Jake Lynch in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Why do Russian dentists extract their patients’ teeth through the nose? Because Russians are afraid to open their mouths. It’s a good joke, and one that’s acquired fresh relevance in recent times, fit to rank alongside Soviet-era classics like the one about Moscow policemen and their habit of patrolling in threes (one could read, one could write and the other went along to keep an eye on the two dangerous intellectuals).

Among those chortling over it are the readers of Burma’s burgeoning private press. Today, it’s reckoned, around 170 new weekly or monthly magazines vie for attention on newsstands, whereas, a decade ago, there was none. By no means all are as ‘privately owned’ as they seem – the money comes, in many cases, from individuals who are well in with the regime. One, the Northern Star, is run by a former military officer; another, by a general’s son.

But their journalists are busy testing the limits of how far they can go, under the watchful eye of the country’s Press Scrutiny Bureau, with the Russian joke a minor example of one of their key techniques. Stories about Burma’s own political situation are closely monitored, but in bringing news from overseas, there’s a little more leeway.

Dwelling on the challenge to Zimbabwe’s authoritarian regime, for instance, or the trials now underway of former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, in nearby Cambodia, is sufficient for the alert reader to pick up the obvious read-across. In another ruse, the phrase, ‘Free Burma’ was, it’s said, artfully hidden in a picture in one recent edition, and succeeded in eluding the censor.

I heard a fascinating first-hand account of these games of cat-and-mouse by a veteran Burmese journalist at a gathering last week in the Thai city of Chiang Mai, a couple of hundred kilometres from the border between the two countries. Most of those present were exiled Burmese journalists: bloggers, or contributors to the panoply of web-based alternative media such as Irrawaddy News or Prachat Thai, along with one or two local correspondents for international media.

The gathering, the sixth annual Burma Media Conference, was organised by the Burmese Media Association, in collaboration with the Democratic Voice of Burma, and sponsored by the US National Endowment for Democracy.

They commemorated Kenji Nagai, the Japanese photojournalist and cameraman shot dead by a soldier on a Rangoon street whilst covering the monks’ protests of September 2007. His employer, a Tokyo-based press and picture agency called APF, had funded an award in his honour.

The inaugural winner, Eint Khaing Oo, a 24-year-old reporter on one of the magazines, had gone too far in covering the privations of citizens displaced by Cyclone Nargis, in 2008 – thus highlighting the culpable lack of official support – and been slung in jail for ‘causing public confusion’. The award was accepted by a friend on her behalf.

The Burmese journalist – let us call him Shwe – told how he and his colleagues constantly diced with such an outcome by “trying to push against the limits of what is allowed” and seeking to “take advantage of the situation within the existing framework”. T

he other journalists in Chiang Mai were warned not to take his picture, lest they inadvertently endanger him. Shwe was excited about the potential opportunities in covering Burma’s first election for 20 years, scheduled for 2010.

There may, he said, be two or even four government parties, along with opposition parties, perhaps even including the National League for Democracy, the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi which was cheated of victory in the 1990 election as the military stole the country back.

The election law has not yet been published, though it’s likely to prescribe a bicameral parliament. The constitution, under which these proceedings are to take place, cements the place of the armed forces – under their sinister misnomer, the State Peace and Development Council – as the lead agency in running the country. So, there are likely to be few surprises in the outcome and, said Shwe, “the people believe the election is likely to be rigged” (on which question, he was notably careful not to pass an opinion of his own).

Journalist activists

Many of those who gathered at Chiang Mai consider themselves activists as well as journalists. Their aim is to use their journalism somehow to catalyse and help bring about political change in Burma.

A veteran of the struggle, U Win Tin, a 78-year-old journalist and dissident who was released last September after 19 years in prison, had recorded a message that was played to the conference on video. To oppose injustice was the duty of everyone, he said, “and especially the duty of all the journalists”. To discharge this duty, they should “bring about truth [and] write according to the code of ethics”.

The strategy is based on the in-principle notion that, if the outside world hears more about what is going on inside the country, public opinion will be outraged, consciences will be pricked, pressure on governments brought to bear, and that will somehow translate into pressure on the regime itself. After all, they reason, the generals who run Burma seem very keen to control the flow of information, so there must be something at stake.

There is much to appreciate in this approach. It has, indeed, contributed to the impressive international solidarity movement, which has successfully pressured governments to apply economic sanctions on Burma. A directive of the European Union, for example, prohibits companies in member states from supplying weapons to the country, or “the sale, supply or transfer, directly or indirectly, of equipment which might be used for internal repression”.

In recognition of the corrupt and brutal development policies of the military regime, it further prohibits exports of equipment or technology “where the enterprise in question is involved in logging and timber processing, coal, gold, silver, iron, tin, copper, tungsten, lead, manganese, nickel and zinc mining and mining and processing of precious and semi-precious stones”.

The rules were strengthened in a new version adopted in April 2008, months after the ‘saffron revolution’. Kenji Nagai died, and many indigenous journalists and photographers ran grievous risks, to smuggle out the images now etched indelibly into the consciousness of millions around the world. The columns of orange-clad monks filing past Rangoon’s pagodas walked straight on to our television screens, thanks to journalist-activists equipped, trained and mobilised by the Democratic Voice of Burma and the loose but effective underground networks they have established and sustained over many years.

So the first part of the strategy is working. In the United States, likewise, Congress approved a new law as recently as July 2008, restricting imports of gems: a further tightening of sanctions to match the procedures of the EU. Representatives who contributed to the House debate made frequent reference to media coverage of repression of the monks and the regime’s callous response to Cyclone Nargis.

