Burma has abolished direct media censorship in the latest sign of continuing reforms which analysts predict could help triple the size of the country’s economy by 2030.
But the democratic opposition and external actors are pushing for the release of more political prisoners, while this week’s renewed violence in the northern Kachin province highlights the continuing fragility of the reform process, say observers.
The end of direct censorship by the civilian-led, military backed government is “the latest dramatic reform by its quasi-civilian regime, but journalists face other formidable restrictions including a ban on private daily newspapers and a pervasive culture of self-censorship,” reports suggest.
“This is a great day for all journalists in Myanmar, who have labored under these odious restrictions for far too many years,” said a senior editor at a Rangoon weekly.
“It is also another encouraging example of the progress that the country is making under [President] Thein Sein’s government,” he added.
Media censorship was relaxed last year, but political and religious publications still required pre-approval from the censors until yesterday’s announcement.
“This is a step in the right direction and a good approach, but questions of press freedom will remain,” said Aung Thu Nyein, a senior associate at the Vahu Development Institute, a Thailand-based think tank.
“We can expect the government to still try to assert some control, probably using national security to keep the media in check,” he added.
But film censorship remains in place, said an information ministry official. TV journalists will be expected to “self-censor” by asking for official advice about sensitive issues, he added.
The remaining restrictions will continue to stifle freedom of expression, observers suggest.
“This is a sea change only because the bar was so low before,” said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of the Southeast Asia Program at Freedom House. “We’re a long way away from freedom of the press.”
Such skepticism would appear to be warranted by the news that the country’s “notorious censorship board has circulated a draconian set of guidelines to local news journals, warning editors that ‘the state shall not be negatively criticized,’” according to Democratic Voice of Burma:
The 16-point document, seen by DVB, prohibits “wording that encourages, supports or incites individuals and organisations that are dissident to the state”, as well as “things that will damage ties with other countries.” The censorship board – or Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) – will continue to monitor all media output, and editors who flout the new guidelines risk prosecution under Burma’s existing laws.
“We don’t need to send our stories to the censorship board anymore, but we still need to send the printed copies to the PSRD after publication,” a senior editor of the Myanmar Times told DVB.
While welcoming the end of direct censorship as another positive step in the reform process, the United States called for the board’s abolition.
“That said, the Censorship Board itself has not been eradicated, which obviously is a step that we would like to see the government take,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
The US is echoing the demands of local activists, Mizzima reports:
Ko Ko, the vice president of the Myanmar Journalists Association, told Voice of America the end of prior censorship is a turning point for media in the country. But he also said further reforms are needed, including revision of an outdated 1962 media law that restricts reporting. “Removal of the censorship board is a first step,” Ko Ko said. “So, second thing, approval of new media law. But, new media law also should be in line with the international standard and democratic system.” Observers also noted that reporters are also attacked under the guise of protecting national security.
“I’m pretty sure, you know, even without the press censorship board, you know, I think a lot of government agencies will try to control the media as well,” said Aung Thu Nyein of the Burma think tank Vahu Development Institute.
Monday’s announcement “is a half-measure at best” unless the authorities abolish the censorship board and revise existing media laws, said the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group.
“Until the Burmese government undertakes thorough reform, journalists are still at risk of censure and the free flow of information cannot be guaranteed,” said Shawn Crispin, the group’s senior Southeast Asia representative.
Local democrats and some foreign states are also pushing for the release of political prisoners to be accelerated.
More than 650 political detainees have been freed since President Thein Sein took office in March last year, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a grantee of the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.
“The releases were a key factor in the U.S. decision last month to lift some investment and financial sanctions as Burma’s leaders begin to implement reforms after decades of often-brutal military rule,” the Washington Post reports:
But the United States, other Western governments, human rights groups and the opposition continue to demand an amnesty for all political detainees remaining in the country. The question is: How many, exactly, are there?
“It depends on the definition of a political prisoner,” said Naing Naing, whom Suu Kyi has tasked with maintaining a list of detainees from his shabby wooden desk at their party headquarters in Rangoon.
Derek Mitchell, the new U.S. ambassador in Rangoon, said authorities could start by making prison and court records public alongside a formal consultation process with political parties, Burma’s many ethnic groups and families of prisoners.
“Ultimately, we want the government to establish a structured, credible process to resolve disputed political prisoner cases and close the book on this issue definitively,” he said.
Many analysts believe Burma’s military was prompted to embark on the reform process by its evident economic failure, demonstrated by its inability to keep pace with underdeveloped neighbors like Laos and Cambodia, let alone the Market-Leninist dynamos of Vietnam and China.
But with new foreign investment rules expected soon, experts believe Burma’s economy “can triple in size by 2030 and make up some ground lost to wealthier neighbors ….if sufficient reforms are undertaken in the coming years,” Irrawaddy’s Simon Roughneen reports:
If the reforms stay on track, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) believes that Burma can attain “middle income” economic status by 2030, saying that the economy has the potential to grow by seven-to-eight percent per annum in the intervening years. The World Bank defines a middle income country as one with a per capita GDP of US $1,025—a status long-attained by neighbors such as Thailand, Malaysia and more recently Vietnam, which launched its economic glasnost in 1986…
Sixty-six percent of the population lives in the countryside, according to 2010 World Bank numbers, and if Burma’s economic reforms are to improve lives outside towns and cities, better living and working conditions for the country’s rural poor will be key. Farming in Burma remains antiquated, say those involved in the country’s agriculture sector. ….
Dr. Sean Turnell, an authority on the Burmese economy based at Australia’s Macquarie University, said financial insecurity is hampering many of the country’s millions of farmers. “The rural indebtedness situation in Burma is terrible,” he said. “In the absence of formal credit they fall into the hands of moneylenders, paying interest of 10 percent per month.”
Unresolved insurgencies by ethnic and other dissident minorities on the country’s periphery remains the greatest threat to the reform process, analysts believe.
This week, “the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front in the northern Kachin state reported that its troops (right) clashed with government forces on 18 August,” DVB reports:
La Hseng, chairman of the ABSDF’s Northern Command that is carrying out joint operations with the Kachin Independence Army’s Brigade-5 territory in Lajayang, said the group returned fire after being attacked by the Burmese army.