Are Burmese Censorship Chief’s Promises Beyond Belief?
“Press censorship should be abolished in the near future.” This sentence, delivered in an interview with Radio Free Asia on October 7th, was spoken by Tint Swe, Deputy Director-General of Burma’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department. Though press freedom would be a huge step forward in the country’s path to democracy, the veracity of Tint Swe’s words are uncertain. The Burmese government has frequently been accused of making superficial changes solely to appease the international community.
To get an insider’s perspective on the censorship chief’s statement, Sampsonia Way contacted Cho Tu Zaw, a Burmese writer and film director currently participating in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. Sampsonia Way also spoke to Maung Wuntha, the editor of the Rangoon-based political journal People’s Era.
While Maung Wuntha and Cho Tu Zaw disagree about the intentions behind Tint Swe’s statements, their views on the censorship still prevalent in Burma highlight the widespread distrust of the government.
When Tint Swe said that “press censorship should be abolished in the near future” do you think he was speaking for the government or as an individual?
Cho Tu Zaw: The regime can claim he is speaking as an individual, if they don’t want to give any freedom in writing as he said. Conversely they can make his statements official if they have a real plan to give press freedom in Myanmar. But it’s important to know that no official dares to talk without their cabinet’s allowance.
Maung Wuntha: Tint Swe just echoed his master’s voice. His master, the Union Minister of Information, Kyaw San, said in the first week of October that all publications in the country eventually would enjoy freedom under a ”post-censor” system according to Democratic practice. His statement came out when he replied to a question by an MP at the parliament. Here we need to understand what the term ”post-censor” means. That phrase is the reverse of the present system, which they’ve labeled ”pre-censor.” These officials never talk on their own.
Do you think there will be any positive changes made to the Press Scrutiny Department in the near future?
Cho Tu Zaw: Now, the Press Scrutiny Department allows writing about Aung San Suu Kyi and some political articles. If you want to define those things as positive changes in our media, you can. But they never allow writing about the battles along Burma’s borders, or corruption, rape, torture, or the oppression of tribes. Those events are still happening every day, but you can only read that news in the media outside Burma. This is not real freedom, only a fake show for the withdrawal of sanctions, and for getting the presidential post of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations).
Maung Wuntha: Yes, undoubtedly there will be changes in the future. They have no alternative except to oblige the process of democratic practice. Even now, we’ve enjoyed many relaxations of the censor board. In particular, they have relaxed on political news reports, e.g. interviews and pictures of DawAung San Suu Kyi and comments made by ethnic leaders. About 75% of these stories were allowed to be published, but they still censor some 25% of such news reports.
What kinds of changes do you think will be made?
Cho Tu Zaw: Currently there are over 1,500 political prisoners in Myanmar. If the government is really sincere and eager to change, why do they still arrest people, why do they still attack the tribes? I can’t accept that they are really trying to change. It’s just fake.
Do you think that international pressure is motivating the Myanmar government to look or act more democratic?
Cho Tu Zaw: I haven’t seen any intense international pressure from 1988 until now. Sanctions from the United States are still not fully activated, so where is the pressure? I do believe that international pressure is very effective, but we need real pressure to trump the military regime. No negotiation with a dictatorship can be effective without pressure.
Maung Wuntha: Yes, I do believe that international pressure is motivating the Myanmar government to look more democratic.
Tint Swe also said that the press has to accept “responsibilities” along with press freedom. What kinds of responsibilities is he talking about?
Cho Tu Zaw: I don’t know exactly what responsibilities he mentioned, but I believe that the media needs to respect the individual rights of every person and needs to write with full transparency.
Maung Wuntha: They always talk like this. We will give you press freedom, but you must accept “responsibilities” along with press freedom. That means restraint in criticizing the military, the government, and their cronies.
U Thein Sein, according to someone close to the president, has stated that the doors for freedom of press should be opened wide. But there are neo-conservative elements among Burmese policy-makers and they want to antagonize the genuine process as much as possible. They were said to be the culprits of the Myitsone Dam project.