still goes through a series of checks before being broadcast. In that sense, television stations outside of the country have more freedom regarding sensitive content than do local groups. Their larger audience could potentially grow more now that historical fears about watching exiled television have dissipated.

The environment evidently remains too uncertain for foreign investors seeking opportunities in Burma's media sector. Last year, the Thai newspaper The Nation launched a joint website with Eleven Media, which owns Weekly Eleven, but beyond that, options are limited. The recently announced investment law only allows investment in foreign-language newspapers, which are few and far between. The state-run New Light of Myanmar has been looking for partners for months now, but has so far received no interest. Given concerns about how to monetize media outlets in Burma, it could be some time before newspapers really open up to outside capital.

This all adds to a pervasive anxiety about how the transition to potentially freer media in Burma will play out. The skills and capacity of homegrown journalists will also be a major factor in separating those newspapers who stay afloat and those who sink. Many were trained in state-controlled institutions and were effectively spoon-fed material to report on by the government. Having been conditioned against the essential modus operandi of reporting -- the seeking out of ones own material, scrutiny of authority, and so on -- it will take an extraordinary amount of dedication and resources on the part of money-strapped editors to transform this generation of journalists.

Compounding all this is a natural unease about what this transitional period actually means, and where it will end up. "There's a risk that the government is using this period of openness as a way to join the dots between journalists and their contacts, the way they operate, who talks to who, and so on," says Shawn Crispin. "And if this period comes to a close then the government is going to have an awfully nice diagram of who thinks what and who writes what."

That fear, common among editors, is itself a ripe ingredient for self-censorship. With more than half a century to fester, fear of authority in Burma is firmly internalized. Coupled with the knowledge that there is obvious discord within the government over this budding era of openness, journalists' ingrained inclination towards self-censorship could last well into the future. Should media really open up, the rewards for journalists, investors, and 60 million Burmese will be rich, but the foundation upon which the fourth estate stands is shaky.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Military's Still in Charge

Why reform in Burma is only skin-deep.

Since ex-general Thein Sein assumed the presidency in March 2011, foreign observers have generally appeared optimistic that Burma is on its way toward some kind of liberal democracy. The only snag seems to be the ongoing conflict with ethnic rebels in Kachin, Burma's northernmost state, which has been explained as local commanders acting with "an unusual degree of autonomy." Either that, or people question the president's ability to control the military during the country's democratic reform. Some foreign analysts have argued, however, that the outside world needs to support Thein Sein's "reformist" government against so-called "military hardliners." 

According to this narrative, neither Thein Sein nor the military are held responsible for the brutal suppression of the Kachins, which has not come to an end despite a tentative peace agreement reached in the state capital of Myitkyina in May 2013. In fact, the two sides only agreed to undertake efforts to achieve "de-escalation and cessation of hostilities" and "to hold a political dialogue." No firm commitments were made concerning when and where such talks would take place.

This decades-long civil war reached its height in January 2013 with the inclusion of massive artillery barrages supported by airstrikes from helicopter gunships and fighter jets. It defies logic that such a large-scale offensive could have been launched by some local commanders or, as the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies claims, that "a minority of the military" is acting "as a spoiler" to the democratization process. This assessment reflects a lack of understanding of the Burmese military's command structure as well as of its relationship with Thein Sein's government.

It is too often forgotten that Thein Sein came to power through the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the name for Burma's military regime. The SPDC seized power in 1988 and was officially dissolved in March 2011 when Thein Sein assumed the presidency. Thein Sein was heavily involved with the junta government. His positions included general of the Burmese army, first secretary of SPDC, and later prime minister (a position he held up until he became president).

At no stage in his career did Thein Sein display any political independence or initiative. He was a loyal soldier, hand-picked by then-SPDC chairman and prime minister, Than Shwe. Thein Sein always said and did what he was told.

For instance, in the summer of 2010, while serving as prime minister, Thein Sein received a delegation from North Korea. He was quoted praising the military advancements of the Korean people under Kim Jong Il and advocating the strengthening of the countries' friendship. In those days, Burma was not shy to admit its friendly relations with North Korea.

The cooperation continues today, only in secret. A Burmese businessman who recently met Thein Sein in private described him as "indecisive, just repeating what's been said in official announcements, saying what he has been told to say."

So, who is telling Thein Sein what to say? According to sources familiar with high-level Burmese military thinking, Thein Sein was selected because he had "no ambitions" and would not pose a threat to Than Shwe, who slipped from public view into supposed retirement.

In June 2010, Than Shwe picked his trusted colleague, Min Aung Hlaing, to become head of the armed forces. Min Aung Hlaing was another soldier who could be trusted not to turn against his former mentor; he, too, is not known for being an independent thinker.

Both President Thein Sein and Senior General Min Aung Hlaing owe their positions to Than Shwe. Than Shwe remains a powerful player behind the scenes and, according to military insiders, still has the final say in matters concerning security.

Burma's power structure with the military at its apex has not changed. It would therefore be incorrect to talk about a transitioning political system. It is more important now than ever to understand what is really happening in Burma and how change may or may not come about.

