Push for press freedom in Myanmar finally pays off

By: RANDALL SMITH

As my plane approached the airport near Rangoon, Myanmar, fertile green fields gave way to a crowded city and its downtown Buddhist pagoda, covered in gold leaf and reaching towards the sky.

From above, Rangoon looked beautiful and devoutly religious.

On the ground, I found a people involved in a struggle with government rule that has lasted for over five decades.

The period was March 2014, and I had come to lend my voice to a growing movement for press freedom.

I spoke with journalists and at a large convention focused on the importance of journalism to democracy.

This week, that effort — and those of many, many others — is paying off.

The party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has won the national elections, and the military junta has agreed to hand over power peacefully.

While in Rangoon, Suu Kyi addressed our conference.

I was impressed by her willingness to appear at the event, but worried that she was already calling for self-restraint from journalists in the room.

Those are code words for self- censorship.

How will Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was kept under house arrest for 15 years until 2010, rule her nation — sandwiched among India, China, Thailand and the oil-rich Bay of Bengal?

I know there is great hope, because there has been great pain.

In 2007, the people rose in protest of the military government in a series of street marches led by Buddhist monks.

The story of those days is recorded in a movie titled “Burma VJ”, a documentary filmed secretly by about a dozen video journalists under cover.

PROTESTS CONTINUED

As the marches continued, the military junta grew firm in its demand to stop them.

But the monks kept coming, leading tens of thousands through the streets of Burma.

The journalists, facing jail time or worse if caught, filmed the growing tension.

The army began to appear in large numbers, and they fired live rounds at protesters.

Hundreds — perhaps many thousands — were killed.

The residences of the monks were raided and they were taken away in trucks and most were never seen again.

Yet, the protests continued. A Japanese photographer was killed in the melee, and the bodies of monks began to show up in the rivers — their heads and torsos swollen and bloated from repeated beatings.

In 2014, I walked the streets of downtown Rangoon where all of this had happened only seven years before.

The military junta was opening itself up to the world, and some of the old British buildings were being turned into hotels.

A huge, outdoor precious stone market was in full operation.

A geological theory is that Myanmar was once a separate land mass that slammed into Asia. The result is some of the world’s finest jade.

Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths co-exist in the country, but not always without trouble.

THE CHALLENGE AHEAD

There is much persecution of Muslims in the western portion of the country.

Other minority groups have been forced out of the country by the military and have lived in Thailand for at least two generations.

Getting a mobile phone and a SIM card require special connections. Making a phone call out of the country is expensive.

But everything is changing exponentially. Street side cafes greet expats from places such as France, America, Japan and India.

They are there to help build the social structures, protect the architecture and to become entrepreneurs in a changing land.

Myanmar is different since Suu Kyi was freed in 2010. But it is much easier to lead a revolution than to govern, and that is the challenge ahead.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION