It’s good to be back. I was last here thirteen years ago, at the turn of the century. I spoke about transitions to democracy at the headquarters of the National League for Democracy (NLD), with Aung San Suu Kyi in the chair. I wrote about the trip for The New York Review, in a piece of analytical reportage entitled “Beauty and the Beast in Burma.”1 Then the military regime put me on its visa blacklist. I can say this with unusual certainty because last summer the office of Burma’s reformist president, Thein Sein, rather unexpectedly published a list of some two thousand people who were no longer banned from entering the country. It contained some gloriously unspecific entries such as “239. David” and “859. Mr Nick,” but there I recognizably was: “285. Gartonish, Timothy John.”
So now I can meet again, and write about, some of the brave writers, editors, and journalists whom I could then only call Daw-1 or U-2. There is, for example, Ma Thida, a medical doctor and writer who was then only just out of prison, where she had spent, as she told me, “five years, six months, and six days.” In a deeply moving conversation back in 2000, she described how she had survived the harsh conditions of a Burmese prison with the help of intensive Buddhist meditation. She told me that on February 26, 1996, at about 10:00 PM, “I found enlightenment.” At her next interrogation she thanked her jailers, saying: “You have helped me to nirvana!”
Ma Thida subsequently published an account of her experiences, The Roadmap, though only under a pseudonym, Suragamika (Brave Traveler), and labeled as “documentary fiction.” Now she sits beside me on a platform at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival—the first literary festival ever to be held in this country—and talks about the duty of writers and journalists as “witnesses to violence.” She is elegantly dressed, busy, pausing only to check messages on a smartphone plucked from a large handbag. If you did not know her story, you would never guess that here is a woman who has come through hell to nirvana—and beyond. Later, she invites me downtown, to the busy offices of her new magazine, The Myanmar Independent, one of tens if not hundreds of publications that are now jostling for position in the unaccustomed light of press freedom—and in the monsoon of commercial competition.
There are others who were not so strong or fortunate. The festival organizers have gone to great lengths to attract not just international stars, such as Vikram Seth and Jung Chang, but also some eighty local writers. An older writer, imprisoned for twelve years, tells how his long incarceration wrecked his marriage and his relationship with his children. As we move on to celebrate this emerging new Burma, we must remember the pain that cannot be undone, wrongs that can never be righted, lives ruined.
Thirteen years ago, editors of tiny magazines in dim, cramped offices showed me examples of the crudest precensorship by the authorities: individual phrases or whole pages had to be blanked out, or hastily replaced with advertisements. This was the age of the hidden message, of the Aesopian, with even an article on the proliferation of mosquitoes in Rangoon banned by the censors as suspected allegory. Sometimes, editors got away with little triumphs, like the November 2010 First Eleven magazine headline, in this soccer-mad country: “SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE.” First Eleven submitted this to the censors in black and white, but published it in multiple colors. The letters in bright red spelled out “SU…FREE…UNITE…&…ADVANCE TO GRAB THE HOPE….” Su—that is Aung San Suu Kyi—had just been released from house arrest. The captain was back.
Then, on August 20 last year, censorship was abolished. To be strictly accurate, precensorship was abolished, since copies still had to be submitted after publication. Shortly before I arrived, a notice in the New Light of Myanmar, once the military junta’s very own Pravda, announced that the Press Security and Registration Division, “which censored the publications in Myanmar,” has been dissolved but—hang on a minute—a Copyright and Registration Division will be formed under the Information and Public Relations Department. From censorship to PR.
There are now at least three large questions facing the writers, journalists, publishers, artists, and politicians of Burma—as well as the thousands of more or less well-intentioned outsiders who are now pouring into the country to offer assistance or make money. The first is: Have censorship and military-political control of the public sphere, including covert control through media ownership, really gone? If so, and to secure that change, what new structures of law and regulation should replace them? Ma Thida explained to me the practical difficulties of getting a license to run a magazine, and the way in which cronies of the military may dominate the market.
Pe Myint, a veteran writer and magazine editor, is working on a draft media code of ethics. His visiting card says: Member, Interim Myanmar Press Council, Yangon, Myanmar. (Burma or Myanmar? Rangoon or Yangon? There is now total confusion about which term the friendly foreigner should use.) Many of the important decisions will have to be made within the existing, still far-from-democratic power structures. The NLD will not have the chance of forming a government until after a general election scheduled for 2015.
For the online world, the country’s Electronic Transactions Law—which, for example, makes distributing or receiving information relating to “national culture” punishable by seven to fifteen years in prison—needs to be drastically overhauled. Reformist ministers in the post-military government in the new capital of Naypyidaw (aka Nay Pyi Taw) seem anxious to do the right thing, learning from the experience of free countries. But behind them, in the wings, are hard men and interests who don’t want free speech if they can possibly avoid it. The Ministry of Information recently released a retrograde draft bill to license and control publications, prompting an outcry in the newly free press.