The country's constitution was drafted by a military-appointed body and was adopted after a rigged referendum in May 2008. The referendum was held when Cyclone Nargis hit the country, which caused widespread destruction in parts of the country near the coast. Officially, 92.48 percent of eligible voters voted in favor of the new constitution, which came into effect after a general election in November 2010.

That election was also blatantly rigged and thoroughly fraudulent. Even the regime's own announcements demonstrated this. State-run media had to correct previous reports that stated that 102.09 percent of Pegu Division had turned out to vote. The correct figure, the announcement said, should have been 99.57 percent. Likewise, in a township in western Rakhine State, 104.28 percent of the electorate were said to have voted; that number was later adjusted to 71.74 percent.

The Irrawaddy (a Thailand-based newsmagazine run by Burmese exiles) quoted a Rangoon businessman as saying that the military's Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) "won in two constituencies where the elections had been cancelled in Kachin State -- the USDP not only won across the country, but also in areas where the elections were not held." A well-placed source in Rangoon said that he and many of his friends had voted for one of the pro-democracy parties that took part in the election. Its win in their township was confirmed when the local votes were counted. But then, a number of "advance votes" were dumped into the constituency, reversing the initial result. Similar cases of fraud were reported all over the country.

The USDP is the successor to the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), which was set up by the junta government in September 1993. Among USDA membership were Than Shwe and Thein Sein. The association, which claimed to have 24 million members, became a party in March 2010, with Thein Sein as its leader, in order to take part in the November 2010 elections. It secured a solid majority in both houses of the new bicameral parliament. Even of the seats it did not win, a quarter of all seats in both houses are directly appointed by the military and selected from serving military officers. 

With a new constitution in place, and a parliament it could control, Burma's ruling military elite felt that it could embark on a reform program to enhance its severely tarnished international reputation. It hoped to improve relations with the West in order to counterbalance its heavy dependence on China, which, according to internal documents from the Burmese army made available to me, was causing "a national crisis." Thus opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest shortly after the election, hundreds of political prisoners were set free, and the media was allowed to operate amazingly freely after decades of rigid censorship.

In April 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), took part in a by-election to fill seats left vacant after USDP delegates were appointed ministers and deputy ministers. According to the new constitution, cabinet members cannot both sit in the Parliament and be members of a political party. The NLD won 43 of the 44 seats the party contested. Aung San Suu Kyi became a member of parliament -- but her party is in control of only 7 percent of all seats.

Critics say her performance, and that of the NLD, has been entirely disappointing. They have not acted as an opposition, questioning official policies and presenting alternatives. Instead, they have trudged after the government, asked a few questions but offered nothing new. Khun Htun Oo, a prominent leader of the Shan people, one of Burma's many ethnic minorities, said that Aung San Suu Kyi had been "neutralized" by the government, and as such, "can no longer speak for the people." Her silence over the war in Kachin has caused not only criticism but also widespread condemnation, especially from Kachin community groups who feel betrayed.

To the satisfaction of Burma's rulers, Aung San Suu Kyi has morphed from a once fiery opposition leader into an avid supporter of their new order. In her most recent praise for the military, speaking at the East-West Center in Honolulu in January 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi said: "I've often been criticized for saying that I'm fond of the Burmese Army, but I can't help it, it's the truth."

Such statements have been widely perceived as insensitive and have cost Aung San Suu Kyi support among Burma's ethnic minorities, many of which looked to her for inspiration during the darkest days of military rule. As Aung San Suu Kyi spoke in Hawaii, thousands of Kachins, mostly women and children, were hunkered down in newly dug bunkers near the Kachin rebel headquarters while the army and air force ramped up their indiscriminate bombardment.

There is actually little Aung San Suu Kyi can do about the dominant role of the military. The first chapter of the 2008 constitution states that the "Defense Services" shall "be able to participate in the national political leadership role of the State." And it does so by holding 25 percent of all seats in the national parliament. The charter lays out complicated rules for constitutional amendments, which effectively give the military veto power over any proposed changes to the present power structure. Minor constitutional changes may be considered by if 20 percent of MPs submit a bill. However, a tangle of 104 clauses mean that major charter changes cannot be made without the prior approval of more than 75 percent of all MPs, after which a nationwide referendum must be held where more than half of all eligible voters cast ballots.

This complicated procedure, coupled with Burma's record of holding bogus referendums (the first, held for the 1974 constitution was as lacking in credibility as the one held in 2008) make it virtually impossible to change those clauses. This legally perpetuates the military's indirect hold on power.

As for the MPs-to-be, constitutional safeguards are already in place to make sure they don't cause any trouble after they are elected. Article 396 of the new constitution ensures that the Union Election Commission (which is indirectly controlled by the military through personal contacts and) can be dismissed for "misbehavior." And, if the "democratic" situation gets really out of hand, Article 413 gives the president the right, "if necessary," to hand over executive as well as judicial powers to the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

It gets even trickier at the local level: Burma's seven regions and seven states all have their own assemblies. There, one-third of all elected seats are reserved for the military, and local assemblies are subjected to perhaps the most curious of clauses in the 2008 Constitution. Number 183 reads: "The resolutions and proceedings of the Region and State Hluttaw [assemblies] shall not be annulled, notwithstanding the acts of some person who was not entitled to do so sat or voted or took part in the proceedings are later discovered." 

