Old Habits Die Hard

A crackdown on the press bodes ill for Burma's reforms.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

As Burma continues to crawl its way out of global obscurity, following decades of military dictatorship, it has come to be fêted as a poster-child for democratic transition. Western political leaders have oozed with accolades over government moves to scrap media censorship and unshackle hundreds of political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But three years into the reform process, journalists are still casually threatened, harassed, and tossed into jail.

Recent weeks have exposed a worrying trend of state intimidation against reporters in Burma. In early February, four journalists and the chief executive of a local journal, Unity Weekly, were formally charged under the Official Secrets Act for publishing a story about an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Burma. Citing anonymous testimony from workers at the facility in Magwe region, the article described an expansive network of underground tunnels linking several buildings studded with 15-foot rockets and Chinese-made chemical reactors. The government has described the claims as "baseless" and defended their decision to enforce the colonial-era law, which bans the publication of material deemed damaging to the state and imposes criminal penalties of up to 14 years in prison.

"It is a national security issue, and even a country like the United States would respond the same way," presidential spokesperson Ye Htut told the Irrawaddy, a Burmese news magazine headquartered in Thailand. He subsequently insisted that the factory is for lawful defense purposes only.

Though it is impossible to verify the admittedly tenuous claims made by Unity Weekly, the government’s draconian reaction sends a clear message to any reporters investigating Burma’s military activities. (In the photo above, Burmese journalists march for press freedom in Yangon.) It is not difficult to understand why the allegations would have irked the notoriously secretive regime, which has been accused of illicit weapons production for decades. In 2010, a five-year investigation by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a pro-democracy media group and my former employer, uncovered evidence of a nascent nuclear weapons program, based on extensive testimony and data provided by a whistle-blower. It sketched out details of a $3 billion labyrinth of underground tunnels, built in partnership with North Korea, connecting bunkers stocked with secret weapons and equipment. The documentary, published by Al Jazeera, provoked a furious backlash from the junta, which branded DVB a "killer broadcasting station … hateching [sic] evil plots and sowing hatred between [Burma] and the international community."

Four years later, suspicions of Burma’s military capacities continue to fuel acrimony in Washington, where policymakers have imposed fresh sanctions on senior Burmese military personnel accused of dealing arms with North Korea. Although the United States has been careful to avoid implicating the upper echelons of Burma’s political leadership, it is tough to imagine that any of the country’s leaders could coordinate bilateral military deals without the knowledge and authorization of both President Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing. Some analysts suspect that Washington is trying to send a subtle "message" to Burma’s leadership without openly tarnishing their diplomatic relations, which have dramatically thawed since the nominal end of military rule in 2011.

The United States formally dropped Burma from its list of countries suspected of harboring a chemical weapons program in 1993, but grassroots organizations have persistently resurrected the accusations. In the northern Kachin state, where a bitter conflict between ethnic minority rebels and the government resumed in 2011, local soldiers say they have felt nauseous and dizzy for days after a military onslaught. Several reports by the humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers offer evidence that the army used chemical munitions against the rebel fighters. The Burmese government has repeatedly denied the accusations, but has also failed to ratify the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention, which would grant inspectors unfettered access to suspect sites.

Journalists probing military affairs are not the only ones who have come under assault. In January, fresh reports of violence against Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority splashed across the headlines. The Associated Press reported that dozens of people, including women and children, had been massacred in Maungdaw township, an isolated region straddling the Bangladeshi border. If true, that attack would have been the deadliest episode of violence since Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists first clashed in 2012. But the government promptly dismissed the allegations as "false" and issued a stern warning to the outlets that published the story, accusing them of "instigating unrest" in the troubled state. The Ministry of Information scolded AP for failing to "verify" the allegations with the government.

Two weeks later, a suspicious fire swept through Du Chee Yar Tan village, the site of the alleged violence, destroying 16 homes. A spokesperson for the government accused local "Bengalis" (the government’s name for the stateless Rohingya minority) of torching their own homes — repeating the same absurd rhetoric popularized during the 2012 riots, which claimed over 200 lives and displaced 140,000 people, mostly Muslims. A subsequent snap investigation by the state-backed human rights commission ruled that there was no evidence to support claims of a massacre, despite hearing several testimonies alleging that a local man had discovered eight Rohingya corpses in a graveyard. Another investigative body, formed to establish the "real cause" of the unrest, was mandated with a clear bias to exclude the possibility of a massacre.

In yet another worrying development, an outspoken, self-proclaimed Rohingya member of parliament, who represents Buthidaung township in Maungdaw district, has been accused of "defaming" the state by suggesting that local policemen may have started the blaze. He has also been blamed for instigating unrest between Muslims and Buddhists, facing possible jail time if charged and convicted. The second investigation is partly designed to investigate his "false and groundless" reports about the fire. Rights groups have expressed outrage over the flagrant hypocrisy displayed by a government that has unremittingly refused to investigate the violence against Muslims and question known anti-Muslim preachers. In Rakhine State, security personnel have been implicated in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. It seems, however, that Burma is keen to suppress any reports that sully the narrative of the country’s perfect democratic transition.

"Authorities at the state and union level appear to be attempting to discredit or silence those who have information about what happened in Maungdaw," said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, one of the two NGOs that supplied evidence of the incident to the media.

Both Fortify Rights and the Arakan Project, two respected organizations with extensive research networks in western Burma, maintain that a massacre took place. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has confirmed that its physicians treated 22 Rohingyas, including a gunshot victim and several people with stab wounds, at the time of the reported attack. Soon after, MSF was banned from working in the country for "misleading" the world about the attack in Maungdaw – an unprecedented move. They have since been allowed to resume work in the country, but not in Rakhine State. Although foreign journalists and independent researchers remain largely banned from entering the region, a recent investigation by the New York Times exposed gruesome details of the January bloodbath, including findings from an unpublished U.N. report, which said that ten severed heads had been discovered in a local water tank.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Burma’s democratic reforms appear to be running "out of steam" as the government struggles to cope with ethnic and sectarian strife. Despite clambering modestly to number 145 on RSF’s annual press freedom index, the group says Burma has imposed "unacceptable" restrictions on the media. In late 2013, a local reporter was sentenced to prison for allegedly trespassing and using abusive language while covering a piracy case in eastern Burma’s Karen State. Meanwhile, a string of new laws, currently being pushed through parliament without adequate consultation, include several troubling provisions that could be used to revive censorship. For example, a printing and publishing bill passed on Tuesday, March 4, explicitly bans material that may be perceived to undermine the rule of law or "ethnic unity" and authorizes the government to arbitrarily revoke licenses.

Indeed, recent events illustrate how easily regulations can be manipulated according to political whim. In mid-February, Burma moved to squeeze visa restrictions on foreign journalists working in the country, downgrading their permits from three months to one. The new rules will require reporters to disclose exhaustive details about their work in Burma, including the regions they plan to visit and what topics they will cover. Two western journalists from the Irrawaddy, one of the outlets harangued by the government for reporting on the alleged Maungdaw massacre, were left stranded in Thailand in February after their visas were refused. Meanwhile, state media, which have pledged to become public service outlets, continue to shamelessly airbrush references to sensitive topics such as corruption and human rights.

There is no doubt that Burma has welcomed extraordinary media reforms over the past two years, including ending pre-censorship and liberating the foreign press. But it has also reaped quick rewards, with the United States and European Union shedding most economic sanctions without significant hesitation. The recent assaults on media freedoms should serve as a timely warning that old habits die hard — not least in a country that has spent five decades erasing bad news.

"We said that too much euphoria too soon from the international community would give the wrong signal to the authorities," said Benjamin Ismail, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. "The recent clampdown shows that we have not reached a point of no return."

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