I met Than Htut Aung for the first time a little over a year ago. It was a heady moment. I was visiting Burma as its citizens were taking part in their first free election after long years of harsh military rule, and few people embodied its promise as powerfully as he did.
In the dark days of the old junta, he had dared to create an independent media company whose journalists — just three of them at first — found bold and creative ways to cater to the public’s desperate need for access to the truth. When a reformist government decided to launch a Burmese version of perestroika in 2010, Than Htut Aung’s Eleven Media Group was poised to take advantage. By the time he and I met on the eve of the election in November 2015, his company — by then encompassing five weekly magazines, several newspapers and one of the country’s most popular Facebook pages — had grown to 250 reporters, all of whom were busily taking advantage of the new freedom of expression.
It still wasn’t easy. Than Htut Aung told me how his journalists were still coming under severe pressure from the still-powerful military. He himself had been attacked by an assailant during the election campaign, though he’d managed to escape without serious injury.
Still, he was optimistic. He predicted that Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize laureate and champion of the democratic opposition, was going to score a big win. “The Lady is our greatest hope,” he said, using the reverential term favored by many of her supporters. “She deserves our support.”
He was right about one thing: She won in a landslide. But I don’t think he foresaw everything that happened next. Thanks to her electoral triumph, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power at the end of January 2016 to the broad acclaim of the Burmese people. But even though the NLD chose the new president, with Aung San Suu Kyi herself assuming key powers in the government, things soon took a dark turn.
Aung San Suu Kyi promised a far-reaching peace agreement to end the long-running civil war between the central government and restive ethnic minority groups. Since then, however, the conflict has only deepened. And the grim plight of the Rohingya, the beleaguered Muslim minority group whose very existence was long denied by the country’s overwhelmingly Buddhist elite, has only worsened. Some observers warn of potential genocide. Aung San Suu Kyi’s striking unwillingness to take a public stand on the issue has shocked many of her former supporters.
Now, it’s true that the new government doesn’t have full control. Despite the NLD’s big election victory, Burma’s junta-era constitution still gives sweeping powers to the military, including virtually total control over all security-related matters. And it’s the military that has been at the forefront of the brutal treatment of the Rohingya, which has left some 120,000 of them languishing in internment camps and driven 65,000 more across the border into Bangladesh.
None of that, though, ought to have prevented Aung San Suu Kyi from exercising her moral power as the country’s most revered leader. Yet she has been disturbingly reluctant to take a stand — even as members of her own government have taken up overtly nationalistic positions on the Rohingya and other issues.
Her defenders insist that her critics should give her time: These are, after all, problems that have been around for decades, and no one could expect her to solve them overnight, especially when the military still has every reason to make it hard for her to do so. Fair enough, perhaps.
But this special pleading wears especially thin when it comes to the government’s recent treatment of the press. Dozens of journalists have been jailed since Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came to power. (PEN Myanmar cites at least 38 such cases.) In several cases, charges were brought after journalists directly criticized Aung San Suu Kyi or other leading members of her party. Many reporters have been charged under a junta-era law forbidding the use of telecommunications to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate.”
“[Aung San Suu Kyi’s] government has stood by silently as some of the more outdated laws on the books are being used to suppress press freedom,” says Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “These laws are effectively giving her government the legal power to suppress press freedom at a time when the country urgently needs press freedom and open dialogue.” Particularly worrisome, says Crispin, are the cases that have targeted Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics. “If she had any say over this, you’d assume she wouldn’t want people going down for the way they portray her on social media. But that’s exactly what’s been happening.”
The telecom law has also been used against Than Htut Aung himself. Last fall, he and one of his journalists published a newspaper report accusing a leading NLD official of corruption. One might have expected a leader of Aung San Suu Kyi’s standing to call for an independent investigation of the allegations. But that’s not what happened.
On Nov. 11, police summoned Than Htut Aung and his colleague to a police station. The two men were informed that they were being charged with “defamation” under the telecom law. In most countries, libel charges don’t usually result in the accused going straight into jail — but that’s what happened to the two men from Eleven Media. They were dispatched to Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison, a place well-known to critics of the old regime, and only released five weeks later after paying bail. Than Htut Aung suffered a heart attack during his imprisonment. (His spokesman declined my request for an interview, citing Than Htut Aung’s poor health.) Eleven Media issued an apology about the article, but the official in question says he’s determined to proceed with the charges.
Needless to say, all of this has had a profoundly chilling effect on Burma’s press — even as the continuing civil war and the appalling fate of the Rohingya cast their own shadows on the country’s hopes for democracy.
Aung San Suu Kyi certainly isn’t responsible for all of her country’s ills. But her status as a democratically elected leader means that she must also expect to be held accountable — especially when it comes to those matters where she does have control. She certainly shouldn’t be prosecuting her critics, and she shouldn’t be allowing members of her party to do the same.
Her compatriots and her friends abroad should continue to hold her to the same high standards that once made her such a shining example of opposition to the old regime. To do otherwise would be to betray her most positive legacy — not to mention the Burmese people themselves.