In simple language, a group of imposters could enter the local assemblies, sit there, and vote, and nothing can be done about it, even if they were not elected. The purpose of the clause is to prevent local assemblies from passing decisions and regulations that would give them more rights and jeopardize the centralized structure of the state. Through the clause, these efforts can be thwarted by blocking elected local assemblypersons from voting and instead sending in "some persons" to vote in their place. 

A Burmese lawyer argues that the new setup is based on Than Shwe's calculations. Previous Burmese dictators made the mistake of handing off power and not maintaining a proper legacy. When he stepped aside in 2010, Than Shwe took a different path in order to protect himself and his children and grandchildren. He created four centers of power: the military, the central government, the de facto ruling USDP, and parliament. Parliament is the only center of power in which some token opposition is tolerated. 

Of those four power centers, the military remains the most important. Apart from its special powers, it also controls the National Defense and Security Council, which acts above the government. Thein Sein may be its chairman, but that is irrelevant. Five of its 11 members are serving military officers and another five are former officers. Only one is an actual civilian. The military is not under Thein Sein's command, but under that of Min Aung Hlaing who, in turn, reports to his mentor Than Shwe.

What Burma has today is a military government and power structure with a quasi-civilian facade. Opposition parties and freedom of expression are tolerated within the confines of what the military can manage and control. It is highly unlikely that the military would allow the NLD to assume power even if it wins in the 2015 elections. It may, however, be able to appoint some ministers in the government. But, according to the constitution, these ministers and deputy ministers would have to resign from their parliamentary posts and even their respective political parties once assuming cabinet posts. The NLD will thus be "tamed" and become part of the established order.

The pervasive reach of the military doesn't just extend to the formal branches of power. It has its hands in Burma's supposedly "freed" society as well. The media may be freer than ever before under military rule, but more sophisticated methods have replaced old censorship rules. In January and February, the website of the Eleven Media group, the country's largest privately-owned publishing company, was hacked and pictures and other material were deleted. Eleven Media was the first domestic news group to report objectively about the war in Kachin State. One of its journalists, who traveled to the war zone in Kachin, was kept under visible surveillance, a method frequently used to intimidate people. The email accounts of several journalists, both Burmese and foreign, have been hacked by the military. Burma's dreaded secret police, known among the public as "M.I." or "Military Intelligence," is alive and well. And Burma's most draconian press law, the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, which was introduced after the first military takeover, has not been revoked. 

Though the 1962 law is not currently being enforced, in May 2013 the Committee to Protect Journalists published a report that states that the media environment in the country remains repressive despite recent liberalizations. In June, Time magazine was banned for carrying a story about a controversial Buddhist monk, U Wirathu, whose sermons allegedly encouraged mobs to attack the country's Muslim minority.

At the same time, the military has retained its powerful position in the economy and economic development through its two vast holding companies, the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). UMEH, founded in 1990, is run by the Burmese military. The Directorate of Defense Procurement, the body that oversees Burma's purchases of military equipment from abroad, owns 40 percent of the shares while active and veteran military personnel control the remaining 60 percent. According to a Reuters special report, UMEH "enjoys unrivaled access to import permits and monopolies." And according to Sean Turnell, an expert on the Burmese economy at Australia's Macquaire University, "for years, ex-dictator Than Shwe controlled the profits." MEC was founded in 1997 and is a far more secretive organization operated under the Directorate of Defense Procurement with interests in heavy industries and IT ventures.

While this new system suits Than Shwe and his immediate underlings, it may not work in the long run, and it is in this context that future conflicts could emerge. The man to watch is ex-General Thura Shwe Mann, number three in the former SPDC and now parliamentary speaker. He has reportedly forged an informal alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi against Thein Sein, but that may be a temporary arrangement as sources who are familiar with the process say that he will dump her when she is no longer needed to boost his popularity. On the other hand, military insiders assert that Shwe Mann is not popular with the regional commanders. He is seen as "too ambitious" and could pose a threat to the established order. 

Shwe Mann may or may not succeed, but there will be more conflicts and power struggles within the ruling military elite. It is there -- and not in the parliament or even the government -- that the future of Burma lies. Than Shwe has just turned 80 and is reportedly not in good health. It remains to be seen if the power structure he has created will survive him. Optimists argue that the passing of Than Shwe could herald in a new, even more open era in which the military may even fade into the background. Skeptics, however, remember that foreign observers and Burmese alike used to say the same thing about the old strongman Ne Win -- and that the military has managed to remain in power in one shape or another. The only thing that is clear is that despite all the hype, Burma's "reform program" is only skin-deep and designed to preserve the military's grip on power, not undermine it.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images