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Opinion

Myanmar's coup and the muffled media

Welcome to alternative news, Burmese-style

| Myanmar
The state-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar has not reported on the casualties but has faithfully published every word uttered by coup leader Min Aung Hlaing. (Nikkei montage from The Global New Light of Myanmar's website)

Richard Borsuk is a journalist based in Singapore. He is co-author of "Liem Sioe Liong's Salim Group: The Business Pillar of Suharto's Indonesia."

Myanmar gave the world horrific scenes this week of unarmed protesters shot and brutally beaten by soldiers. But all is calm according to the country's only English-language daily, The Global New Light of Myanmar.

All week an item labeled as Hot News ran on the front page of the website under the headline "Black bean, pigeon pea cultivation reduced this year on uncertain market." Late on Wednesday came the latest local news: "Mustard, other crops grown on manageable scale using underground water in Minbu Township."

Welcome to alternative news, Myanmar-style, where authorities historically have put a lot of effort into being uninformative.

The state-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar has not reported on the casualties that have resulted from breaking up demonstrations -- at least 50 people have been killed. Still, it can't be accused of avoiding political subjects altogether, faithfully publishing every word uttered by coup leader Min Aung Hlaing.

But readers do not get anything approaching all the facts. When the paper posted a front-page story on Wednesday about a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nation foreign ministers, it noted that Myanmar's military-appointed minister "apprised" others of the alleged fraud in the country's November elections. There was not a syllable about the meeting's call for an end to the violence, or the blunt calls from four ASEAN members to immediately free deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

For most of the last 60 years, Myanmar has been under the thumb of generals who crushed free media.

While there have been patches of media freedom -- both before and after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won the 2015 elections by a landside -- the coup increased anxiety among privately-owned media companies, some of which have stopped printing and are now only available online. The English-language Myanmar Times has suspended publication for three months.

All of which shows how state-controlled media in a nation that does not allow press freedom will struggle to gain international credibility.

While social media posts attacking the junta are not going to derail the coup, Myanmar's generals would be making a mistake if they only read and believe the media they control.

Dictators elsewhere have made similar mistakes. One case is Indonesia -- a country that Myanmar's military leadership has followed in one way, giving the army one-quarter of parliamentary seats. In Indonesia, during the tenure of longtime strongman Suharto, it was 20% of parliamentary seats -- but that was scrapped amid a raft of democratic reforms after his fall in 1998.

Suharto, who controlled the domestic media and did not have to deal with social media, was unable to see the widespread opposition to his regime growing through the 1990s. He shut the feisty magazine Tempo a couple of times, the last in 1994, when unhappiness about his children's growing role in business was escalating. Post-Suharto, Indonesia has a free and vibrant press -- including a restarted Tempo -- which helps monitor the government's actions and supports democracy.

Back when Myanmar was still named Burma, freedom of the press ended after the 1962 coup that put the staunchly isolationist Gen. Ne Win in power. He shut more than 30 independent newspapers and put some reporters and editors in jail.

A 1991 report on Myanmar by the International Commission of Jurists noted the government's view that anyone was free to apply to start a publication but said no one dared. "Writings, film scripts, lyrics and even the words of songs have to be submitted to the Press Scrutiny Boards" under the 1962 law, the report said.

In 1963, Ne Win's regime launched an English-language paper named The Working People's Daily, which some cynics dubbed The Working People's Failings. It often gave blanket coverage of events that would not get a passing mention elsewhere.

In 1986, for example, it filled pages for more than a week chronicling how 69 "Best Socialist Workers" were honored in the capital and rewarded with a trip to the beach. Every step of their excursion was reported. A Page 1 story informed the readership that the group "strolled along the Ngapali Beach and gathered seashells this morning."

If people did not want to read about collecting seashells, they could go to other sources, but basically, all of them reported the same news, provided by the same state news agency. The Working People's Daily stopped publishing in 1993 -- when the government morphed it into The New Light of Myanmar, a title from British times.

Myanmar constitutions have guaranteed freedom of speech -- up to a point. The 1974 constitution said that freedom could not be exercised "contrary to the interests of the working people and socialism." A 2008 constitution allowed some scope for free expression "if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquillity or public order and morality."

Encouragingly for the future, perhaps, some private media are resisting being bullied in the wake of the Feb. 1 coup. They rejected guidance from the Information Ministry that they should not use "coup government" or "military regime" to describe the current authorities, asserting that this "contradicts the news media's rights to report and broadcast freely" in line with the 2008 constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But given the history and the character of Myanmar generals, few would bet that a better, freer environment for the media will be secured whenever the country can emerge from its deep crisis.

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