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OPINION by Alex Lazar
Aung San Suu Kyi is treating the press in Burma poorly, and that may impede her efforts to democratise the conflict-wrought country. But is Suu Kyi’s apparent authoritarian streak mere caution? Expanding civil liberties too forcefully could bait the former junta into retaking full control of the Southeast Asian nation, setting back the cause of liberty and democracy.
Prior to becoming Burma’s state counselor – the de-facto head of government – Suu Kyi was considered a hero among Western democrats due to her role as a leader during the 1988 uprisings against the military-run government, which resulted in her being placed under house arrest repeatedly from 1989 until 2010. In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts.
Now, however, that image has been sullied. Human rights advocates and journalists are alarmed by her treatment of the media and fear the erosion of gains in freedom of speech. As Reuters reported last week, she is calling on the nation to follow state-run news reports about government activities and keeping independent media at a distance. Foreign media are given more access her than the domestic press, but their movement in conflict zones is still sharply limited. Suu Kyi’s security detail has even physically prevented foreign reporters from asking her questions.
“Despite hopes a Suu Kyi-led government would improve press freedom conditions in Myanmar [Burma], the situation for reporters has not materially improved over the previous military and military-backed regimes,” says Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalist’s Southeast Asia senior representative. “It’s been eye-opening for anyone who remembers her as a pro-democracy icon standing up to military power.”
In 2013, Burma’s legislature enacted the Telecommunications Law, the most controversial aspect of which is arguably the broadly-written section 66D. Under 66D, anyone can press charges over internet, telephone, radio and television content, regardless of whether or not he or she is the subject of the content. The maximum prison sentence for being convicted on 66D charges is three years, though fines may also be imposed. According to the free speech advocacy organisation PEN Myanmar, at least 80 cases invoking 66D have been filed since the law passed; 73 of those occurred since Suu Kyi came to power in 2016. While even some members of the media have invoked 66D, it has also been used by members and supporters of the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s political party. Some of the law’s victims were prosecuted, and served months in prison, for making controversial comments about Suu Kyi.
There are small signs that Suu Kyi’s party is beginning to reform media law. The upper house of parliament, with the NLD now in the majority, approved amendments to 66D in August that would prevent third parties from pressing charges without permission from the aggrieved individual, and make it easier for defendants to obtain bail. A proposal to abolish 66D entirely, however, stalled.
It’s not clear what role Suu Kyi played in trying to advance the legislation, though she was certainly involved.
Then there’s the Unlawful Associations Act’s section 17(1), in which even covering an event can land a journalist in jail if the government disapproves of a person or group present. While the act has been on the books since 1908, it’s still wreaking havoc under Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy government.
Earlier this month, three journalists were denied bail after they were detained under the Unlawful Associations Act for covering a ceremony organised by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the armed wing of a rebel group based in Burma’s northeastern Shan State, in June.
Suu Kyi herself doesn’t speak in direct opposition to these laws and the fallout from them, opting instead to talk in broad terms about potentially changing them. Perhaps that’s because of the fragility of her country’s first steps towards democracy and constitutional liberty. The Burmese military has 25 percent of seats in the legislature and it could retake power under an emergency clause in the constitution, which requires over 75 percent approval in the legislature to be modified. So legislators from the military can undo any progress if they think reformers have gone too far.
“The military clearly sees journalists attempting to faithfully cover stories within conflict zones and disseminate them in online media as a potential threat to national security,” writes John Dale, an associate sociology professor at George Mason University and an expert on development and human rights in Burma, in an email.
Journalism advocates also note, however, that Suu Kyi often refrains from speaking to the Burmese press, choosing to speak only to international news outlets on occasion. “As far as I can recall, since the election she has only done press conferences inside Myanmar when foreign dignitaries have been visiting, and she has taken a very limited number of questions,” says Thomas Kean, editor-in-chief of the independent publication Frontier Myanmar. “She seems to see little need to engage with journalists on a day-to-day basis.”
That may be partly just because Suu Kyi does not have strong historical relationships with the local independent media. During Suu Kyi’s house arrest, “there was little local media beyond the government newspapers and journals and they were very hostile toward her, even extremely rude,” says Priscilla Clapp, the Chief of Mission to the U.S. Embassy in Burma from 1999-2002 (the U.S. didn’t have an ambassador then due to strained relations). “There is now a plethora of newspapers and journals, many with their own agendas, and I can imagine that it would be very difficult and politically tricky for her to choose which outlets to grant interviews without causing a great political uproar.”
But some of her actions cannot be given such benign explanations. Her own office seems to have taken a page out of U.S. President Donald Trump’s playbook by dismissing reports about her and about clashes between the military and ethnic minorities as fake, fabricated and false.
Suu Kyi spokesperson Zaw Htay did not respond to a request for comment about complaints from media and activist groups.
“I think now she and her government don’t want to confront … the military,” emailed Nai Kasauh Mon, editor-in-chief of Mon News Agency, a non-profit news outlet that reports on the Mon ethnic community, and spokesperson for Burma News International, an association of 13 independent news outlets reporting on Burma. “While they fought for democracy, they were not afraid,” he adds. “But now they are afraid to lose their power.”
Call it the Catch-22 of democracy promotion.
Alex Lazar is a reporter in Washington DC covering defense and military issues. The opinions expressed here are his own.