Moreover, the country’s Asian neighborhood offers a plethora of different models: from Thailand to Singapore and from China to India.2 Numerous official and nongovernmental advisers may arrive from the West, but it is by no means self-evident that the United States’ First Amendment tradition, or European-style regulation of free speech, adjudicated for forty-seven countries by the European Court of Human Rights, will immediately spring to Burmese minds. There is, needless to say, no Asian Court of Human Rights to set the minimum standards of freedom of expression for half of humankind.
The second question is familiar wherever writers emerge from decades of censorship and oppression: “Help! What am I going to write about now?” Now you have to do more than just smuggle your subversive message past the censors. Reading Bones Will Crow, an excellent anthology of modern Burmese poetry, I can see—or perhaps more accurately, sense, because the “lost in translation” problem is especially acute with a wholly unfamiliar language and literary tradition—that there was some good writing there, in what the poet Tin Moe called “The Years We Didn’t See the Dawn.” But clearly much of the electricity came from the confrontation with an oppressive regime.
Thirdly, there is the challenge for Burmese (of all ethnicities) to work out what they think should be the proper limits of free speech, not just in laws and regulation from above, but also in editorial and social practice. As everywhere, the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge is the Internet. While Internet penetration in Burma has been low—an estimated 1 percent in 2011—it is soaring. Nine Nine Sanay, apparently the most-followed Burmese writer on Facebook, had 106,000 Likes when I last looked.
One of the poets represented in Bones Will Crow delights in the name of Pandora. When I met her at the festival—a spirited, decisive young woman, smartphone always in hand—she gave me her card. It has no postal address or landline, but lists her blog on blogspot .com, her Facebook page (where she comes up as “Pandora blogpoet”), her Twitter account, her cell phone number, and her Gmail address. She started blogging in 2007, and found real artistic and personal freedom online. “Facebook for me is another country,” she told me. “I have another life in another country.” Anyone who doubts the liberating potential of the online world should listen to Pandora.
But Pandora’s electronic box also releases evils on the world. In the Burmese case, this became manifest in a torrent of online hate speech directed against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the state of Rakhine (aka Arakan). There was, for example, a Facebook page called “Kalar Beheading Gang”—“Kalar” being a derogatory term for South Asian Muslims. Facebook has now deleted it, but how many fluent Burmese-speakers does it have to enforce its worldwide community standards? Facebook depends on users reporting such content, but what if they don’t?
Causal connections between hate speech and actual violence are difficult to establish, and often asserted too loosely. But two things are clear: there was a wave of online hate speech, including some crude incitement to violence, and there was appalling inter-communal violence in Rakhine state. As usual in such cases, there was violence on both sides, but mainly there were forays to kill, beat up, or ethnically cleanse Rohingya Muslims, carried out by the poor and embattled majority Rakhine Buddhists—despite their Buddha’s teaching that they should not hurt a fly. The Economist reported last November that “satellite imagery shows the utter destruction of a Muslim quarter of the coastal town of Kyaukphyu, from where oil-and-gas pipelines are to cross Myanmar to China.”
Choices for an Uncrowned Queen
The same issue of The Economist had an editorial gently chiding Aung San Suu Kyi for not speaking out more clearly to condemn and attempt to stop the violence. Such reluctance is especially striking in someone whose dissident writings from her long period of house arrest contain decided reflections on the political as well as moral imperative of sustaining nonviolence. In two interviews for the BBC, one last November and one recorded last December for the Desert Island Discs program, she tiptoed around the issue as cautiously as any ordinary politician. In the former interview, after saying briefly that “human rights…belong to every individual human being,” she moved on rapidly to highlight the unclarified citizenship status of the Rohingya. And she said, “I won’t speak out because I don’t think it would help the situation.” On Desert Island Discs, she said that “violence has been committed by both sides,” and then explained her position a little more: “If I were to take sides, it would create more animosity.”
Perhaps this is true. I did not get any chance to explore the question with her on this visit. But I am painfully struck by the fact that almost everyone I talk to about it—including some in a good position to know—judge that the underlying reason for her cautiousness is politics, in a more workaday sense. There are no votes to be gained on the issue—indeed, there are only votes to be lost—among the ethnic Burman majority. And she will need all the Burman votes she can get in the 2015 parliamentary elections, as well as forming alliances with ethnic minority parties and at least part of the military—whose parliamentary appointees will still have a reserved 25 percent of seats—if she is to get the more than 75 percent vote in the lower house needed to change the constitution, so that the new parliament can elect her president. “I would like to be president,” she told her interviewer on Desert Island Discs. And she means an American-style executive president, not just a ceremonial head of state: “You should want to get government power in your hands.”
1 May 25, 2000. ↩