The Freedom Chat Transcripts: Burmese Writer Dr. Ma Thida
Burma’s military junta, which held complete power from 1962 until 2011, was infamous for its media repression and censorship. In 2011, a quasi-civilian government was established. Despite the military’s continued heavy involvement, Burma has witnessed political reforms that are pulling the country from isolation and onto the world stage.
Sampsonia Way recently spoke with Dr. Ma Thida, a surgeon, human rights activist, and writer, who in 1993 was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her ongoing collaboration with Aung San Suu Kyi, the exiled figurehead of the juntas main opposition group. She discusses the state of censorship under the new reforms and offers hopeful insights for the future of Burmese literature.
What is the state of media coverage in Burma since media restrictions began loosening around two years ago?
The Burmese media is hard to express in one word. Media legislature is quite bizarre in Burma—We haven’t yet developed sufficient legislature to protect journalists, and existing laws outside of the realm of media are being used to persecute journalists.
One of the biggest challenges for journalists is legislative guarantees for their protection. Another challenge is the lack of editorial or academic inter-balance within the media.
Media cronies and pro-government agents jump into the media industry and shape media in a manner that does not prioritize an academic approach to editing. There is very limited editorial integrity among mainstream media reporters, editors of Burmese journals, and the broadcasting channels.
Reporters not only have limited knowledge regarding journalistic ethics, but also most within Burmese media personnel lack academic skills necessary for reporting.
Because of the current poor education system in Burma, media personnel have a very limited capacity for sustaining the country’s media infrastructure.
Finally, the media literacy of the whole country is lacking due to extreme poverty and subsequent lack of education . There is very limited space for the Burmese community to participate in the media’s exchange of information.
What I’m referring to when I say “media literacy” is being able to differentiate which media sources are reliable, well-balanced, investigative, or analytical. Because many Burmese are poorly educated, often popular issues are consumed with little regard for where the information is coming from and what manner it is presented in. The survival of the more balanced journals and broadcasting channels are at risk because they lack the support of well-informed media participants.
The government has monopolized the media-distribution network. Any independent distribution agents are often unreliable due to the high cost of sending print media to rural areas. Broadcasting channels face a similar issue because of limited electricity and a myriad of other logistic obstacles. Overall, it is still very hard for us to reach people who live far from more metropolitan areas.
How has political dialogue changed in Burma with the removal of certain restraints on free speech?
Since certain government reforms have been enacted, people have less fear than ever to discuss issues that were taboo in the past. People are speaking out against the government, raising concerns about parliament and so forth. But there are still remnants of deeply rooted fear to express oneself, especially among people who have limited knowledge of their rights.
Can you tell me about a specific case of criminal defamation against journalists?
Recently five reporters and editors were accused of violating the States Secrets Act. They had been publishing reports on a suspected military weapons factory. They had not intended to violate the existing law. As far as I understand, they initially planned to focus on land confiscation and discovered that the factory was not a normal factory. They began an investigative report on the alleged weapons factory but because of their limited knowledge of the law, did not realize that they were violating the States Secrets Act. They faced criminal defamation in the form of a ten-year prison sentence for attempting to expose confidential, national information. The government meant to make an example of them.
I understand the news journal, Snapshot was suspended from printing in 2012 for publishing a photo of a woman who was raped and murdered. The photo allegedly sparked the Rakhine State Riots. How do government-run media organizations respond when contentious religious issues are aired publically?
There are many cases in which the editors at government newspapers may not have bad intentions but are naïve enough to believe that what they are publishing is quality material when the newspapers’ ethics are actually very skewed. Editors often times lack the ability to edit a piece to reflect a journalistic code of conduct.
Are there any topics that people won’t write about in Burma?
Reporters cannot truly investigate government corruption because many laws enacted before the media reform are still in existence and prevent a more democratic approach to reporting. Government officials surely don’t support press freedom and sparingly disclose facts needed to report on certain cases.
So despite some of the reforms being made, I understand that the media is still heavily controlled by the military-government. At this point, what steps can be taken to establish a more independent media in Burma?
It’s hard to say whether the Burmese government will ever become supportive of a truly independent media but that is what we truly need. The government can tell the whole world that true media freedom is growing but until an infrastructure for independent media is stabilized, it won’t be. Freedom of expression in Burma has increased, yes. But the Burmese people as well as the government need to support independent media in Burma in order for freedom of the press to flourish.
You mentioned freedom of expression. What was your impression of the Irawaddy Literature Festival? How would you describe that experience?
I took part in the very first Irawaddy Literature Festival 2013 and the experience left me with mixed-feelings. To be frank, it should be more inclusive to Burmese writers. If the festival is to represent Burmese freedom of expression, there needs to be a true exchange between the Burmese writers and the international writers. Invited writers remain insulated from the Burmese writers.
Also, one organizer manages the whole festival and management is not broken down in such a way that allows Burmese participants any agency. The organizer is very selective in choosing Burmese writers which discourages instead of encourages Burmese writers to embrace their craft. Overall, Burmese writers are not the key focus of the festival.
You agree then that censorship of literature is happening in places besides the Burmese government? And is the involvement of foreign influences modifying Burmese literature to meet the demands of the global market?
Since its inception, the Irawaddy Literature festival has failed to convince more local writers to participate. The organizer, regardless of whether they’re British or Burmese, should be working to make the festival more inviting for Burmese writers.
The objective should be to have more exchange between the Burmese and outside writers. If the organizers want to keep Burmese writers interested they need to build a rapport. They need to open their eyes to Burmese culture.
You were imprisoned from 1993 to 1999 in part for your affiliation with Aung San Su Kyi and your political writing. Did you write when you were in prison?
Not really. I wasn’t allowed to read, let alone write. However I wrote my prison memoir in 2009 and 2010 while in residence at Radcliffe University. My memoir was published in Burmese in 2012, and we are currently editing an English version for publication.
What would prevent a back slide of media censorship?
Limited infrastructure prevents expansion of the media market. Investments must be made to ensure that infrastructural issues aren’t a hindrance.
Also, internal censorship is now replacing the government censorship issue. Media corruption must be safeguarded against to prevent a backslide into the censorship of the past.
In order to continue moving forward, media reforms need to actually protect reporters and create an enabling environment for reporters and editors to work in, especially independent ones. Violence against reporters is a major issue: Reporters have been attacked for attempting to take photographs and have received threats regarding what they are allowed to print.
The government needs to step in with preventative legislature that will actually be enforced and will remove obstacles for reporters.
Today, do you feel that you have to self-censor and if so, what kind of negotiations do you make when writing?
My own self-censorship is hard to place. My main concern is ethics. I don’t want to expose myself to only one side of an issue; my objective is balance and this informs what I choose to keep and cut.
Also, timing is key when I self-censor. I ask myself, “Is it the right time yet to disclose?” The whole political environment is changing and, as writers, we have a responsibility to maintain awareness of issues. We need to write, but we need to do so in a sensitive manner that takes timing into consideration.
Can you compare the threat to your political writing before restrictions were lifted and the threats placed upon your writing now?
In the past, Burmese writers knew who are our enemies were. Our fear has been transformed. Burmese writers once lived in fear of a single military regime but that fear has shifted to paranoia now that faceless, oppressive groups have begun to persecute people.
In his essay, “Burma—On The Precipice” James Byrne used a quote from Han Lynn that says, “We couldn’t have created a [Burmese] literature without the past.” How do you feel about this statement?
I agree with Han Lynn’s statement. The key issue for Burmese literature is that writers of my own generation know the terror of the past while the rising generation of writers does not. Media censorship has prevented the younger generations from learning about the darkness of our recent history. It’s difficult for the younger generations to sustain a Burmese literary tradition when they are lacking precious material to write from.
We have been living in isolation as a people for so long that even though we live in the same world as you, we don’t even know what’s going on in other parts of Burma. It’s very important to learn about the past in order to proceed into the future as writers.