Writing in Burma: A New Year, Old Fears

I was heading East from Hpa-an, the sluggish capital of Burma’s Karen State, towards a monastery infamous for the alleged body-napping of a dead monk by the Burmese military in the late 1990’s, when i heard of the death of the freelance journalist, Ko Par Gyi. In the car with me was a former political prisoner and 88 Generation member, eyes fixed to his phone as the ring of each new text message reverberated Burma back to the dark years …

Ko Par Gyi, real name Aung Kyaw Naing, was a former bodyguard of Daw Suu and a freelance reporter based in Thailand.  He was in Burma’s Eastern Mon State covering the renewed escalation in fighting between the Burmese Tatmadaw and a Karen rebel group in September when he disappeared.  Three weeks later the military admitted the local police had shot him when he had tried to escape their custody and had buried him without informing his family.  The military had accused him of being a member of the armed group he was reporting on, which probably explains the rumours that Ko Par Hyi was tortured before he was murdered.

Rewind only two years and things appeared so different in Burma.  The official dissolution of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division in January 2013; the formation of an Interim Press Council the same month; the repela of the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act in March 2013 and the registration of exiled and ethnic nationality language media in Aug 2013 signalled a dramatic shift in five decades of ruling power mandated control of the written words in Burma.

Then it all started to unravel.

In October 2013, the Sunlight newspaper was voluntarily shut down after publishing a series of articles critical of the lifestyle of former ruling General Than Shwe’s grandson, Nay Thway Shwe Aung.  Its publisher stressed the decision was due to lack of editorial control and was in no way influenced by a late night raid on the paper’s office by Nay Thway Shwe Aung and twenty associates in which threats were made and several computers carted off.

The first arrest of a journalist since the reforms quickly followed in December 2013 with Eleven Media reporter Ma Khine sentenced to three months in prison for ‘defamation, trespass and use of abusive language’ while covering an alleged video piracy case in Kayah State.

In March 2014, Time Chine Bureau Chief, Hannah Beech, was denied a visa to Burma after her article on Buddhist instigated sectarian violence was pulled from the shops in Yangon.

Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporter Zaw Pe was sentenced to a year in prsion in April 2014, also on the charges of trespassing after attempting to interview an official at the Magwe Division Educational department concerning misuse of Japanese funds for local student scholarships.

24 year old Australian reporter, Angus Watson, also working for DVB, was deported for covering a protest, ironically on press freedoms, in Magwe Division in May 2014

June was a busy month for the Burmese judiciary sector, as a CEO and four journalists from the Unity newspaper were all sentenced to ten years hard labour for pursuing the story of an alleged chemical weapons factory.  Charging them under the archaic 1923 States Secret Act, the judge was unfazed by the sheer illogicality of publicly denying the manufacturing of weapons of mass destruction and then accusing the the reporters of disclosing private government activities.

This was followed just a few days later by the arrest of nearly fifty journalists staging a silent protest against the imprisonment of the Unity 5 and demanding greater media freedom.  Charged under the controversial Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act, the journalists were questioned and informed that the charges carry a maximum six months in prison.

Despite a promise in 2011 to allow the return of Burmese citizens living in exile, Moe Hein, former editor of the Sunlight journal, his wife and four year old son, all American citizens, and previously on the blacklist, were denied entry to Burma in June 2014.  In October 2014, the poet and former literary prisoner Cho Seint, a Norwegian passport holder, was also denied entry to Burma.

In July, two owners and three journalists from the Bi Mon Te Nay journal were charged under Article 505(b) of Burma’s penal code, a particularly insidious article, in which criminal prosecution can be brought against any citizen who makes a statement that could ‘alarm the public‘.  The statement in this case being a quote from the an activist group called Movement for Democracy Current Force who claimed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government of her own.  They were given two year sentences in October.

In the same month, Yangon’s Special Branch visited the offices of several high profile media outlets and grilled the owners on their financial operations in a very obvious show of intimidation.

Special Branch made the news again in October 2014, when a junior officer, in a creative yet ultimately doomed attempt to gather intelligence, placed posters in downtown Yangon hotels with the names and passport details of four people and an appeal for information ‘If you see people on this list please inform us.  These people have EBOLA.  They disappeared from the airport‘  One of the four was DVB reporter Nay Zaw Naing.

He doesn’t have Ebola.

These attacks on freedom of speech and creativity haven’t just been confined to the media.

In February 2014, a talk show in Pyawbwe Township, Mandalay, featuring literary scion Nyi Pyu Lay and writer U Phone (Chemistry) was targeted by local township administration officers who accused the writers of using the event as a platform to promote the activities of the NLD.  In a petty move, the officers banned the sale and distribution of a DVD recording of the event, knowing that promoters rely on these as a source of revenue.

In June 2014, author Aung Yin Nyein   ran into a little trouble with a curious novel titled Romabot in which robotic high school students have sex with their teachers.  After offering sections of the novel on-line for free, he secured a private investor who ‘bought’ a publishers licence and printed 5000 copies, more than five times the normal print run for a book in Burma.  The book was probably never destined to become a classic; many writers here offended by the author’s use of ‘facebook’ syntax and lexicon in his prose; while the authorities took exception to the perceived attack on the morals of their educators.  Such an exception that the Ministry of Information swiftly banned the possession and distribution of the book, recalled all the copies, pulped them and local police issued an arrest warrant for Aung Yin Nyein who hasn’t been seen since.  the book is still available online, while printed copies are now going for as much as six times the original sale value.

The real assessment of what the state will do to curb creative literature in Myanmar is hard to gauge.  Ironically, the old PRSD acted as a compass of how far a writer would go.  If a piece of crossed a line, it was ‘inked in, ripped out’ before publication.  Now, without pre-publication censorship, it is like walking through a literary minefield with writers unsure of where they can tread.  Some observers insist that the current government should be encouraged for the reforms they have passed, that any transition from a military dictatorship to a liberal democracy will face hurdles.

Killing writers is not a hurdle and the death of Ko Par Gyi has made that field a lot more dangerous to walk on.