But nothing better illustrates the teeth-grinding frustrations inherent in efforts to isolate the SPDC than the impotence of the world’s only superpower. Such is the nullity of US influence in this case that the Americans were left to discover the seat of Burma’s government was to be uprooted to the new purpose-built capital city of Naypyidaw – just as they were completing the building of an expensive new embassy in Rangoon.

This snippet comes from an impressive scholarly study by researchers Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan (Back to the Old Habits, compiled for the Bangkok-based Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia), which says Burma’s generals are now in a position to practise “isolationism without isolation”. They believe they can afford to disregard the EU and US, this report says, as long as they can play off China against India, and take a semi-detached role in the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Burma declined its turn at the rotating chair of ASEAN, in 2006, and is set to ignore the ministrations of any new human rights body – provided for under the newly adopted ASEAN Charter – drawing instead on its strong bilateral ties with Singapore and Thailand.

Many in the region, as elsewhere, hope for more constructive and effective engagement from the Obama Administration than they ever got from President George W Bush, who contented himself with occasional windy pronouncements as at the 2007 APEC Summit in Sydney, when he labelled the crackdown following the September protests as “inexcusable” and “tyrannical”. Hillary Clinton, on one of her first tours as Secretary of State, indicated that Washington was “looking at what steps we might take that might influence the current Burmese government and we’re also looking for ways that we could more effectively help the Burmese people”.

There may, then, be scope for more concerted multilateral action, perhaps involving a more activist stance from other ASEAN members and providing ways for both China and India to join in – though that will depend on much greater levels of trust being engendered by Obama with real policy changes to convince the Chinese, in particular, that they are not being ‘contained’ (read: encircled) from Washington.

China lost influence in Burma, the Egreteau and Jagan study says, with the purge of 2004 in which the ‘Military Intelligence’ faction of the SPDC, assiduously cultivated in Beijing, was suddenly marginalised. Its leader, Khin Nyunt, was “demoted” after the publication of his “road map” to a “flourishing disciplined democracy”, the culmination of which is the election next year. This “sowed confusion in the international community”, the writers say – drawing on frank unattributable briefings with diplomats and analysts as well as numerous published sources – to the extent that the Thais proposed hosting a multilateral conference, with official involvement, to discuss the Burmese transition and give it a helping hand – the so-called “Bangkok process”. The initiative was still-born, but there remains the potential for “pragmatic and open-minded” elements to emerge, maybe through the electoral process, to be engaged more effectively in conversations about genuine reform, albeit perhaps in private.

Transitional Justice

It’s worth asking how the committed journalistic community represented in Chiang Mai could contribute to such a process. Another interesting scholarly article, by Roman David and Ian Holliday, two researchers based at the City University of Hong Kong, looks at the concept of transitional justice in the Burmese context. It’s a subject often raised in the immediate aftermath of war or regime change, when problems arise over the culpability of large numbers of people – leaders, obviously, but also officials, soldiers, police and many others – in human rights abuses.

The conundrum is, should everyone accused of complicity be arraigned individually in court and tried under some semblance of due process, or can other procedures vouchsafe to a population, relieved of tyranny but still angry over its effects, that things have really changed? Three tests must be met, according to David and Holliday: suitability, discontinuity and feasibility. That is, the process of transition must not simply let everyone off, it must draw an effective line under the past and it must be able to be carried out, within the resources of the new state and in such a way that it does not overshadow its prospects.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is often – as here – put forward as a model. Perpetrators had to make a clean breast of their involvement and testify at public hearings as to what they knew, notably about the fate of individual victims, in exchange for which, they could obtain amnesty. Some variant would be suitable for Burma, the argument goes, along with a process of “lustration”, in which public officials could swear off their previous practices and solemnly undertake to uphold new ones – or lose their jobs. My Sydney University colleague, Wendy Lambourne, who’s an authority on the subject, insists that social justice must be part of the picture, too – people must feel a palpable sense of fairness in everyday life.

The attraction of transitional justice – or “pre-transitional justice”, as David and Holliday call it in Burma’s case, would be to incentivise the contemplation of change from within the regime. If the alternatives are, either surrender unconditionally to their opponents or hang on to power, it is likely to encourage a “bitter end” mentality, especially if the generals can maintain sufficient outside contacts elsewhere to regard EU and US sanctions with blithe unconcern.

My own contribution to the Chiang Mai gathering was to raise the idea of peace journalism as an organising principle for the activist/journalist community. One of its central tenets is to avoid the ‘tug-of-war’ model of conflict reporting in which anything which is not “winning”, tends to be interpreted and reported as “losing”. Peace journalists would put themselves on the lookout for any suggestion, from whatever quarter, for change in the direction of transparency, democracy and human rights in Burma – including the idea of transitional justice – and remit them into the public sphere for discussion. It would take considerable restraint – one’s gorge rises at the provocative title of the David/Holliday study, Setting the Junta Free – but it may be a worthy contribution to the prospects of real change. And that would be to honour the sacrifice of those such as Kenji Nagai, U Win Tin and Eint Khaing Oo.

Back to the Old Habits
, by Renaud Egreteau and Larry Jagan, can be downloaded from here:

‘Setting the Junta Free’ appeared in the Australian Journal of Political Science, Vol 41, No 1 (subscription only).


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Feb 2009.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: PEACE WITH JUSTICE FOR BURMA, is included. Thank you.

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